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Barbarians inside the gates
We are barbarians. I can’t take credit for saying that, although I completely agree. My friend did that, just after I posted this video on my Facebook page:
I was all set to write about how Charles Ramsey isn’t a hero. But this, this makes me realize that I was wrong about that. Here I was thinking Ramsey, the guy who answered Amanda Berry’s cries for help, ending the imprisonment of three women in Cleveland, shouldn’t be called a hero because he just did the right thing. My argument was that we’ve set the bar way too low for bestowing hero status.
But then I saw that video. Actually, it started last week with people in Worcester, Massachusetts, harassing the undertaker who dared, I say DARED! to touch the body of the evil Muslim terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
At any rate, I’ve changed my mind. Charles Ramsey is, indeed, a hero for refusing to go along with what passes for normal in this country and instead being actually human rather than a pretender who lost his heart somewhere along the way to become completely frozen in hate.
Know who else is a hero? Martha Mullen. After four cemeteries in three states refused to despoil the purity of their burial grounds with the remains of THE BOSTON BOMBER, Martha Mullen called up an Islamic cemetery in Virginia and found a grave site. Then she called the Worcester Police Department and made it happen. Martha Mullen is a real Christian, following the ideals of what that religion was supposed to be when it was founded, not whatever it is that these other patriotic Americans think it is now, two millennia later.
I have to blame my colleagues in the news business for this. I’ve been saying the same thing for years, but in the wake of the Boston bombings, writer Steve Almond, who lives in Massachusetts, said it way better than I ever have:
I don’t mean to diminish the impact of the Boston bombings. I can’t imagine the horror and grief experienced by those caught in the blasts, or their loved ones. But that’s essentially my point: the horror, as such, was inflicted on a particular (and mostly random) set of people. It didn’t happen to “Boston”, or “America”, or “our way of life”.
The media’s response, as in the hours after 9/11, has been incessant, hysterical, and sloppy. The Wall Street Journal reported that five additional bombs had been found around the city. The New York Post reported a death toll of 12. On and on it went, lurid rumor reported as fact, then corrected.
More disturbing to me was the tenor of the reporting: a familiar histrionic gravitas that is the modern Fourth Estate’s default setting these days, particularly in the midst of constructing a major media event. I heard one reporter on National Public Radio claim that nothing would ever be the same, while another announced that the heart of Boston had been torn apart.
As a former reporter, I understand the desire to hype the story you’re working on, to feel a part of history. But this sort of journalism exacts its own insidious damage. It fosters a culture in which the emotional duties and dividends of citizenship reside in consuming heart-wrenching spectacle, rather than engaging in genuine civic action.
As a nation, we prefer bathing in the short-term thrills of melodrama to grappling with the long-term crises we’re actually engaged in, ones that require us to do more than simply watch and emote.
Again: I mean this as no affront to those injured in Monday’s explosions. A friend of ours ran in the marathon, and his wife was across the street with her three young boys when the bombs went off. I don’t envy them the task of explaining to their kids what happened and what it means.
But when I heard about the bombs, and in particular, the fact that an eight year-old was among the three dead, what I mostly thought about was the little girl we know who’s been battling a deadly disease for months.
The real question I’m struggling with, as the emails continue to stream in, is whether events such as Monday’s bombing can somehow morally enlarge us as a nation, can help us imagine the suffering of other people and our own duty to those people – wherever they happen to live. Or whether we’ll remain trapped in the lurid theatrics of the moment.
We’re still trapped in those lurid theatrics. Because we’re barbarians with no heart, no sense of responsibility to any other human being, no outward indication that we are even human ourselves. Unless, of course, this is what being human means now. All for one! That’s it. No “one for all,” no sharing, no compassion, nothing but anger, hatred, revenge.
There’s nothing wrong with the so-called “negative” emotions, of course. There is, however, something hideously wrong when they aren’t tempered with our soft and tender hearts, the vulnerable places where we know gentleness and love, where we know that all of us are the same, really, none more or less important than any other. We can agree with another’s actions, we can disagree. We can even deplore if we feel the need. And we don’t even have to understand why someone makes the choices they make.
But when we fail to acknowledge the humanity of anyone — or worse, denigrate it — we degrade our own.
After my friend wrote that we’re barbarians, I angrily typed “It’s hopeless. It’s just f-ing hopeless. We’re doomed” and really felt it as I did. Now that I’ve dried the tears, I’m hopeful again. But it’s noticeably less than it was just a few hours ago.
My heart is still hurting, and I’m afraid for us. But I won’t give up. I’ve heard it said that the essence of human bravery — the essence of being human at all — “is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” Refusing to allow Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s family to bury him is not only giving up on him, but giving up on our humanity.
It’s not too late for us.
- Video courtesy the Boston Globe.
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