Responsible adults looking at world affairs must sometimes believe their empathy betrays them—undeserved pain that interferes with the decisions they need to make to meet their own needs. I think all of that obscures something I have noticed in these pictures, which is not the dead human meat or the destruction, but the witnesses to it.
The face of the Turkish soldier whose job that morning was to pick up the drowned body of a 3-year-old and carry it off the beach. The 5-year-old, whose brain is an incredible organ of adaptation, better at it than you or I can ever hope to be again, learning something unspeakable about the world around him. The rescue worker who pulls a baby out of the tons of rubble of a deliberate, man-made earthquake. The father who nearly lost his family to the sea. The father who lost them.
These people did not see sad things. Each of us has mechanisms to process and recover from basic loss and heartbreak, and they are not designed for the moments here. What these people are feeling in the pictures crosses a boundary of kind, and our language when we talk about it rarely acknowledges that. There is a paradigm we use to live and function in a most basic way as whole people, and it becomes radically altered when we witness events like these beyond the comfort of the frame. The witnesses feel something they always claim to be unable to describe to its fullest, and we tell a lie to call it grief, because it so clearly goes beyond grief. It is an encounter with the abyss. Living things were not meant to see it.
In every good, kind, happy, or hopeful moment we create, in all our creeds and morals and philosophies and laws and religions, this is the final antithesis. This is the darkness we are trying to push back. We are seeking from birth to death to hold shut the door on that abyss, and these events which we impotently turn into headlines rip the doors wide open. They are abominations on the face of human history.
As free agents, as members of faiths or communities, as professionals, as politicians, as citizens, as rational actors, as patriots or soldiers or consumers or thinkers, as humans, we have no higher responsibility than to keep those doors shut. None. Nothing, literally nothing, supersedes the mandate to prevent what we see in these pictures, either by what we do or what we chose not to do. It is not the egg we break for an omelet. It is in the interest of no nation. There is no hard truth that can contain it, no ethical calculus, no matter how gray or grim, that permits it, so that even our vices—our ignorance, our selfishness and greed, our willful blindnesses, our lies—are powerless, are plainly unable to swallow or excuse the moral obscenity in that candy metaphor.
The only thing that can accept it is madness.
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