Thursday, on an idyllic afternoon seemingly lifted from an impressionist painting, I took a long walk on the beach. The tide was pulled out. Open sand stretched clear to Plaice Cove, its dampness glistening.
The queue at the ice cream stand had been patient and endless. We walked. Laughed. Smiled. Occasionally holding hands, occasionally wandering on different paths, we walked. I had chocolate almond frozen yogurt with chocolate jimmies, in a cup, with a sugar cone inverted on top. My friend had Moose Tracks. A day without urgency. Children scampered on the beach and built sand castles.
Friends and lovers crossed damp sands and a few hardy souls tested the still cold waters lapping at the shore.
On such days we embrace and celebrate life. To feel your pulse. To hear your heart beat. On such days the promise of beauty and warmth stretches before us all.
Days before, in Toulouse, France, a 23-year-old Frenchman Mohamed Merah, in acts of inexplicable rage, allegedly executed a rabbi and three Jewish children at a French-Jewish day school, three paratroopers of North African descent and seriously wounded a black soldier.
Tides, pushed and pulled.
Days before, in Sanford, Fla., 28-year-old George Zimmerman allegedly killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American school boy who died clutching a bag of Skittles and a bottle of ice tea.
Tides, pushed and pulled.
Days before, 38-year-old Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly left his Army camp in the Ranjwai district of Afghanistan and walked to nearby Afghan villages and, in the dead of night, alone, bathed by the eerie green glow of his night-vision goggles, targeted and killed 17 civilians, nine of them children.
Tides, pushed and pulled.
So many victims, so many children, so many who will never have the opportunity to witness the gifts of God’s love, to walk along the warm sands of creation, to relive memories and contemplate futures filled with hopes and dreams — to walk along the edge of waters shared between us all.
My tears, my heart goes out to the victims and their families. As I condemn the horror of these murders and mourn these deaths I feel a need to struggle to understand something about these killers.
There were no outbreaks of violence in Afghanistan after the killings in Ranjwai. I think the Afghans instinctively knew that any man who could commit such heinous acts was broken. Afghans know “broken.”
They have known “broken” for decades. Russians, British, Americans, Pakistanis, Taliban, Al-Qaeda have all conspired to make Afghanistan a broken place.
Tides, pushed and pulled by the moon.
Robert Bales was broken. Broken by financial and family conflicts, by four deployments in Muslim lands, and suffering from humiliation, injury and disappointment. Bales was badly broken. No one paid attention. For his fourth deployment he was sent to Afghanistan, unhealed and un-consoled, a weapon in his hand, fear in his heart and darkness in his soul.
Mohammad Merah, too, was broken. A pathetic, petty criminal who had tried, and failed, thank goodness, to join either the French Army or the Foreign Legion. Frustrated, a French citizen who couldn’t find his place, Merah embraced rhetoric that neither reflected Islam nor any political ideology. In criminal acts of self-glorification and delusion, he killed Christians, Jews and Muslims, soldiers and civilians.
George Zimmerman, once a Catholic altar boy, also wanted to serve and he became known in his community as a zealous neighborhood-watch volunteer. His self-defense justification for the killing of Trayvon Martin for looking suspicious inside a gated community, was initially accepted without question under Florida’s 2005 “Stand your Ground” legislation. Martin’s death rightly reopened the national debate about race.
Broken places. Landscapes of the Other, unrecorded on GPS locators, homes to people who will never know the beauty of Moose Tracks and Plaice Cove, of the beauty of sweat gathered in the palm of a hand.
These crimes make no sense. I insist we hold the perpetrators to account and yet I struggle to try to understand them. There is no excuse yet I struggle for an explanation, perhaps to avoid a repetition in the future.
“For Your Great Name weaves together all the names of all the beings in the universe, among them our own names, and among them those who touch our lives deeply though we can no longer touch them” — Kaddish of Mourning.
Hold ourselves to account. It is our time, today, to speak, to struggle to understand how we are woven together.
We, who can walk safely along the water’s edge, must speak. We, who can walk safely along the water’s edge, must hold hands with each other.
These three alleged perpetrators, feeling marginalized, disenfranchised, impotent, failed to find a place of solace in this world. Their voices silent, they allegedly raised their guns — their Viagra — to assert their manhood.
Silence kills people. Indifference kills. Ignorance kills.
Speak truth. Hear confession. Be mindful. Hold hands.
The victims of these tragedies were all the Other: Muslim, Jewish, Black, North African.
Yet, also, in their brokenness, the perpetrators became the Other.
Those who use Otherness as an instrument of power allowed the disenfranchised and dysfunctional like Bales, Zimmerman and Merah, who, un-respected and unsupported in their dreams and aspirations retaliated, not against their oppressors but against the Other, as they had been taught.
They raged not against privilege and power but against other victims of the same sort of exclusion that had created them as the Other.
These oppressed became the oppressors.
Friday, President Obama, in a comment on the shooting of Trayvon Martin, said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
We will begin to heal when we, in our humanity, can all look at Trayvon and speak, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
We will begin to heal when we, in our humanity, can look at the victims, Jews, Christians and Muslims and speak, “If I had a son, he’d look like them.”
We will begin to heal when we, in our humanity, can all look at Bales, Zimmerman, and Merah and speak, “He, too, is my son, and he needs my help.”
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.