Let it begin with me.

There’s a line of morality that’s hardwired into us, as a feature of millions of years of evolution; we’re born with a fundamental opposition to killing other people. I believe that. Some people overcome it, either through drugs, or an obliterating flash of anger, or a deeply delusional (and fragile) rationalization.

Maybe this belief is my own fragile rationalization. I don’t know. Like our faith in God, whether the thing we believe is true or not…it’s comforting. Thus, valuable.

Once again, a group of people have committed an act of violence that shows a total disregard for life. The attacks in Paris (as the Boston Marathon bombing, as the Charleston church shooting, as 9/11…) have an extra layer of disbelief thrown over them. How long can someone hold the thought “I’m going to kill people indiscriminately” in their head? What kind of energy is required to maintain such an intent, for the length of time required to plan something as intricate as 9/11 or the Paris shootings? Is it even possible for that level of energy and determination sustain itself without help from an outside force?

Those who commit these crimes are guilty, regardless of influences. But isn’t it much, much worse to compel someone to mass-murder? If there is indeed a hardwired line of morality, there are those who manage to cross it and then there are those who succeed in erasing it in others.

All of the above are simply the things that people in front of keyboards write as they try to make sense of something that’s senseless. It’s a self-soothing behavior. There’s chaos in our world, and that’s terrifying; we try to convince ourselves that there’s some sort of order behind such a crime because if there’s a logic to follow, then there’s a solution to be found. But of course, none of it matters to the 127 people killed on Friday, and their families.

At times like these, I think of my Mom’s favorite church song.

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

Long before she was diagnosed with cancer, she told me she wanted it played at her funeral service. I wrote that down on a paper dinner napkin, to underscore that I had taken her seriously.

The song dates back only as far as “Rock Around The Clock” but it’s a strong, timeless sentiment. The first two lines (and their connection to Mom) have always held a lot of power. My own interpretation of them reminds me of the level of personal commitment and sacrifice required of me if I sincerely want a better world.

It’s not enough to simply wish for peace. The wish floats away and vanishes. We’re required to want that so badly that we’re willing to work to create peace inside our own hearts.

If we truly want peace, we can’t indulge in the selfish luxury of hate. Regardless of the provocation. Hate is another one of those self-soothing actions.

We can (and of course, must) seek justice, but we have to eradicate the thirst for vengeance. We must make the world safer, but in doing so, we can’t make ourselves angrier, or minimize our awareness of the humanity of all people everywhere, even the humanity of those who commit horrific, inhumane acts.

Those words come easily to me this weekend, because I thought about this so much during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I wasn’t filled with rage. Still, as I waited for my NYC friends (none of whom lived or worked near WTC) to check in, I “amused” myself by imagining the proper punishments for the killers’ co-conspirators.

The most baroque one involved an over-the-top super-glitzy 1970s-style Las Vegas game show in which the killers were more or less used as props. Their closest family members (who had no involvement in the attacks) competed in games in which they got to choose between winning fabulous prizes for themselves — up to and including citizenship in the free and safe country of their choice, and education for all of their children — or preventing the killer from being executed on live TV in front of them, through horrific, inefficient, mechanized mutilation.

See, the idea there was for the killers to spend their final living moments in an arena completely devoid of respect and dignity, and to be totally aware that they aren’t heroes, they aren’t martyrs, and that even those whose love and respect they value the most think they’re less than trash.

I imagined a scene in which one of the killers (strapped to a gaudy, glittery rotating wheel with high-spinning foot-long auger bits mounted behind it) pleads with his mother in disbelief.

“But what do you even need a pair of jetskis for? The closest lake is hundreds of miles away!!!

“Well, dear, they do come with a trailer…” Then she pulls a big red lever with twinkling lights inside the handle as the host laughs and urges the audience to raise up their plastic sheets.

I was writing sketch comedy in my head, not letting my emotions spiral away from me. Giving myself the freedom to design an intentionally-ridiculous set of punishments helped me to appreciate how easily this kind of situation can get out of hand, and how selfish (and self-harming) a thirst for vengeance can be.

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

In the end, I realized that my real fantasy punishment was for Bin Laden to be arrested, tried, and convicted. And then to live a long, long life in an orange jumpsuit with a number stenciled over the pocket. I couldn’t imagine a more humiliating end.

Then, as now, I knew that circumstances would almost certainly make a capture and conviction impossible. Bin Laden made his choice. I wouldn’t have wanted the men who stormed his compound to attempt to preserve his life at the cost of their own.

My own choice was to foreswear vengeance and anger, and work to create a space of peace in the only place over which I have total control: my own head and heart.

It’s hard. Especially when you’re not thinking about a mass-murderer operating thousands of miles away, but someone you know who’s hurt you personally. You have a choice. Six months after the fact, will you still think about him or her with anger? Or will you reject that emotional impulse? Can you let that experience change how you deal with that specific individual or that situation without letting the experience change who you are, or the values you hold dear?

That’s another thing that I struggle with from time to time. It’s so very, very hard.

But if I want peace in my lifetime, it has to begin with me.

When tragedies like the Paris shootings take place, my compassion and love and concern for the victims is a much more powerful and effective force than my feelings about the killers. I must try to nurture and express those positive reactions. They should be so great that there’s no room in my heart for anything else.

Fight and hope for justice. But let peace begin with me.

Mom’s been gone for a long time now. But she still offers me love and comfort during difficult times.

14 thoughts on “Let it begin with me.”

