Every night at Jonah House, we watch the evening news, local and national. This is a practice I have neither participated in nor witnessed since it was my parents sitting in the “family room” and watching stories of war and of weather and of ducks crossing the street, the news anchors sliding from one expression to another to fit the scene superimposed behind them. I would skulk in and out ruefully wishing we could change the channel to Family Matters or Perfect Strangers or put in a movie, for crying out loud!
Now that I am an adult amongst adults (granted of a wide age spectrum) I find myself obligated to sit and watch and listen. I find myself surprised by how much I have come to appreciate this tradition; how I join Liz and Ardeth in occasional exclamations that affirm Carol’s commentary; how I am invited to learn and wonder about the world beyond my daily experience.
Ted and I have been here, watching the news two weeks as of tomorrow. Granted, much of the time, during repetitive pieces, I am sitting with my pink highlighter, reading Pregnancy Childbirth and the Newborn. Still, I am attentive enough that almost every one of those fourteen nights I have been moved to tears. I have a number of triggers that instigate the tears, but the most powerful and consistent is any story that involves children. Some stories pass with the night, and I cannot recall them even now as I sit and try to conjure them. Others take hold and follow me into the next day, and the next, and the next.
Recently I was moved with gratitude and wonder by what could have been another heart-wrenching tragedy. I would have missed it had I not been watching the news, because after the first few days, I never heard the name of Antoinette Tuff again except amongst our little circle here. She is the school clerk who managed to disarm what could have been the next devastating school shooting. Antoinette did not use a single weapon or threat, only the nonviolent power of compassionate presence. She talked to the mentally ill teenager, talked through her own terror and his, shared her own despair (“I tried to kill myself after my husband left me”) and opened the space for him to speak his through his mouth instead of the AK-47 and explosives he carried. She convinced him to lay down so when the police came in, they wouldn’t come in shooting. She never called him a monster or a brute or a “bad guy.” “I love you,” she said, as he laid down his weapons and his body, “and I’m proud of you for giving yourself up like this.”
My heart swelled with her courage and the hope her action brought, the vision of what is possible. But anxiety and frustration followed shortly after as the news story quickly shifted to a movement for heightened armed security in schools in response to the recent surges of violence against children. I believe that if the boy Antoinette addressed had been met instead by a nervous guard with gun drawn, there would not have been a happy ending to this story but more loss and lawsuits, tragedy stacked on tragedy.
There is another story that, however much I wish it would fade like a one-time anomaly, returns to us each and every evening; the civil war in Syria. Always, with stories of war I feel a sense of angst, anguish and helplessness. But as we are besieged each night with images of children without wounds writhing and gasping in the throes of death, of men and women crying as they cradle their beautiful babies… I don’t have words anymore to say how it feels to watch this from our safe lovely space. How does one respond to such things?
Last night John Kerry responded in a press conference. He talked about the grief of watching through a father’s eyes as fathers weep over their lost children. And how I resonate with his words, feeling both guilt and relief as my own unborn baby demonstrates her life, dancing in the womb! He talked about the impossibility of ignoring such things and I knew that our daily prayers for the people, and my quietly heavy heart were evidence that this is indeed true. He said, “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons.” Indeed, how we cry for world leaders to be held accountable for their actions! Yet, here I knew that Mr. Kerry’s sentiments were far from mine. I knew because we had just learned that six U.S. officials had just been surreptitiously exonerated for war crimes in an under-reported court case (see CommonDreams). I knew because his message was materializing as a rally to arms made from an imagined moral high ground.
But what came to my mind with his words never came out of his mouth. What came to my mind is the question, “how many millions of children have died from U.S. weapons?” Is a drone strike, or a midnight raid any less heinous a way for innocents to be killed? Will the civilian lives lost by U.S. airstrikes be less devastating to their families because the weapons were not invisible chemicals but blasting explosives? Can more killing curb the interior violence and unrest that has surged throughout the country, or will it only expand it? Has anyone tried to bring healing? Has anyone offered compassionate presence?
Perhaps they have and failed. Or perhaps it was a small success that no one heard about. Such things often go unnoticed, or are not remembered long. There is seldom a ceremonious honoring of those whose courage does not bring death but life. Last night, we saw President Obama honor a war hero for exemplary courage in the face of battle. He was indeed courageous, motivated by love for his companions who he strove to save in the midst of enemy fire. His willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends was indeed worth honoring. Yet, it did not keep the enemy from firing or the friend from dying and in a way it seemed as much or more a token for us viewers of the news. It is an attempt to assuage discontent of a public who are daily witnessing endless, ineffective war.
I wonder, where is the Medal of Honor for Antoinette Tuff? Where is the honor for someone whose strength is in their vulnerability and openness and willingness to stand face to face with “the enemy” and to say, “I love you”? Is it too late for such acts to have any effects on a place so ravaged as Syria? I don’t have an answer to that question, or really to any of those posed except to hope that, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I can say as MLK Jr. once did, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would plant my apple tree.” (A quote Ted had pulled off his tea bag and passed to me as we watched the news last night).