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.