Now that another season of giving draws to a conclusion and we flirt with the fiscal cliff, it is also a time of annual review and renewed resolutions. On one hand, the tragedy of Jeffrey Hillman, a bootless homeless man in New York, and the unimaginable massacre of 28 children and adults at Newtown serve as painful reminders of the seeming inexplicability of so much of human suffering. On the other hand, the spontaneous generosity of the policeman who purchased boots for Mr. Hillman and the countless acts of kindness elicited by the Newtown massacre also remind us of the possibilities of human compassion.
These responses cannot and should not be diminished. It is too easy to do so, as the cynic in us also reminds us that almost as quickly as Mr. Hillman got his new boots they mysteriously disappeared and soon the Newtown massacre and all the resultant acts of kindness will fade from public consciousness as well. Whether Mr. Hillman sold his boots or hid them as he said to prevent their theft is not as important as the likelihood that the conditions of his life remain essentially unchanged. Until we see evidence to the contrary, we also have to assume that the situations that created the Newtown massacre will continue—and as we have already again seen, Newtown has been quickly followed by the ambush of firefighters in upstate New York.
The continued cycles of tragedy and sacrifice, punctuated by periodic acts of heroism and eventually followed by their banishment from public consciousness, suggests that something fundamental is missing from the picture of emergency response. For one thing, there is a failure of imagination and understanding, particularly of the multiple and complex systems of failures that not only lead to, but more importantly incite and perpetuate such tragedies. There is additionally a failure to appreciate the diversity of conditions that lead individuals to homelessness or acts of violence. It’s easy to chalk such outcomes up to some unknown combination of bad genes, a traumatic upbringing, mental illness, poverty, scapegoating, and perhaps a touch of evil.