After the 2008 election, I remember intentionally unplugging myself from that steady stream of news media, practically a staple of a believable, grown-up person’s diet. Overwhelmed and exhausted by the nonstop coverage I indulged in from twenty-four-hour looped network programs to the scrolling tickers on my homepages. I’d switched from NPR to talk radio and back again, filling in information gaps when advertisements aired.
News wended its way into my dreams, current events into classroom conversations, and the organic internet coached me link by link to get more involved and enmeshed. Headlines with photos kept me rubbernecking, every site equipped with a blogroll serving as a “You might like this” auto-feeder.
A mother of one and just beginning my dissertation, I realized something had to give. As a responsible, educated, voting adult, I needed to be engaged. I needed to pay attention with wide-enough eyes to engage with real people. But the daily consumption of what seemed truly to be “other people’s problems” was wearing me thin. The news only aggravated my already present anxiety, so I justified dismissing it as I did so many other, more personal things at the time: It’s not my business. Why do I keep thinking it’s my business?
So I pushed away from the table. I was just full. We cancelled cable around that time, I changed the homepages on my work and home browsers from news sites to the online college classrooms where I met my students. I researched as needed based on my students’ projects, read articles passed my way, and clicked the occasional shared Facebook link when a dear friend seemed especially up in arms.
I had friends deeply invested in social work, others overseas doing seasonal missions work, and one working with orphans in a school in India. In-di-a. She and the perpetual guilt of central air conditioning are the two reasons it is borderline impossible for me to say no when a charity asks me for money. I’m always thinking, Jana is probably hot in India right now. Get out your wallet. It’s the least you can do.
But I’m afraid the comfortable, air-conditioned, “not my circus, not my monkeys,” least we can do is killing us—or at least not preventing the death of others.
Did you know that children are being beheaded in Iraq right now? Their mothers are being raped and murdered in some cases and in other cases, forced to marry their captors then convert or be killed. Some are being killed anyway. The men are being hanged.
The homes of Christians are being marked to help along the extermination of an entire population. Families are forced to flee into the desert, where they will wait to thirst and starve to the point of death.
The images I would normally look away from, I’m letting sear into my mind. Last night I saw the headless body of a little girl not more than four years old in a blue dress. The pattern reminded me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. In one image she was lying on the ground. In another, a man had held her up beneath her arms, the same way an out-of-town uncle might position a niece to get a look at how much she’s grown.
For the first time in a long time, I scrolled past warnings of graphic images and made myself see what was happening because they would be happening whether or not I am aware. I grieved over every loss in every frame. I could have been their mother.
The horrifying images reminded me of Emmett Till, the African-American fourteen-year-old boy who was tortured and killed after apparently flirting with a white woman. His mother Mamie said she decided to leave open the casket so that the world “could see what they have done to my boy.”
That story has always struck me as one of incredible bravery on the mother’s part: to endure the scene, to experience the horror and emotions, for that greater call of exposing the evils of the world and having hope that, even though they cannot be undone, they can be stopped.
If the tables were turned, if it were me, I wouldn’t want you to keep your hands in front of your face. I wouldn’t want the channel changed. I would want you to see what they’d done to my son and to my daughters.
As I look at the images, I know I will not understand the evil that causes them, and I know that my hands cannot save a single one of these families who are, in every way that matters, an extension of my own.
I know instead that while my hands prepare sandwiches for my own three children, whose names are nearly indistinguishable from those I see on news tickers, helpless mothers will watch their children starve. As I write my children’s names on lunchbox labels, other mothers will draw letters in the sand on shallow graves.
But I know I still must look. I still must grieve. I still must pray. I still must hope that something, somewhere, someday can be done. I must remember that however little hope there seems to be, that there will always be even less if people like me choose to look down instead of up.
As overstimulated, desensitized people, we could not be of less use or greater danger to the world.
We feel weary from the noise of wars—even if those wars were fought afar with other children’s mothers and fathers and even if our arms held stories instead of bodies. We’ve unintentionally acquired a foreign vocabulary to describe groups we truly do not understand. We’ve become acclimated to their impact, used to their threat. When atrocities come across the screen, why do we sigh instead of yell? Maybe it is because the power to turn it off gives us the power to turn away.
Lodged somewhere between the static and the hum, we’ve begun hearing only ourselves. We’ve gathered our tribe and locked our doors. Our skin has grown too thick to feel, and some of us like me have built up callouses on purpose because it’s the only way we thought we could survive.
But I’m telling you not opening the mail doesn’t change the debt.
What is happening is happening.
The very least we can do is look.by