Enough, it said. No more.
That was the subject line. When I opened the e-mail, I found myself gazing upon a severed head held aloft by an anonymous hand.
I had intended to spare myself such images. Viewing them felt too much like submitting to terrorist manipulation. But I should have known better. Technology being what it is, you don't have to seek stuff out. It finds you.
"Enough, no more!" The exclamation point is an attempt to add emphatic force, like a fist slamming into an open palm. Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
But who among us doesn't feel that way by now? From the most ardent opponent to the most hardened supporter of George Bush's war, who could not make that same cry? Bombings, assassinations and now this. Videotaped decapitations become -- you hate to trivialize it with this word, but no other fits -- a fad among Islamic terrorists seeking to impress us with their raw brutality, their abject ... otherness.
Against which, cries of outrage or even defiance take on a faded air and a sense of impotence.
Enough, no more? Yeah, right. Meaning what, exactly? Will a battle cry give the president pause? Will an exclamation point make the terrorists reconsider? And could either do so if they wanted? It seems unlikely.
By this point, these events move with a heedless momentum all their own, a runaway truck rolling downhill. And you sense that nobody, not the true believers in the White House, not the soldiers in the field, not the people in the sanctity of their homes, knows what to do. Or what comes next.
Meantime, that truck keeps plowing down the highway, smashing through roadblocks that once seemed inviolable.
"Americans do not attack nations that have not attacked us."
"American soldiers do not abuse prisoners."
"America would never consider using torture in its interrogations."
"You can choose not to see a decapitation murder."
I said it the day we invaded Iraq, I say it again today. The nation we used to be is gone, ended with the first bomb lobbed across the border. We are not as idealistic as we were, we are not as innocent, we are not as young.
And who knows when we'll find our way back to what we used to be? Or forward to whatever it is we will become? For now, we are simply stuck in this ugly passage where people die grotesquely, our values are under siege and nothing feels certain anymore.
"Are you shocked?"
That was the first line of the e-mail.
And you know something? I wasn't shocked. Looking at that gory picture, I was only sad, only filled with a fatigue older than oceans. I felt brutalized, profoundly soiled, as if someone had splattered mud on my very soul. And it occurs to me there's probably a lot of that going around. I mean, you have to be pretty brutalized yourself, pretty soiled, pretty alienated from your own humanity, to send a picture like this out to a stranger in hopes of publicizing your discontent about the war. And, by the way, the fact that you have a radio show.
"Enough, no more."
It works as a cry of defiance against the terrorists, works as a cry of opposition to the war. But the more I ponder it, the more I hear it as a cry, period.
"Enough, no more." Isn't that what you say when someone's been hitting you and you just want them to stop? When they keep hitting and you don't know how much more you can take?
That's certainly how I felt when I opened that e-mail. I felt as if evil had been hitting me for a very long time.
So enough, no more.
And Lord, have mercy on us all.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.