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Should we look away, or watch?

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Five of us huddled in an air-conditioned office staring at the computer monitor where a tiny Internet window showed the kneeling, blindfolded hostage Jack Hensley surrounded by masked executioners.

Hensley, kidnapped from his apartment in Baghdad in September by al-Zarqawi's al-Tawhid wal Jihad group, had left his wife and 13-year-old daughter, Sara, behind in Marietta, Ga., when he went to Iraq for the contractor Gulf Services Co.

At home he had been working three jobs, as a substitute teacher, a store clerk and a mailman. He went to Iraq because he needed the money.

With photos of Hensley in happier days, dramatic lighting and pounding background music, the video on the screen looked like a slick, evil version of an MTV clip. Hensley spoke for a moment, identifying himself as a civil engineer. Then as the music swelled, one of the murderers hit from behind, raising his knife in a series of blows. Head separated from body.

Two of us had said they didn't want to watch the video, but we all stood stunned in front of the monitor. We weren't alone. Thousands of other viewers logged onto the Internet, and millions watching television over the past weeks saw Hensley's British co-worker Kenneth Bigley weep and plead for his life as he knelt in front of his captors.

These are repulsive and haunting scenes showing hatred and violence at terrifying intensity. Yet we watch. Should we look away? Will the truth set us free, or should we protect ourselves from the reality of what's happening in Iraq?

God knows Jack Hensley's daughter will be dealing with this dreadful event for the rest of her life. What should we tell our children about the war?

People have always gathered around horror. Executions, hangings and beheadings by the guillotine were huge events held in a public square. Whole families turned out to watch the pleading of the victim, the final moments and the dreadful end. Even car accidents cause rubbernecking delays.

Now, in a culture insulated from death -- many of us have never seen a corpse -- death becomes fascinating. The Internet is our public square. Google is our gossip. Blogging has replaced the murmuring of the crowd.

When I was a police reporter 30 years ago, I sometimes got to an accident before the ambulance arrived. "You don't want to go over there," a cop would warn as I jogged forward with my reporter's pad at the ready. He was right, and he was wrong. For a moment I always wished I had stayed away. The crumpled cars and bodies were a kind of horror that photographs didn't capture.

In one accident, two children had survived in the back seat while their parents were killed. I didn't need to see all that to write the story. But the knowledge of what could happen permanently changed my driving. I became careful.

As a writer, I try to describe reality. I believe that the truth heals. Gathering information always gives me the illusion of control. Knowledge calms me. Even when I can have no effect on events, I want to understand them.

If this sounds a little high-minded, it breaks down completely where my children are concerned. I made sure that my 14-year-old son did not see Hensley's murder or Bigley's public pleading. The truth shall set you free, but not if you're a child of mine and I can protect you. When I was trying to find the Hensley clip online, I did not ask my son for help as I usually do with computer problems.

My daughter lives in another city now, but I have let her know that I'm disturbed by her plans to spend a summer in the Middle East -- although I would go in a heartbeat. I know that my children have a right to know the truth and make sense of it their own ways. I know that in my head, but my mother's heart says otherwise.

It was the suffering of Hensley's teenage daughter that broke me up. War is hell. When it shatters the lives of children, as this war has done in Iraq and Marietta, Ga., that's when the hell comes home.

Susan Cheever is a columnist at Newsday and the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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