Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Real People. Really Bad News.

I remember the moment in my early television news reporting days when I paused to consider the truth.

These were the old days of journalism - the ones in which opinions were not allowed unless labeled editorial and the tenets of Who/What/When/Where/How were the basics for every story told. Truth was our business.  We told it without bias or personal reflection.

But the day I stood at the perimeter of a police line watching as a young dead man was lifted from the twisted wreckage of his pickup truck, I experienced something small that altered forever my interaction with the news world.

It was a routine, bloody, if-you-run-it-they-will-watch story. I had gathered the required information - Who was this man/What had happened to cause the mess/When did it happen/ Where was he going/How did he die?  My photographer was filming every grisly, observable detail to air alongside my riveting copy.

But I had to linger a bit too long at the scene, which allowed some real truth to gnaw at the reporter's callous indifference around my heart.  Suddenly, this was not just traffic fatality #87 or drunk driver #200 or news story #896.  This was a guy who had gotten into his truck with every intention of arriving at his destination.  He had done that less than an hour before I stood gawking at his bloodied corpse with a note pad in my hand and a pencil behind my ear.

In other words, he had had a day much like mine.  Except it ended like I prayed mine wouldn't.

I have been an intense, behind-the-obvious observer of people in the news ever since that day. I find I am particularly drawn to the stories of the "bad guys."  I never hear about a suicide bomber at a wedding or a 16-year old pirate on the open sea or a mass shooter on a rampage that I don't stop to wonder the same few things: Who loves this person/What was he doing yesterday/When did violence become embraceable/Where did he go for coffee/How did so much go wrong?

Which brings me to the cover of The Rolling Stone.

The excited uproar and banned sales and general ranting over this cover stem not from the story on accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar "Jahar" Tsarnaev - but from the photo, which opponents say projects too sweet and sexy an image for a terrorist.  How could the magazine present such a likeable looking guy to its impressionable young demographic?  Some have even said the cover gives Tsarnaev a Bob Dylan-like celebrity.  Sigh.

So suspected/convicted terrorists - people who instill fear through acts of violence against generally non-combatant innocents - are not allowed to be portrayed as real people?

I find that startling and sad and, frankly, offensive.  I can't believe an enlightened, free people do not want to understand, at the most basic human levels, what turns an otherwise "sweet and sexy" looking young man into an accused street bomber. How and when does the friend become the enemy?   I can't see how we are ever, ever, ever going to evolve in the direction of peace, love and understanding if we refuse to drop the labels we slap onto people and see them - even for as brief a moment as it takes to look at the cover of The Rolling Stone -  as real, live, breathing, loving, coffee-drinking, friend-having people.

I have read the well-researched and carefully-written piece on Dzhokhar, which The Rolling Stone has made accessible to anyone on the internet.  As I read, my mind was full of images of troubled teenagers who have made their way through my own front door over the years. I know at least a half dozen potential versions of this boy.

That is not an excuse for anyone.  It is just the truth.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a real person.  He may have become a real terrorist, too.  But until we are willing to look at the ground between us and them as knowable and walkable - at least imaginable - this world will never be anything but big and hard and generous on the side of hate and fear.


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