It was 2002, and the tragedies of September 11, 2001 were still fresh and raw in everyone’s hearts and minds. And I was reading, for the first time of many, Hannah Arendt’s classic study of the patterns of thought and behavior leading up to the Holocaust, The Origins of Totalitarianism. In particular, I had just finished reading a section on the ways medieval Christians had dealt with the high infant and child mortality rate of the time: by blaming the Jews. Stories of ritual child murder, sacrifice, and cold-hearted torture by Jews were rampant. Child disappearance and death, to many Christians, was too awful to contemplate, so when offered an easy explanation for it–an enemy, a place for their anger and grief–many accepted it.
I turned to my young husband, childless like me, and said, “Let’s make a promise. When we have children, we will never use them to perpetrate or excuse injustice.”
Real parenthood has a way of testing our ideals. Many of us are perfect parents before we have actual children. We swear we will not be the parents whose kids watch hours of TV, or make separate meals for each child because they don’t like what we’ve made, or send a kid to school with mismatched socks or unbrushed teeth. And sometimes parenthood tests even our highest ideals. What happens when we believe in diversity in education, but face the reality that our neighborhood school may be stressful and difficult for our kids for reasons outside of academics? What do we do when we believe that everyone gets to do what they want with their own bodies, but our chain-smoking aunt reaches for our medically fragile newborn? Or when exposure to a different culture also means exposure to values that might not match our own?
In 2006, when my son was born, I got to answer many of those questions for myself. I am a Quaker and a committed pacifist, and yet, before even leaving the hospital, I knew that if anyone ever came for my child, I would be willing to kill. When a person becomes a parent, their most important job becomes keeping their child alive, full stop. I have, thankfully, never been placed in that position, but at least at the level of ideals, my pacifism stops where direct threats to my children start.
People in power, especially those who face threats to that power, understand deeply the human instinct to protect children. For those of us who are parents, our single greatest fear is that our children will be harmed. This is not hypothetical–childhood illness, abuse, and murder happen on a regular basis. Parenthood can become our greatest vulnerability when it comes to exploitation by powerful people, because threats to our children are real and ever-present. When someone offers simple, clear-cut reasons for the awful things that happen, it can feel good, for a little while, to have a place to direct our anger and grief.
But while parenthood can become our Achilles’ heel, it doesn’t have to completely short-circuit our highest ideals or render us unable to use logic.…