In Italy, in the upper part of Tuscany, there is a small town named Sant’Anna di Stazzema where Nazi troops committed a massacre of revenge to punish a partisan victory against their regiment, during World War II. They killed the priest who was praying outside the church there, then all the women and children who were outside with him, and then they went on a rampage into the heart of the village, looking for everyone they could find, killing them all. When we were there about eight years ago, we met a man who was 96 years old and had been hiding under a piece of furniture and had gone unseen by the Germans. He had come to visit the cemetery to pay respects and was kind enough to speak to us. Today Rex Tillerson said there that America would punish those who hurt innocent people—anywhere.
There was a time that when a Secretary of State went somewhere, perhaps especially even to honor victims of Nazi war crimes-- that I would have felt proud. Now I do a double take and want to say, “Please, please, don’t speak, don’t offend the intelligence and hearts of anyone with compassion for people around globe who are ignored and who are innocent. Please don’t think we don’t know about the 20 million dying of famine and genocide in Africa, even though some of us may not be listening or reading about it.”
Then my thought goes to what about the people not “around the world”, but at home, here in America. What about the refugees who are innocent, the Mexicans and others who are kept out of the country and are innocent and hurting and scared? What about the human beings in our ghettoes that get stripped and searched and targeted at obscene frequencies? And another thing: what is meant by the word “innocent”?
I recently had the moving experience of reading the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson. He has waged an ongoing struggle, working actively to help those on death row and others in terrible situations, with legal assistance. In addition he has become a major spokesperson in the fight to abolish capital punishment.
I know it’s a stretch for many people to begin to consider a murderer as an innocent person, though if you read the book, you may see it differently. You may let Stevenson’s compassion and passion seep into your bones, and you may relate to his experience of “brokenness”, something that came to him from the fatigue and pain of working with people in such distress. It also came to him that he was broken in a host of ways, just as all of us are, from the experience of being human in one way or another.
The book speaks directly to mind and heart as we read about Stevenson as he recounts the stories of people we come to feel we know. As can happen often enough, when we hear the stories of almost anyone, the story gives meaning to the narratives of a life; the person we are reading about gets to feel like one of us, a fellow human being. I’ve been convinced for a while now, that we need to interview and interface with soldiers in the Middle East—American soldiers—who have committed atrocities of torture, as one example. There is a story in each of them that they need to share so they can be accepted and accept themselves, as human beings. They were sent over there and given terrible orders, and emotions like fear, terror, heartbreak, revenge, began to take effect till their hearts were hidden as their adrenaline took over.
What about the people who have been put into ghettoes and trapped in arenas of crime, arenas where at times people in control became drug lords and profited from their demise? What about people in jails without rehabilitation or parole, who are beaten and reviled in a system that is making so much money off the privatization of prisons?
Yesterday I wrote about exodus as moving away from detachment. One aspect is getting a more holistic sense of what innocence might mean. When someone becomes addicted to drugs or other substances, we have learned to see this as an illness, a set of compulsions—something that does not make a person a criminal or evil.
This moral high ground takes some work. For us to make it real, it requires real empathy. And that requires the capacity to want to know what people are feeling and really going through. It requires doing due diligence and getting familiar with a variety of people and conditions right here at home, and doing the work to change policies. It requires us to feel we have what to gain from becoming people and a people capable of compassion, and giving a damn.
Bluster is not the same as compassion. It feels more to me like sticking one’s pecks out and showing them proudly. Remember who we are, I hear Tillerson saying. We are Americans-- we are America, land of the free and home of the brave. We will not be buddy-buddy with Russia, cause we just remembered who are allies are. We will send messages not to mess with us, or Europe, with you either. You can rest at ease.
I don’t mean really to sound superior. I idealized this country and some of its Presidents for a long time and I too was impervious to many of the injustices we have at home, let alone abroad.
And, by the way, I have a question—about innocence. If you were once innocent, as in being a child, for example, and then someone abused or beat you or terrorized you or conscripted you into an army, are you innocent if then you become broken enough to commit crimes? And who is to be the judge?