In Oklahoma City, 168 people died because they were in the way of somebody's anger at the government. In Chicago, more than 500 people died from the intense heat because nobody paid enough attention to them. These two recent events are each signs of the times, to use the biblical language-and ominous ones at that.
Last spring, the home-grown terrorism that destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and injured and killed hundreds of people sent shivers throughout the country. Have we become so divided and angry that executing our neighbors (and their children) becomes a political act? Will our ideological passions, economic dislocations, racial polarization, culture wars, apocalyptic fears, and political scapegoating be too much for the fragile American social fabric?
New tribalisms are replacing notions of the common good. Who we are against has become the rallying cry of politics, instead of what we are for. Demagoguery threatens the spirit of democracy as the dialogues of old town meetings are replaced by the new "ditto-heads" of talk radio. When hate talk is the language of politics, violence always results.
THE DEATHS in Chicago this summer are another indication of our fraying social fabric. Most of the heat victims were elderly and poor; many lacked the family and community support systems that ensure elderly relatives and neighbors are checked on during such a stressful time.
Public support systems also failed. Insufficient numbers of medical and rescue workers resulted in inadequate responses to emergencies or busy firefighters trying to cope with health problems they were ill-equipped to handle.
Perhaps most distressing were the people who were afraid to go outside or even open their windows for fear of crime. Trapped and isolated, they died from the heat as prisoners in their own homes-both a horrible way to die and a frightening commentary on our relationship to each other.