  1. Andy those are beautiful and thoughtful words. I found your point at the beginning about how long these people must need to live with hate to execute their crimes very interesting and thoughtful. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. We all have had moments where we “hate” something or even someone but for the great many of us that moment is thankfully fleeting. Your insight into the killers ability to carry hate with them and let it grow and feed their crimes is worth the read alone. I am also familiar with the church song you mentioned. A very calming and reflective song that is extremely relevant this weekend and hopefully a sentiment that can be carried forward in your readers hearts and minds. Thank you for bringing it to light. Mom’s always seem to know best don’t they?

  2. Beautifully put. I’ve sang that song on many occasions and it stirs similar feelings in me. I recently got hooked on watching the first season of Homeland, and while not the best writing in the world, the exploration of the life of a soldier/converted terrorist is insightful. Faith, a loyalty to an ideal, and tradition all mixed in a complicated soup of what motivates each of us. At the core, the ability to see others as less than human, expendable, or otherwise separate is sociopathic. How utterly common this has become due to hate speak and propaganda is the most frightening thing of all. My only recourse is to employ this same advice; to let the integrity of a peaceful heart speak to one gullible enough to find solace in hatred and superiority. Only that connection – multiplied in all our relations – is our salvation. May it be so.

  3. I have no illusions about my success as a parent. But in the wake of 9/11, I realized that the best thing I did as a mother was raise my two daughters not only to be strong independent females, but to be human beings as free from prejudice as I could make them. We moved around a lot and they met people of many races, cultures and religions before they were old enough to be influenced by external preconceived notions. So it did not occur to them to hate or despise on sight.

    It is ignorance that makes these horrible deeds possible. It is easy to hate the unknown, to kill a faceless enemy. In my opinion, technology could make an enormous difference, and I have been saying this for years.

    There are schools in the U.S. who use Skype to allow their students to meet and get to know students at schools in other countries. If this was more widespread, so that all students did this every year from pre-k on with schools in countries all over the world, then they would all grow up familiar with each other’s cultures, customs and religions. Let them develop individual penpal relationships.

    Familiarity is the antidote to xenophobia. It’s hard to hate an entire country when you have friends there, it’s harder to drum up an army against it when so many of the people you are trying to recruit have friends there. Racism doesn’t fester when so many kids have grown up with friends of all different races. Religious prejudice would not be so widespread if children grew up learning how many beliefs they have in common, rather than what a few extremists choose to do.

    The technology is available and it’s cheap. It can’t possibly be difficult to implement a program, and it would have such a positive impact in so many ways. I can’t imagine why it doesn’t already exist.

    Evidence for its effectiveness is obvious just from the way the Internet has made the world so much smaller for those who have grown up with it. So many of them already have friends all over the world. Their numbers would grow exponentially if schools all over the world had these video partners.

    As with so many things, our hope lies with future generations. But we could help them immensely by giving them the tools they need from childhood.

  4. It gave me great pause when you wrote:

    “How long can someone hold the thought “I’m going to kill people indiscriminately” in their head? What kind of energy is required to maintain such an intent, for the length of time required to plan something as intricate as 9/11 or the Paris shootings?”

    I had never thought of these terrible acts from that perspective before. It made me think of the Holocaust, when millions were methodically killed over a span of years. The energy and planning required for that is unfathomable to me. Hatred is such a hot, passionate emotion, though, that I think it provides plenty of fuel and energy for any of these horrors, sadly.

    In the end, I found your post comforting, providing me with a mantra to ease my pain. Thank you for that.

    A moving post, Andy, that I found comforting and inspiring.

  5. True. Things get better when you can register someone as a person instead of as an abstract concept. Growing up in a white suburb of Boston didn’t expose me to a great diversity of humanity. Only later, when (for instance) “transgender person” stopped being a part of the population I’d only read about (in stories written by non-transgender people), and became folks I knew and hung out with, did I realize my level of unawareness.

  6. Thank you for your thoughts. What’s really sad is how some people are blaming this on “the Muslims” and turning it into a race thing. No culture is any better or worse than the other, and some people have just sadly not been afforded a good education, and they turn to these types of reactionary acts of violence as a result. I don’t think the Bin Laden family is bad; they were just not able to afford a good education in the hills and caves of Afghanistan and they only reacted in a negative way as a result. I hope we can take these opportunities to vote “Yes” to any local referendums we may have for more school spending or social programs that are being implemented in our areas. This is a way for us all to contribute to the good of human kind instead of reacting like a bunch of redneck racists by blaming “Muslims” or “blacks” or any other group.

  7. An important moment of self-reflection came from an unlikely source: a line in “L.A. Story.” “I don’t think you realize how ugly an emotion hate is,” Steve Martin says, reacting to her girlfriend’s casually-snide remark about somebody. It made me think. I don’t hate a certain actor. But by saying it, aren’t I contributing to an environment where we get desensitized to feelings and expressions of hatred? I try to self-edit.

  8. Ihnatko, thank you for your positive, affirming comments. We need to remember that the world will be a much better place and we can solve the Mid-East conflict by removing all the Confederate flags from society. Speaking of the world of entertainment, let’s all work to ban all “Dukes Of Hazzard” memorabilia from being sold in stores. I believe that “Dukes of Hazzard” is a great contributor to things such as the Paris attack, as well as most Southerners.

  9. “How long can someone hold the thought “I’m going to kill people indiscriminately” in their head? What kind of energy is required to maintain such an intent, for the length of time required to plan something as intricate as 9/11 or the Paris shootings? Is it even possible for that level of energy and determination sustain itself without help from an outside force?”

    This is just effing naive. These people are pretty much taught from birth to hate. Hatred is their existence. It is their guiding light. All the humanity in YOUR heart won’t change theirs. Get real. Open your eyes. Identify humanity’s enemies.

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