There are two interconnected strands of story that keep weaving themselves in front of me, not pretty as a spider’s silk yet catch-a-fly sticky in the wake of the December 27th arsons that occurred in my little town.
Event: a string of arsons was set in the very early hours of December 27th. I first learned about this rash of arsons just a few hours later, via Facebook. The first inkling was a news post put up by a friend and neighbor, along with her account of encountering a charred car on our street when walking the dog that morning. The sight of the torched car led her to the Internet to discover what had happened.
The torched car, barely a block away, was scary enough. However, that wasn’t a one-off incident and the story seemed to grow, in breadth first, as we learned that as many as 16 fires were started. Then came the news that a friend’s house had been destroyed, and the story took on instantaneous depth by getting that much more personal.
Between the physical proximity of the car and the emotional proximity of knowing folks who’d lost their worldly goods (although, very fortunately, father and son got out safely, unlike father and son on Fair Street, Paul and Pauly Yeskie, who both perished), there was a sense of being blindsided. That sensation was only amplified as the anxious day wore on. The story hit CNN and other national outlets. When a friend emailed to inquire whether we were all right from Manhattan, I realized I’d better let my family (in Philadelphia, Boston, and California) know what had happened, and that we were fine. I hadn’t quite realized before the email from Catherine that this was a big story.
At seemingly the same pace that the magnitude of the loss—and fear—came to light so did the help. A Facebook group began in order to organize information, including ways to support those affected. The Jewish congregations pulled clothing together, the Northampton Survival Center offered emergency support, the Red Cross, Hampshire Cares, individuals, musicians began working on numerous benefits, local Chinese restaurant The Great Wall held a special supper to raise monies and there have been bake sales downtown If the town were transformed into fabric, it’d be something warm and durable, like fleece or thick wool.
The Facebook group mushroomed. People joined from near and far and posts have included news stories, amateur sleuthing ideas, safety tips, condolences, and offers of help. That Sunday (and in the days thereafter), the Internet, so often ethereal, became rather grounded, even essential.
Fast forward (although, for a community holding its breath, awaiting news that the arsonist was caught, time moved not all that quickly) and on January 5th there was news of an arrest. Anthony Baye, 25, of Northampton, was being charged.
Stomach turning piece of information: he’d been questioned that night of the arsons practically a stone’s throw from our house. What had already seemed too close a possible target—our house, our neighbors’ houses—suddenly sickeningly seemed waytooclose. It was hard to count lucky stars (I did) over the tsunami wave of internal terror. I had felt scared; I’d felt unsettled, uneasy for that long week. The tension lifted and hovered, it didn’t fall off and with that news, I felt gripped by it anew, even more than when more imminent danger was looming.
Heart-wrenching information: Tony Baye was a kid from Northampton, as Bob Flaherty so eloquently wrote about in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. He’d played Little League and hung out with friends of friends and kids of my friends. He is, in the eyes of the law, and thus we hope of the rest of the world, too, innocent until proven guilty. Say it’s him; say it’s someone else like him who has done this or another terrible thing. I could not shake the tragedy that had just occurred for Tony Baye, whose actions—cruel, callous, horrific and also, stupid—have quite possibly cost him his life. And I could not shake the thought that he is someone’s son, too, that his family, along with so many others’ becomes a victim of these crimes. I cannot begin to imagine how a mother or father sits with the possibility that their child did something like this. It would seem no person has the room to hold that.
On the Internet, where I’d felt so admiring of how we stood shoulder to virtual shoulder, I was equally amazed and repelled to read comments vis-à-vis Mr. Baye like “an eye for an eye.” The line of argument seemed to go that he chose to do this and thus all sympathy was eradicated. I don’t think it works quite that way, because such all or nothing responses leave no room for remorse or change or forgiveness of any kind. It leaves no room for growth or change or even healing. Also reported this week in the New York Times, the last legal group advocating for the death penalty stopped its work, a sign that we are finally recognizing as a nation in the legal system that the death penalty is inhumane. Would that this national news be an indication that we might move from “eye for an eye” to a way of addressing crime that stopped incarcerating such a stunning percentage of our population?
The glittering beauty of our coming together—weaving ourselves into the web that offers a kind of salvation and redemption—not only holds us together as we need, to find clothing and household items, to have raised over $19,000 in less than two weeks, the way that web looks—faces with tears and smiles holding candles, hugs, bake sales in the bitter cold, the look of compassion across a community and beyond its physical bounds—inspires us to keep seeing hope. Hope, indeed, can be seen; it’s not invisible. What’s less pretty is that part of our stickiness, our interconnected nature, is that we also hold in this community the man who hurt it. How we carry forth with the entirety of these losses, to me, defines the web’s durability that much more.
*Photo: Carol Duke