This week in the news the video of marines urinating on corpses has invaded our living rooms, laptop screens, I-pads, and breakfasts as we read the morning paper. The incident turned my stomach and I could not stop thinking about it. Those men were trained to kill, to disregard humanity, else how could they go to war? And, as a country, we asked them to. That’s the ultimate sacrifice, giving up one’s humanity, yet it is condoned, celebrated, argued. And it happens in all cultures and societies, among, or despite, all religious beliefs – wherever people cross paths with another human being. Our need to protect and survive, even at the cost of another, is base instinct, and we willingly draw upon it. Then the soldiers come home, and we expect them to regain civility, to live and move among us who have not experienced the baseness of war and killing, and to forget that they have participated in such activities. Some do, but many, maybe most, don’t.
Ronald and I attended a wedding this summer and during the reception we got into a conversation with an elderly couple about conceal and carry of weapons. The husband felt strongly that he had the right to protect and preserve what he deemed his. I said that I would not carry a weapon and I did not think that I could ever kill another human being.
He pressed me to reconsider. What if someone had forced his way into our home and was physically harming Ronald? Wouldn’t I be willing to kill the intruder? Wouldn’t Ronald’s life be worth saving at the expense of the other? I responded that I could not imagine killing another person, no matter how egregious his actions were. He was taken back. Maybe he wondered about my humanity. How could I sit idly by when the life of my loved one was at stake?
I say a prayer of remorse when I squash a spider, swat a fly or step on an earthworm, yet I eat beef, fowl, lamb and pork. It’s the ambiguity of the human experience, an enigma. We abhor those who kill against us, but justify killing when it benefits our condition.
I always relied on Ronald to keep us safe, when we were raising the girls and now as a couple in our fifties, together for thirty-six years. Did I ever consider what that meant, what I expected of him, how that might have altered his humanity?
I thought about it a few months ago when that young woman aimed her car at us in the theater parking lot (see my post Do The Right Thing, October 7, 2011 http://aboutracewriter.blogspot.com/2011/10/do-right-thing.html). I was frightened and I knew if the need arose, Ronald would protect me from harm. I also worried that someone would get hurt as a result of it. I was relieved it did not end badly for any of us.
I do not excuse the marines’ actions on the battlefield this past week, but I call for all of us to understand our complicity, our base need for survival, and our own imperfect humanity.
(Excerpt from Chapter 4, The Ghetto Will Follow You, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Ronnie crafted a slingshot from a wire hangar. He waited until his dad brought home meat from the butcher and he swiped two heavy-duty rubber bands the butcher placed around the wrapper. He wore the slingshot like a holster on his shoulder, and he had plans to use it.
A month or so before, one of the white families living on the same street in the projects as the Hagans had done something unspeakable in Ronnie’s mind. His anger sits below the surface, humming like an electric current, even as he retells the story.
The mother had restrained a neighborhood girl, Toni-Jo, so that her two sons could beat her up. Ronnie watched from across the street as the pale, tow-headed boys dressed in hand-me-downs, hit, kicked and punched ebony skinned Toni-Jo while their mother held her still by pulling her arms behind her back. The boys screamed ‘nigger’ and laughed as they landed blows. Ronnie didn’t know their names – he just called them the fat white man’s kids, and he didn’t like them. Ronnie’s anger seethed at the injustice. He silently vowed to seek revenge.
He practiced with the slingshot, trying out different projectiles and finally settling on marbles, the small ones, not the shooters. They flew true and hit hard. Then he exacted his revenge.
He hid behind the large metal dumpster and waited for one of the fat man’s sons. He saw the boy walking toward him, remnants of his last meal smeared across his upper lip and his whitish hair matted to his brow. At just the right moment, Ronnie aimed and launched the marble straight at the boy’s head and thwap! The boy screamed, grabbed his head and fell to the ground. Ronnie ducked down low and ran.
But someone must have seen him and reported the incident to Syl who waited until Ronnie sat down on the couch after dinner.
“Ronnie, you got something you want to tell me?”
“You sure, now, because I’m pretty sure there’s something you got to say.”
“You know you’re going to get your rump stomped, and if I find out you’re lying, you going to get it stomped twice.”
“Just do it then.”
“You talking back to me? Bert, that boy talking back to me.”
“You’re going to do it anyway.”
And he got his rump stomped, twice, because Syl knew; he always knew. Then Syl confiscated the slingshot.