Two days after the terror attacks in Paris and an unhealthy overdose of Web and cable news, my 10-year-old son sat in the chair across from me and watched the latest from Paris. He was uncharacteristically quiet throughout, no questions, no comments.
At times like this I always find the concept of “routine atrocity” running through my mind in a loop. The phrase comes from a Nick Cave song called “Nature Boy”:
“I saw some ordinary slaughter/I saw some routine atrocity My father said, Don’t look away. You got to be strong/you got to be bold now. He said that in the end it is beauty that is going to save the world, now.”
It’s a beautiful song, ultimately about how Cave met his wife (or that’s what I like to think), and I buy into the concept that beauty and grace are walls that cannot be torn down.
Admittedly, I’ve never been in a war zone. I’ve never seen another human being killed. But during my life as a journalist, I’ve seen my share of uncut video that is ugly beyond my ability to process. I’ve seen Col. William “Rich” Higgins dangling from a rope, people plunging from the World Trade Center, mothers crippled by snipers in the streets of Sarajevo, U.S. Marines dragged from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, throats cut, and hostages drowned and set on fire by ISIS.
I wish I had never seen any of it, because to see it is damaging to the soul. To see it is to be haunted by the how and why of what we as humans are capable of. To see it is to be cursed with the inability to ever forget.
Now that I have children, a son and a daughter, I am overcome with the constant fear of what is in store for them. What kind of inheritance will they be given as we slide away?
Some days, I am overcome, and I see a world filled to the brim with hatred and fear of all kinds. Some days the concept of religious tolerance seems ridiculous given that followers of Christ can’t agree on the path our savior would have us follow.
Some days, I’m paralyzed by the simple reality that hundreds of thousands of children in the greatest democracy in history go to bed hungry at night.
Some days, I worry that my son and daughter will inherit a word filled to the brim with carcinogenic plastic and rubber cursed with a 500-1,000 year shelf life.
Some days, I fear they will never have even the opportunity to see a lion, tiger, shark, cheetah, or gorilla in the wild.
Some days, I actually wonder if our children will still have the freedom to think, to do, to say, or write whatever they want.
Some days, it’s too much, and I am tired of an endless supply of “times that try men’s souls.”
What hope have we of fighting darkness like this? What power can overcome people who are willing to die based on the body count of those they take with them?
The only answer I have is that I can’t fight them. I can’t stop a suicide bomber. I can’t bring back the dead. I can’t end decades of religious division and civil war. I can’t forget the things I have seen.
But I can teach my son and my daughter. I can live in a way that proves every person who crosses my path is worth something. I can teach them that neither power, nor money, has value beyond what you do with it. I can teach them that fear, being ruled by it, or using it as a tool, is a coward’s way.
So I will urge them to watch when they want to look away, because as much as I want to forget, there is value in recording, and then remembering. While we all wish we hadn’t experienced some of the painful things we have, it’s better to face these things head on rather than to look away.
I don’t think there’s a contradiction there. Painful things can be damaging and have value at the same time. The most beautiful statues all have imperfections, after all, where the sculptor made a mistake.
And perhaps if we all remember with horror and repugnance, maybe our children’s children will only have to learn about these things — not live through them.
Still sitting there, my son asked, “Why would they do that?”
I told him, honestly, that I didn’t know. But that sometimes the best we can do is to ask the right questions.
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