Empathy for the Devil

A 22-year-old young man arrived back home last night to his parents after more than one year of indefensible imprisonment by a megalomaniacal dictator. At least he’s home, one could think, were it not for the fact that he is in a coma and most likely has no idea that he is now back in the presence of his loving family.

In Pennsylvania, another group of young men are on trial for the fraternity hazing death of a young pledge; the accused, who had just testified, were seen laughing and smiling outside of court afterward.

Somewhere in Syria, an idiot boy nicknamed “Jihadi Jack,” who is actually a middle-class Protestant child from bucolic England has decided that playing with ISIS is no fun. He “hates them now” and “wants to come home.”

Three families have lost their sons of all approximately the same age, in various ways and to varying degrees.

The first should have never happened and our government should have intervened to ensure he was safely returned so that his homecoming could have been long ago and far more celebratory. They did nothing. Yes, I squarely blame the impotence of the Obama administration, but not just for Otto Warmbier’s situation, but for its flaccid continuation of the “well, they aren’t really hurting anyone” attitude toward North Korea and the cartoon-like, round, troll dictator Kim Jong Un. And where were we, the American public? Why weren’t we more up at arms? We all have kids; we are all someone’s kid. It’s not partisan, surely. It’s not like Democrats have daughters and Republicans have sons.

The second is a result of the illness in our society and our tendency to overlook the abject debauchery-fueled behavior of college kids, especially if they’re privileged and white. Yes, I really said that; yes, I am a Republican. And yes, I am also the mom of one very white and quite privileged fraternity member son. I would never, though, say something so stupid and invitational of cosmic retribution as, “but my son would never,” because that’s what everyone thinks. That’s what creates the bubbles of excusability that produce boys such as this; kids who would inflict heartless abuse on one of their own; one of their “brothers.” No one teaches their kids anything that remotely resembles empathy anymore. I am by no means a religious person, but that’s possibly because as a child we were in church every time the doors opened; I suffer from permanent Southern Baptist hell, fire and brimstone fatigue. But guess what? Some of it stuck. Two things of the greatest importance in my life, and one of which would have served these boys well both in this instance and were they to read and absorb the story of Otto Warmbier. Or if they are forced to face the actual reality and resultant consequences of their own despicable actions: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The third is a manifest example of the modern day laziness that is now pervasive in parenting. Whereas the privileged white American kids may have a bubble that at least keeps them from thinking that beheading innocents in a desert halfway around the world sounds like a good Saturday night, the children of those too absent to care and too distant – and frankly stupid – to see what their kids are doing online and in their free time are enticed by precisely that. They have no grounding, no roots, no identity, no spirituality, no goals, no motivation and no capacity to even realize that the absence of even one of these – let alone multiple – is in itself a reason for concern. “Well, I just want him to be who he will be,” or, “I just don’t want to box him in. I shouldn’t really even say ‘him;’ that’s too gender-identity-definitive,” and, “I’ll just let him discover. I love him, I do, but we’ve all got to figure out things on our own.” In this case, their precious darling will, if he’s every captured, be discovering the inside of a British high-security prison cell. If he’s not intercepted, he’s likely to figure out how unforgiving his once beloved brothers-in-arms can be when one of their converts reverts.

Each of these was a headline on one news site or another yesterday and each sadly completely represents some aspect of decay in our ability to rely on the protection by our government, by our shared moral fabric or by a simple, solid upbringing.

Today we had more senseless and incomprehensible sadness. The tower fire in London in a council housing estate building that was and had been in transgression of multiple safety code violations for at least four years. A safety net of public housing where any of us could end up had our lives taken just one different turn; had we walked through the other set of sliding doors. Someone is at fault. The contractors who charged ten-million to renovate it last year or the council for allowing the multitude of warnings and complaints to fall on deaf ears.

Then only this morning some nutjob opened fire on a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, VA. Sports and music are two of the very few things that still unite us as a country, as a world. Two of the few activities we can still enjoy without being reminded of the violence, infighting, greed, selfishness, shallowness, racism, sexism and every other ism that compound to somedays make our world seem unbearable and unsavable. The congressional game between two parties is not only a poignant demonstration of the fact that our work does not need to pervade our play – that vitriol and intransigence may dominate a normal day in Congress, but that all of that is forgotten on the field – but it is also a game played for charity, for children.

I do not know what is happening in our world, but worse yet is that I do not know where or how it ends. I do know that good people still exist; that there are, in fact, still more good than bad. I know that being able to see each of these events separately for what they are and collectively for what they represent is itself a sign of sanity and an indication that I am not yet totally numb to it all and dead inside. I know that I have my son, here under my roof. Not in a coma, not on trial for manslaughter, not trying to make his way back from Syria. Not gone forever. And I know that I continue to work at being his mother every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year of this 21 year old life so far because I do not want to be any of the above and because I know I cannot trust anyone person or institution to do what I should and can. I will continue to toil, nag, love, support and instill so that I may continue to say, “and there but for the grace of God go I.”

It’s the only thing I know to do.