The first major theological quandary for this Catholic child was the issue of limbo. The nether world repository for the souls of unbaptized babies was represented in my childhood lessons (or maybe just my own twisted imagination) as a cloudy realm full of gently swirling babies. Not quite the cherubs of holy cards but far from the tortured souls of hell, the babies of limbo floated around in a vague haze of displacement somewhere between purgatory and heaven. We were assured that they were not really in spiritual agony because absent any personal experience of God, they could not really miss him.
Still it seemed unfair to banish babies to limbo, and I remember arguing their case to some unyielding nun. It wasn’t their fault after all, they could hardly baptize themselves, and you couldn’t even sin until you were seven years old anyway. What was the point? They were just innocent babies.
Ah but that was the point — there are no innocent babies. We are all born with Original Sin, blotted with the stain of Adam and Eve — that cold gob of apple stuck in our spiritual throats which requires the celestial heimlich maneuver of baptism to free us. Original Sin is important in Catholicism. Without it, Jesus Christ would basically have no point. So unbaptized babies get no free pass.
In my remembered pictures the babies of limbo looked mournful but resolute, drifting in their eternity with a distant and gauzy face of God, watching over them through the foggy clouds. The other thing I remember about the babies of limbo was that they had no diapers. Cherubs didn’t either of course; being angels, they had no worries for bodily functions. But these were real babies and I imagined that their pee vaporized and lingered as miasma in the surrounding clouds.
The boiling dust clouds that swallowed the World Trade Center last month reminded me of limbo. That vapor was even more tainted, thickened not just with lost-baby pee but with blood and bone and pocket lint, yet still too insubstantial. No one swirled gently through those clouds.
Innocent victims. Is it possible to accept the truth of such a thing (they were indeed innocent victims) and still question the basic premise behind it? Can anyone living in indulgence at the expense of others be innocent? Is it possible to say unequivocally that no one deserves to die by terrorist attacks and also suggest that this might be a good time to look deeply into the American soul?
With exceptional ill-timing, my new novel has just come out in which I more or less indict my country for its self-centered, over-consuming materialistic ignorance — specifically for not doing more about diseases of the “third world.” In the novel, I do this with an act of bio-terrorism, releasing swarms of mosquitos carrying a deadly strain of malaria.
I hadn’t thought of it as a terrorist thriller. It is actually a complex story with an assortment of villains for whom the boundaries between justifiable outrage over American complacency and sheer bitter revenge become tragically blurred. But that doesn’t have quite the commercial appeal as ,”A scary and urgent tale of how biological warfare could really come to the United States.”
That jacket blurb came from Walter Wager, whose book 58 Minutes became the ultimate terrorist movie Die Hard. Six months ago when he wrote it, I was thrilled with the potential clout of such a blurb, now I feel kind of sick. The back cover bears an ominous line from the book “Americans did not care about anything until it was a threat to their own people. Well then, that could be arranged.”
Like most Americans I’ve spent the weeks since September 11 feeling depressed, unfocused and generally lost. Even thinking about the impact this would have on the success of my book seems petty and indecent. The possibility that I had also published fairly easy instructions for conducting a biological attack has been horrifying. But now some perspective is returning and I remember why I wrote the book. Because I do think my country needs to change.
Right now, little dust puffs of anthrax spores are giving us a taste of the anxiety that most of the world suffers from daily. I would wish to spare our people this fear, as much as I would wish some mother in Africa or Thailand would be spared the fear each time she sees a mosquito alight on her child. The anthrax attacks are a simple evil. A clear and definite act of bioterrorism. But what do we call it when we passively, and for most Americans, obliviously, allow two million people to die every year from malaria because we choose to spend a hundred times more on cures for baldness and impotence? I call that evil too.
In the surge of patriotism that has followed the attacks it is difficult to talk about our country in any critical way. Everyone is feeling edgy. You are with us or against us. There is no middle ground. It seems there is no limbo.
Yet maybe we have been living in limbo all along and don’t realize it. Americans see God smiling soft-focused down on us and think all that fuzzy gauzy stuff is just special effects. It isn’t. God might be smiling down on us but there are still clouds in the way. Pissy clouds too if truth be told.
This is not a real limbo because we have chosen it ourselves. We have been floating in the blissful torpor of ignorance and thinking it innocence, voluntarily confined (and now condemned) by nothing more than the original sin of our lucky birth.
Since the recent tragedies, everyone has been talking about the end of innocence — as if it hadn’t ended a dozen times before: in Vietnam, with Hiroshima; in the gassy trenches of World War I or with the Mongol invasions. But if loss of innocence can wrench us out of our self-imposed limbo then it is good. Never before in history has such a world-shaking incident occured at a time when we were better prepared to be shaken. We have the knowledge, the wisdom, the technological expertise, the material resources, the philosophical and spiritual experience to change the fundamental rules that work this frail little globe. If only we could have the vision, the compassion.
Because the real babies of limbo do not get paroled until the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, also known as the end of the world.