There’s a small but telling scene in Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” that contains some dialogue that reverberates, at least for me. In the spirit of Samuel Johnson, who said man needs more often to be reminded than instructed, I offer it to all, including myself, who might benefit from its message.
The movie, as you know, is about the Battle of the Bakara Market in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993. In the scene, the actor Tom Sizemore, playing your basic tough-guy U.S. Army Ranger colonel, is in charge of a small convoy of humvees trying to make its way back to base under heavy gun and rocket fire. The colonel stops the convoy, takes in some wounded, tears a dead driver out of a driver’s seat, and barks at a bleeding sergeant who’s standing in shock nearby:
Colonel: Get into that truck and drive.
Sergeant: But I’m shot, Colonel.
Colonel: Everybody’s shot, get in and drive.
“Everybody’s shot.” Those are great metaphoric words.
* * *
Let me tell you how they seem to apply metaphorically. An hour before I saw the movie, I was with friends at lunch, and they filled me in on the latest doings in our beloved country while I was away. Cornel West is very, very angry at Larry Summers for suggesting that Prof. West shouldn’t essentially perp-walk his way through the halls of academe. A Secret Service agent—a presidential Secret Service agent!—had a hissy fit when an airline pilot refused to let him board a plane carrying his gun with dubious paperwork. The agent is not only threatening a lawsuit, he says he doesn’t want money when he wins. He wants the airline to be forced to give sensitivity training. I thought: I think someone needs sensitivity training all right, but I don’t think it’s the airline.
Just after the movie, I picked up Ellis Cose’s latest book, “The Envy of the World,” about the “daunting challenges” that face black men in 21st-century America. I read and thought, Earth to Ellis: Everyone faces daunting challenges in 21st-century America.
Because everybody’s been shot.
What does that mean? It means something we used to know. It means everyone has it hard, everyone takes hits, everyone’s been fragged, everyone gets tagged, life isn’t easy for anyone.
* * *
I turn on morning television and see Rosie O’Donnell referring again to the fact that her mother died when she was young. This of course is very sad, and Rosie has spoken of its sadness very often, and with a great whoosh of self-regard. Her sympathy for her loss made me think, the other day: She doesn’t really know that other people lost their mothers when they were young. She doesn’t really know that some people never even had mothers.
She doesn’t know everybody’s been shot.
I put on HBO and see their new young poet’s show. Young poets—well, they say they’re poets; I guess they’re more like performance artists—come on and sort of strut around a stage and yell, and the more authentic their anger seems, the more the audience applauds and hoots. These poets seem attached to their separateness and in love with their grievance. “I am one angry Lebanese lesbian,” “I am one angry NewYorican mother-lovin’ whatever.” They pour out their pain. But they don’t actually seem to be in pain. They all look like they went to Brown and hang out downtown and have invested fully and happily in the Misery Industrial Complex. They look like they want an agent.
They’re not old enough or, in spite of Brown, bright enough to know: Everybody’s been shot.
A young friend of a friend is still so depressed by Sept. 11 that school and social life and going to a show are now out of the question. “I’m staying home. I’m hurting.”
I know, I said a few days ago when we talked. But everyone’s hurting, I explain. Then I thought of Tom Sizemore. “Everyone’s been shot,” I said, “ya gotta get in and drive anyway.”
* * *
When I was a child in the old America, people said things like, “It ain’t easy.” Then they’d shrug. Or, “Whatta ya want, life ain’t easy!” I think people actually sighed more in those days, issued forth big long sighs that said: Life is hard. There was a sort of general knowledge that each day would not necessarily be a sleigh ride, and that everyone hits bumps along the way, and some of them are really hard, and everyone sooner or later hits them.
But now, more so than in the past, something has grown in our country, grown perhaps because of good things like psychotherapy and bad things like group-identity politics. And that something is an increasing tender regard for one’s own sensitivities and quirks and problems and woes—twinned with a growing insensitivity to everyone else’s quirks and problems and woes.
This is not progress. If we became more aware of others instead of demanding that others be more aware of our needs, we would probably get a better fix on life, a better perspective, a better sense of everyone’s context. We’d wind up more patient with others, more sympathetic. We could actually wind up sensitive to someone other than ourselves.
* * *
I sound earnest today. I am earnest today. But I will make this more fun. The week included the story of a congressman, who through no fault of his own, was humiliated, treated with great insensitivity. I am speaking of John Dingell, the Democrat from Michigan. Mr. Dingell, as you know, is an important veteran congressman who has grown used to—how to put it?—asserting his needs and seeing to it that they are met.
John Dingell was trying to get on a plane the other day when his artificial hip set off a magnetometer. He pointed out that it was an artificial hip, and I suspect he pointed out that he was a member of Congress who does not fit the prevailing terror profile. But you know what the security guards did? They took him into a side room, made him take off his pants and wanded him. John Dingell had to stand there in his underpants proving he wasn’t carrying a gun.
When the story became public, the secretary of transportation called him and apologized. Mr. Dingell waved him off and told him it was OK, he understands, everyone’s doing his job.
Now that’s someone who knows that everybody’s been shot.