Babies are born—every day, everywhere—full of promise.
My mother adored her babies—the five who survived and the three she lost before carrying them to term. She showed her infants off as we cooed and laughed, and everyone told her how beautiful we were.
Somewhere in early childhood, though, children cease to be adorable, perhaps around the time they start to lose their teeth and become a little gangly, a little pudgy, a little mussed with the sweatiness of summer and outdoor play. And as they hit adolescence, they become even less lovable, even to their own parents, who struggle to remember their cute children when they become pimply, moody teens who test the limits.
But my mother adored us even when she didn’t quite know what to do with us—a mother who was 31 when her first child became a teenager, 36 when her first child left for college. She loved all of us fiercely even when two of my brothers became addicted to drugs in their 40s and when she lost a son to an overdose when he was 47.
My mother believed that somewhere inside that homeless, spiraling addict was the baby with the blonde curls that she kept in an envelope when he got his first haircut, the little clown who made her laugh, the teenage boy who played the tuba—the one whose band serenaded him from the parking lot of the hospital when he had his appendix out. Somewhere inside the homeless son she hardly recognized on the day he died in her guest bedroom was the baby, the child who had been born full of promise.
She asked my sister and me again and again before she had a stroke that rendered her speech mostly unintelligible, “Where did I go wrong?” In her last conversation with my other brother, at a time when he was clean and we knew where he was, she managed to get out the words, “Be good.”
But when things go terribly wrong and those babies born full of promise grow up to commit acts too terrible to imagine, our society wants to blot out any detail of a life that might suggest goodness once blossomed somewhere inside. In the wake of the controversy over the portrayal of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the recent issue of Rolling Stone, I’ve watched contemplatively as the media once again plays to the two extremes and, in the process, boosts the sagging sales of printed news and magazines.
Yesterday I finally got around to reading Janet Reitman’s article insideRolling Stone and found it to be well-written, balanced—a good piece of investigative journalism. The award-winning writer’s article has been all but forgotten in the controversy surrounding the cover photo, a photo that theNew York Times, interestingly, used on its cover more than two months ago to absolutely no controversy.
Why? The more distance we have from such a horrific event, the more we want simple explanations for the complexities that foster human behavior.
We want our heroes to be full of goodness and light when they die heroic deaths. If a policeman who is far from perfect dies in the line of duty, will we hear that she was often heard using racial epithets? Doubtful. If a fire fighter is killed inside a burning house after he passes a baby out a window to a colleague, will we hear that he beat his own children? Probably not.
And we want our villains to be devoid of virtue, filled with only hatred and darkness. Only by seeing them as incarnate evil can we stifle the fear that we could be the next victim of senseless violence. Our brains seem incapable of understanding what a mother understands about her child—that somewhere, deep inside the unrecognizable person, is her lost child. Only by painting our villains in silhouettes of beasts can we comprehend the incomprehensible.
Each time the unspeakable happens, I sit in front of the television screen and cry. In the days after 9/11, my daughter, who was 15 at the time and struggling to understand what I couldn’t fathom at the age of 45, finally said to me, “Mom! You can’t keep watching that over and over again. You’ve got to turn it off, or you’ll never stop crying.”
When the pictures of the terrorists emerged, I never gave one single thought to the fact that each was once a baby—full of promise to a mother who loved him. It is only as the perpetrators have become American citizens who seem to get younger and younger that I’ve looked at them and asked the question my mother asked, “What did we do wrong?”
We will never be able to completely prevent the horror of violence, to ensure that such a thing will never happen again. But what if we did our best as a society to eliminate the conditions that give rise to insanity? What if, instead of dissecting the dead villains afterward, we began to dissect a society that is much in need of healthy change—to excise the unhealthy tissue when we can do so without destroying the community we’ve worked for more than 200 years to build?
I know that life isn’t always baby smiles and colorful flowers. But to grow a garden, we must first work together to plant the seeds and tend the saplings.
I’m exhausted by endless stories that insist on pure evil. Tell me your stories of innocent babies who blossom into complex human beings.