In 1912, a man named 'Abdu'l-Bahá came to the United States to give talks. He was 68 and had lived a life of poverty, persecution, imprisonment and physical peril. His long beard was white, and his posture was stooped. He wore a buff-colored fez, wrapped in a white cloth.
He had been through decades of hardship that would have killed one man and embittered another. He was not either of those men. He came here to speak of peace.
In 1912, humankind's worst was still to come. The Battle of Verdun, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, the Rape of Nanking, Rwanda. 'Abdu'l-Bahá could see the future scrawled on the present. "Now the instruments of death have become so multiplied and perfected that 100,000 can be destroyed in a day," he said in Cleveland.
In Palo Alto, he called man "a noble creature" endowed with "potential for ever higher perceptions" who was nonetheless bloodthirsty. In Washington, he spoke again of human ferocity but waxed hopeful about the United States as place where humankind's splintered reality might be mended, where the oneness of all people might be made visible.
This turns out to have been more than a little optimistic. The only reason I know anything about 'Abdu'l-Bahá is because John Woodall, a psychiatrist from Newtown, pressed a volume of his speeches into my hand during the week after the massacre in his town. Woodall is of the Bahá'í faith. Abdu'l-Bahá was the son of its founder, Bahá'u'lláh.
Last week, the Boston Marathon began with 26 seconds of silence, in memory of the 26 Newtown victims. The 26-mile marker was dedicated to them too, and people from the town ran in the race. The idea was: Remember and heal. Then two bombs exploded.
Working on radio coverage Monday, I felt my body shake with nerves a few times. Twice I began to cry. Scrambling through Twitter for scraps of news, I opened pictures I wish I hadn't seen. Later in the day, I read about the little boy. In other words, I had the same day you did.
This is a hard world. Our president has shown admirable seriousness about the deaths in Newtown but does everything possible to obscure the tiny bodies in Pakistan, dead from our drones. Since we started using them there, we've killed 176 kids by accident, by one accounting. Boston was horrible but not the worst bombing of Sunday and Monday. Explosions and guns in Somalia killed about 30, and a wave of coordinated car bombings in Iraq killed at least 75.
Two days later, the gun bills in Washington fizzled out. This was a good week for the instruments of death, a hard week for Boston, Newtown, Mogadishu, Baghdad.
And yet, and yet, 'Abdu'l-Bahá was right. We are marvelous creatures. We make music and laughter and great science and medicine. In Boston, there were people running toward the carnage to give aid. In the hospitals, there were miracle-workers stemming the tide of blood and trauma, snatching the almost-dead back from the brink.
A comedian named Patton Oswalt offered hope in an Internet post on Monday: "The vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago."
The post went viral. We're ravenous for a better story about us.
On the BBC last week, British geneticist Steven Jones reflected on the message of the New Testament. "Why should you bother to be nice to anybody? Why not be horrible all the time? You may do well out of it. [Scientists] don't have an answer …What's striking is that we humans live in far larger groups than any other primate or mammal, without generally speaking killing each other."
Jones said one of our inventions, religion, may be an engine that (sometimes) makes better us than we otherwise would be. A species that can create an 'Abdu'l-Bahá or the people who ran toward the smoke, that species is not wholly lost.