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. When it comes to threats to our children, here is a truth that is hard to swallow: human beings can be awful. Across every race, ethnic group, gender, economic status, geographic location, and age, there are some people who commit atrocities. We love to talk about our commonalities in glowing terms. Isn’t it great that people in all groups the world over love music and enjoy a harvest meal? Sure. But it is also true that people murder and maim the world over, too. People in our own groups do these things, and people in other groups do, too. Are there elements of some cultures that encourage or make it easier for the harming of others? Yes. For starters, sexism encourages violence against women. However, just being part of a group does not make someone a de facto murderer. We know this because murder is, like the love of music, something that crosses all boundaries of identity.
We must be on guard for all attempts to exploit the love we have for our children to suit someone else’s agenda. Most of the people who cross borders without documentation or permission do so for the love of their own children, or for the love of their own precious lives. Are some immigrants murders? Yes. Are some established citizens murders? Yes! Unless we choose never tor to allow our children outside of our homes or to interact with other people, they will be at risk on some level. This is hard to face, but it is part of being human in the world.
Hannah Arendt shows us very clearly where parental fear can lead us if we don’t resist the temptation to direct our grief at entire groups of people. We can choose, as parents and as communities of people who love and protect children, not to walk down the path that leads to wider-scale, systematic violence that props up powerful people. We can choose to do the hard work of sitting with grieving people, not offering explanations or platitudes, but simply and powerfully be present in the face of tragedy. We can’t sidestep the process of grieving as a community when losses happen. We can do this–for the love of our children.
JLP, CWJ Ally