On Wednesday of this week -- a day after the unspeakable horrors that maimed the landscapes and lives of New York, Washington, and, for that matter, the other places on Planet Earth where decency and human hope still reside -- a local attorney was making his way through the mass of humanity that is the Criminal Justice Center in downtown Memphis on a normal weekday.
As no one needs to be reminded, however, this was no normal weekday, and the bottom courtroom floor, which usually has all the raucousness and hustle of a Middle Eastern marketplace, seemed remarkably subdued.
The attorney shook his head. "I wonder why they don't close this place," he said.
There are various answers to this question. There are still agreements to be reached and verdicts to be rendered and justice to be pursued in the sticky business of the law. And we all know that, however low our hearts may have sunk after Tuesday, the social contract depends on our getting on with it.
The lawyer followed up his first observation with another: "Just wait until we get home tonight and see a thousand body bags laid out end-to-end on television."
Unfortunately, what we have learned from those unbelievably traumatic news reports at the disaster scenes is that not only flesh and bone but steel and glass and mortar all seem to vaporize into random soot when collisions and gravity-induced demolitions occur at the rate and force and temperature present in Tuesday's monstrous circumstances.
The most ominous lesson of this latest Day of Infamy is that people and things can be made to simply disappear, as if they never existed.
Add to this the difficulty of determining just who accomplished this act of mass assassination and the hows and whys of it. Not only the human condition but the universe itself begin to seem insubstantial. The abyss truly has opened up in a way it never has before. Our common consciousness is stunned to the point that even the root premise of the Enlightenment -- "I think; therefore, I am" -- cannot be realized.
The only solace to be taken from the day of destruction was that, unless one's own house was going up in flames or we ourselves or those close to us were on our very deathbeds, nothing else seemed to matter. Tuesday was a great inducer of Stoicism.
Yet it is still both possible and necessary to avoid a further decline into nihilism. Life still matters, and because it does it behooves us to close with the murderers and have done with it -- and them. It is not a matter of vengeance; it is a question of insisting that concepts like reality and justice actually do exist -- and have a value that must now be compensated.
We are down to the root cause now, and we dare not fail.