You’ve seen the trending hashtags: #NotMeUs; #StrongerTogether; #WeAreOne. They’re all useful shorthand for complex ideas. On a “normal” day of “normal” news, the concept of Unity strikes most of us as reasonable, a thoroughly un-controversial acclamation of cooperation and fellowship. Great. Sure.
What happens, though, when someone drives a truck into dozens of families?
What happens when terrorists terrorize, when violators violate, when haters hate? What happens when someone behaves as though he’s inhuman?
All those hashtags feel impotent and vaguely ridiculous. #WeAreOne? Really?
Yes. We are. Really.
Just as the First Amendment is most devoutly honored when society permits and accepts hideously vile forms of speech, the concept of global unity – of universal harmony – is most devoutly honored when we refuse to label despicable malefactors as Them, as the dreaded Other. The temptation is to think of murderers as substantially different from the average human being, that reprehensible killers are zombie mutants, a debased sub-species of human that’s not really human at all.
But it’s not true. We know that the men who commit mass shootings and suicide bombings are bad, that they’ve committed Evil. We would probably say that about someone who killed fewer people, too. We would probably say that about someone who killed one person. Some might even say that about someone who kills only herself. And although it’s difficult to identify exactly where, at some point in our deductive reasoning we recognize that takers of human life can sometimes be rehabilitated and forgiven. We do it every day with our soldiers and police; we might even congratulate them for their bravery, as we do ourselves every time we execute someone to show that killing is wrong. Somehow we understand that being a killer doesn’t make you inhuman at all. It makes you a deeply flawed human being (or a hero, depending on your ideology).
Imperfect. Just like us. Like me. And maybe you.
In the world’s darkest moments, when peace and unification seem impossible and hopelessly naïve, is when we must open our hearts widest, recognizing that at one time or another we’ve all had hateful, destructive thoughts. Maybe we’ve harbored violent fantasies of retribution and revenge. Some of us may have even lived out our fantasy during the televised “shock and awe” phase of the Iraq War. Or “Game of Thrones.”
Most of us, though, choose kindness over cruelty. We understand that healthy people don’t behave violently, even if they have violent thoughts. We know – we don’t have to be told on Twitter, we know – that the only answer to hate is overwhelming love and compassion. For everyone, not merely for those who look like us or speak the same language or worship at the same temple or were born in the same general place or under the same zodiac sign. Love everyone. This is the fundamental principle of all the world’s religions, of progressive politics, of every social movement in search of peace and justice. To take care of each other, to truly be our brother’s keeper, we must first be brothers. To care for the least among us, to truly heed the words of Jesus and Buddha, we must consciously, willfully choose love and compassion, even when confronted with seemingly obvious examples of the Other – mass murderers, Bashir Assad, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton. Or whomever you find impossible to love.
They’re awful, reprehensible, disgusting – whatever adjective describes your outlook. But they’re not the Other. They’re us on our very worst days, only more so. How much only you can say.
In the face of what currently feels like overwhelming global anger and malice, shining the bright light of love is more crucial than ever. Be courageous. The world needs you. You need you. And, yes, we need each other. All of us: the horrible and the hideous, the gorgeous and adorable, the pathetic and the piteous, the mighty and the righteous. We’re all in this inscrutable mystery together.