"Robert Bales was a positive person who always had a smile on his face," an army officer told a public radio reporter. Bales's high school principal told the New York Times he was “one of those kids you remember, a real extrovert.” The Times profile went so far as to call Bales “gregarious,” and so did the profile in the Los Angeles Times, where a pal from Bales’s home town in Ohio asserted, "I want people to know there is no way the guy I knew did this. You don't go from being a local hero to a monster."
These generous words probably say something about both Bales and his status as an American warrior. He's one of our own, and when our warriors on their third and fourth tours in two of the most godforsaken wars America has ever fought stumble and fall, we at least stick by them. Descriptors like extrovert and gregarious are inclusive; they're ways of saying one of us. Not that a mass killer can't be gregarious — see Ted Bundy; but Bundy's personality came to be seen as an agent of his deceit. Nobody scratched an ear and said the thing about Bales was that he kept to himself, which is a way of saying that all along there were signs of trouble brewing, that the sorry sonuvabitch had something wrong with him from day one.
God help the strong, silent type who goes wrong. Madison Avenue loves to sell us things by identifying them with rugged individualists. They're the ones out there by their gallant lonesomes trekking trails, scaling cliffs, raising sails, bouncing along off-road in the back country. But there's never a suggestion that these individualists are actually loners. Back on shore or in camp, or wherever they go to park the sponsor's product or crack it open, you know a hundred friends are waiting to slap their backs.
And the commercials are 30 seconds long—just enough time to pay tribute to solitude without really giving it any thought. Ducking the madding crowd, as writer Brian Patrick Eha points out in the essay, "The Sound of Solitude," that inspired this week's discussion of silence, has come to mean locking on earbuds and retreating within a fortress of sound; it doesn't mean going to a silent place where stray thoughts thrive. Like subatomic particles, these thoughts are so fragile and evanescent that in the time it takes to mute an iPod they can slip away. But though they might have been the building blocks of wisdom, you never know. Just as easily they could send us down the primrose path to reclusive madness. Probably better not to allow them in the first place.
A taste for genuine aloneness is not easily indulged. I have a daughter in Central America. We Skype. A few years ago she was in Prague. She had a cell phone. When I was in Europe at her age the overseas phone was in the post office and American Express ran a mail desk in the major cities. Even when we get away, we let technology define the terms. It's all but impossible any longer to sit at land's end at dusk and think, I'm unreachable, and nobody knows I'm here.
Even the dead are not allowed to think that. We searched for the Titanic until we found it, and once we found it we didn't let it be. This summer a new expedition will search yet again for the plane flown by Amelia Earhart that disappeared somewhere in the Pacific in 1937. Lost cities are not allowed to slumber. Backhoes and archaeologists pour in, and their secrets are pried out of them.
It's not that we do so well with community. But everyone's invited to the party and everyone's expected to be there.