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Saturday, November 07, 2009  

In Memoriam
Chicago Diarist

The town of Kiel, Wisconsin, must be utterly devastated this week. Amy Krueger, age 29, a sergeant and daughter of this little town, was killed at Fort Hood. My maternal grandfather, of blessed memory, was born in Kiel, and after I moved to Chicago it was on my route up north on highway 57 to visit my grandmother (also now departed). It's a pleasant town, stretched out along the Sheboygan River--the kind of place where flag bunting can be seen all year round and where well-kept little churches still greet the visitor touring the length of the main drag.

In a town that small--maybe 3,500 residents--a death like this touches most people in one way or another. Kiel and towns like it have long mourned their soldiers and even know about murder, despite what anyone might say about small-town life. But for a child of the town to go off to serve and then be murdered in such an ignoble, sordid fashion is an occasion for unfathomable anger and grief. Danger and heroism are supposed to be chanced in a war zone, not on base.

We are very far from knowing the whole story of this crime. Anyone who claims to know that this was more like the London bombings than like Virginia Tech is making stuff up, as far as I can tell. Fortunately, the alleged attacker survived his own perverse suicide attempt, and our legal system (either military or civilian) will have that rare chance to examine the mind and motives of a person who sought to end his own life by taking the lives of many others. I suspect I am not alone in being relieved when a mass shooting perpetrator dies in the act, but it's a false relief: the mind of the criminal remains a locked vault, immune to explanation, and not much considered until the next horror happens. Moreover, while we might feel the world to be safer when a mass murderer dies in the act, it can hardly be called justice. The perpetrator is never forced to confront the aftermath of his actions, never faced with the humanity of those he sought to kill, never sentenced to a legitimate penalty under law.

This afternoon I tagged along, in my clerical shirt, as my wife spoke at a press conference at our local mosque, flanked by the mosque's scholar and the local rabbi. Everyone was condemning the killing, promising prayer for the victims, and calling for peace and understanding. None of these religions condone murder, everyone agreed. True enough. I was heartened by the scholar's statement that he didn't expect threats or vandalism, which had happened in the past. My wife did a great job, and naturally I was proud of her willingness to do this.

All the same, I felt torn. Would it seem like rushing to the defense of a whole group while individual victims are still numb with shock? Not that fairness and decency are ever out of season, or that a word of patience and compassion from the church, mosque, or shul is ever inappropriate. It's also practically a civic duty, in a country as diverse as ours, to do what one can to tamp down potential ethnic and religious conflict. But my mind wanders back to Kiel. How could I make them know that I share their grief in my own small way? That we all understand that their daughter was robbed not just of her life but even of the death she had freely chosen, on our behalf, to risk?

National tragedies do not make us virtuous. They become opportunities for public figures to burnish their morals by weeping the hardest for the dead, bellowing loudest for the blood of the perpetrator, and pledging monumental acts of commemoration. We willingly hand over our truly humane emotions--which are, after all, painful--in exchange for something less awkward and more satisfying: a voice in a wounded, aggrieved chorus; a second-hand sheen of righteousness. What I would hope we experience some day, as Americans, is empathy.

A few weeks back, Jane Mayer published an excellent and widely ignored report on the use of drone attacks in Pakistan. These are not the military drone attacks in Afghanistan (where military action is authorized by law), but the CIA drone program across the border, which is used to assassinate Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders in an area where we are not legally at war. Now an assassination is merely lawless, not necessarily immoral. However, the drones and their aptly-named Hellfire missiles do not discriminate between the target of the attack and the son, wife, servant, or driver who happens to be nearby. In a legitimate war, civilian casualties must be minimized but also accepted. In an assassination attempt, civilian casualties are murder victims--someone's daughter, someone's son, someone's husband who went off to forage for scrap metal and never came back.

Someone's little town has its heart ripped out when one of our bombs hits a wedding banquet. Someone never outlives their grief and never overcomes their anger. Maybe these are the necessary costs of being the biggest power in a brutal world. But if so, we should understand that no one will ever be philosophical about it, and neither should we. The world is full of beautiful small towns that are proud of their brave, lovely daughters. We grieve for the ones we know, but we should try too to grieve for the ones that we will never know.

Rest in peace, Amy Krueger, and all the victims. God bless and keep you, people of Kiel and all the towns and neighborhoods slashed with inconsolable grief.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 2:44 PM
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