Archive for Monday, April 9, 2012


Everyday Life: A permeable line

April 9, 2012


The past few weeks have been even more difficult to comprehend than usual.

First, an American soldier allegedly murdered 16 Afghans — 11 in one family, 9 of them children — shooting, stabbing and burning them.

Then, in the French city of Toulouse, Mohammed Merah murdered three French soldiers (all of North African origin) and, a few days later, four people (one adult and three children) at a Jewish school, grabbing an 8-year-old girl by the hair the better to shoot her in the head.

We don’t have to deal with Mohammed Merah — he himself was shot in the head by French police. But the accused American soldier, identified as Robert Bales, is still around, in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth awaiting trial.

His lawyers claim that he doesn’t remember the killings; his army buddies say that he told them he killed a few men. He is innocent until proven guilty, although if the Afghan courts had gotten jurisdiction, maybe not.

One wonders: What were these people thinking? What kind of mental state allows you to do such things?

One wonders, and then one wonders not so much. If it were not for the geo-political context of these crimes, and the number of victims, we might not have heard of them.

To pick just one statistic (from the U.S. Department of Justice): In 2005, more than 550 children under the age of 5 were murdered in the U.S.

As for who the killers are, almost invariably they are described in one or more of the following terms: friendly, helpful (Bales); quiet, polite, courteous (Merah) … In other words, pretty much ordinary people.

As for what is going on in their minds, I can’t help but think that it is simply more of what everyone thinks at least some of the time: Someone else is less human than I am; my grievances are deep; my cause is just; and my deeds are therefore righteous.

The word “twisted” is often used to describe people who do — there is no other word for it — evil.

“Twisted” is a word used as a way of distancing them from us: they are twisted, we are not. But this has it backwards.

Twistedness is neither unique nor permanent. It is available to all of us, and all of us eagerly seize it at various moments. The line between acts with horrible consequences and merely bad ones is permeable, and there is no sure way of predicting who will cross it.

Until we acknowledge this, we cannot effectively deal with people who have crossed that line.

So I offer something chanted in Soto Zen centers throughout the U.S.: All my ancient twisted karma from beginningless greed, hate and delusion, born through body, speech and mind, I now fully avow.

Why avow it? Because if we don’t avow it, if we don’t fully acknowledge that we too are twisted, then we will not be able to resist it, and we will not have the sanity to deal with those who did not resist.

— Judith Roitman can be reached at


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