Gazing At the Bomber With Fear and Fascination

April 22, 2013

April 22, 2013

Over and over, CNN and ABC, CBS, NBC (I am repelled from Fox) show me the face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: the slightly sad, uncreased face of a man-boy, crowned by an appealing mop of hair.  These channel-constructors of reality endlessly replay the events, lionize and scorn, and hint darkly at things that ought to have been done or ought now to be done in the name of safety.

I believe he did something terrible, but honestly I still want to hug him, still want to reassure him that he will find a way through this bewildering time.  I know that’s as far beyond the bounds of likelihood as the bombings themselves were. Perhaps I react this way because I have two sons myself, one older and one younger, but I imagine there are others who are not fathers of boys who feel like hugging him.  Of course we also feel like comforting the afflicted, the families of the murdered and those with shattered bodies

I find it hard – and perhaps you as well – to avert my gaze, just as I find it hard – and perhaps you as well – not to stare dumbly at terrible auto accidents, searching the crushed and crumbled cars for what, some glimpse of a dead body? Is that becoming? Is that what I should be doing. Of course not, and yet the temptation is so strong.

What is our part in the Boston Marathon bombings? I mean, what is the part of those of us who are not immediate victims, perpetrators, first responders or law enforcement officials?  There is nothing much we can do, but the media invite us to be voyeurs, alternately filled with fear, fascination, sympathy and outrage.  Should we enlist in this army of watchers, hard as it is to refuse?

I do not know the answer to that. If the answer is that I should avert my gaze, I am failing utterly. Don’t I want to be well-informed? What does God ask of us in such times?

When we are in the grip of strong emotion, like fear, like anger, like sadness, I believe we most need to search for our spiritual bearings. Fear is to be wrestled with, aided by the certainty of God’s love. Anger, too. These are emotions that will naturally grip all of us, but we need to find ways not to be mastered by them. The impulse to comfort others, even the doers of terrible deeds, is very much what God asks of us.

Each of us carries around with us narratives of possibility, pictures of what might happen in our lives, images of the normal and likely. Events like the Boston Marathon bombing shake up (perhaps shatter) those narratives of possibility. They tempt us to have a different understanding of human sinfulness.

We are tempted to believe that wickedness is even more common than we had expected, lured to believe that evil lurks in the house next door, our classrooms, or in the unseen recesses of joyful, ordinary activities.

I’m thinking that our part in this, the part of we the bystanders, is to resist that reframing of what we think possible. We know, do we not, that ordinary selfishness is so common as to be in each us, to be found this week in our “innocent” gaze? We know, do we not, that cruelty can come from any of us, usually because, finding ourselves in the grip of fear or anger, we succumb to the temptation of some false narrative about the putative wickedness of others and succumb to a narrative of righteousness that opens the door to violence? We need to resist the resculpting of our narratives of human possibility by torrents of anger and fear. 

As we gaze into the face of this young man, let us stare down the urgings of fear and anger. Let us ask instead what love can do.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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2 Responses to Gazing At the Bomber With Fear and Fascination

  1. grellet says:

    “When we are in the grip of strong emotion, like fear, like anger, like sadness, I believe we most need to search for our spiritual bearings.”

    Thanks for this. I’ve been the target of some online harassment because of blog posts on behalf of the hunger strikers at Guantanamo. People just willingly conflate a newly converted jihadist (if, indeed, that’s even a true-to-life description of Dzhokhar) and the Guantanamo detainees — also assumed to be jihadists, having been proclaimed “the worst of the worst” by top-level administration. Only a handful of those men even have credible charges against them (which still does not justify the torture practiced on them), and at least 85 men have been cleared for release yet continue to languish.
    It’s as though we fear that empathy somehow threatens our well-being, that it will call down more tragedy upon us. This fear is as irrational as the tragedies that happen. We are like children who believe that they have the power to cause someone’s death just by imagining it. We’re afraid to take a step back, to refuse to see evil in the face of everyone with an Arabic name or that we know to be Muslim, to forebear condemning an entire religion for the misdeeds of a few of its members. We seem to fear that we will somehow wreak further harm upon ourselves. And yet at the same time we pride ourselves in belonging to the greatest and strongest nation on earth.
    If ever we needed evidence of what irrational beings we are, our reactions to tragedies like this certainly qualify.

  2. Karen says:

    I totally relate to these comments, and so do many others. Call me a bleeding heart liberal – well, I’m proud of that.

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