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Kyle Eller: Look for good in tragedy

Minnesota Public Radio, during last week's tragedies, took divergent approaches with its two stations in Duluth. Its news station, understandably, took the approach of covering the events, nationally (through its National Public Radio affiliation...

Minnesota Public Radio, during last week's tragedies, took divergent approaches with its two stations in Duluth. Its news station, understandably, took the approach of covering the events, nationally (through its National Public Radio affiliation) and regionally.
But the approach of its classical music station has perhaps been the more interesting. On Saturday, I switched on MPR's music station in time to hear an announcer explain its decision to play music, even happy music, despite the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. To paraphrase the reasoning, the station set out, in the face of one of humanity's lowest moments, to celebrate the heights of human achievement by playing masterworks of Bach -- even if the music wasn't as somber as the day seemed to require.
This is a noble sentiment, and to me, a small measure of courage in adversity.
We have seen humanity debased, again. While mass targeting of civilians is not particularly novel in humanity's history, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were among our lowest lows. Murderers used civilians to kill other civilians, inside the borders of a free nation, using its own tools, all with traditional weapons no more sophisticated than a knife -- essentially Stone Age technology.
America and other world powers wielding high-tech "weapons of mass destruction" have long threatened (and sometimes struck) the world with mass civilian death, to the extent that we have been forced to recognize a fundamental inability to defend ourselves -- a radical notion in itself.
That comparable power can be wielded by relatively powerless, disorganized and impoverished enemies, and that we are utterly defenseless against them, too, further challenges our understanding of the world: If an airplane is a weapon of mass destruction, so is the chlorine used to clean swimming pools, so are gas stations and nuclear power plants and city buses.
Humanity's capacity for unspeakable evil is clear.
Yet much of our response has been to call upon our better natures, in pulling together for rescue efforts and helping with blood, funds and goodwill. Minnesota Public Radio's decision to play the best music extends this impulse, reminding us that while humanity includes the ugly and the vile, it also includes the sublime.
We should pursue this idea as we ponder our future. The best of what we are and the best of what we've accomplished hold the promise of what we may yet become.
What is best about humanity? Minnesota Public Radio's area of expertise is classical music, a worthy place to look.
Perhaps the ethereal accomplishments of John Coltrane or Miles Davis speak to your heart, or the quiet, deceptive depth of Bob Dylan.
I am a writer, and the world of words calls to me. Consider the works of Basho, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Steinbeck, Rumi, Emerson, Chekhov -- recall their insights into the human spirit. Delve into Thoreau's rugged American individualism, a penultimate yawp of freedom, or Anne Bradstreet's quiet faith. Revel in Whitman's manic poetic love, see through Emily Dickinson's eyes.
Or look to today's best writers. Look to the comparable heights of achievement mirrored in painting, sculpture, dance -- all the arts.
And don't stop with the arts. Ponder for a moment how the world forever changed with Albert Einstein's physics, tempered to the end by his towering humanity, ethics and spirituality. From movable type to the cell phones that gave some victims a last goodbye to their loved ones and may have helped prevent even greater losses, from planting men on the moon to conquering polio, our innovation, intelligence has created great good.
Give thought to the spiritual leaders who guide us to our places in the cosmic mystery. Who calls to you? Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses? Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer?
What lessons do they offer?
We can find some of humanity's best sociopolitical achievements right here at home. Consider the Declaration of Independence, with its stirring opening words acknowledging the inalienable rights granted by a creator to all people: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. This document is a monument to dignity and humanity.
If we have evil in us, we also have good.
What message does our best hold for us, in our response to terror and beyond? For our response, I say remember our values. America has not perfected its understanding and defense of humanity's inalienable rights yet, but a striving to do so defines what America is -- no less. Our response to terror must underline, not undermine, these values, for ourselves or other innocents around the world, or we are already lost.
If these values don't hold in times of great crisis, they will not hold at all.
As to beyond, meditation upon what is best about humanity takes us down the path toward what Rabbi Amy Bernstein so eloquently called for in Duluth's community prayer vigil Friday: "If our hearts must break, let them break open," she said, or words to that effect.
We face a world of uncertainty, of pain, in which we can't adequately protect ourselves against all the dangers. But we also face a world of goodness, where we can hold to what is best in us and find our way.

Kyle Eller is news editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at 723-1207 or kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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