Looking at faces

When you know someone — when you’ve look at her face, stared into her eyes — it’s harder to want to kill her.

It’s not that people don’t murder their partners or parents or former lovers, of course; although Oscar Wilde, with his “each man kills the one he loves,” was overstating his case. But it happens much more than never.

Still, apparently it is far easier to kill strangers than familiars, and apparently it is easier still to kill strangers who already have been classified as outsiders, as aliens, as subhumans.

That is the lesson of history. The Nazis could have taught a master class in how to turn people into nonhuman if animate objects, tattooing them with numbers, lining them up, shooting or gassing them, and then making detailed lists of their activities, as if their very human victims had been what? Soybean plants?

Slavery also dehumanizes people; the American version of dehumanizing — what often has been called this country’s original sin — was taking people from Africa, warehousing them in boats, assuming some fraction of them would die but seeing that as the cost of doing business, selling the ones who made it here alive, wrenching apart their families, devastating their lives, all the while never seeing them as anything but profit machines.

We know better than that.

Ironically, last week our cover story was about the stunning exhibit at the under-renovation Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education at Rockland Community College. The exhibit, “Faces,” is a staring-distance look at some of the college’s students, taken by even younger students at Rockland Country Day School. The point of the exhibit was to show off the humanity and diversity and joy of the people whose photographs hang there, with their wide ranges of age and skin color and hair color and eye color and hair style and clothing choice. The short biographies next to each person further emphasized the depth and breadth of experiences that each one brings to his or her life.

But this week, we are grappling with the fallout of the murders in New Zealand, so very far away from us in space and even in time, but so close to us in emotional impact. The murderer did not see any humanity in any face; in fact, he chose not to look at any faces. He just hated and shot and killed. (And livestreamed.)

Just like the murderer in Pittsburgh, the Australian who murdered 50 Muslims and wounded many more in Christchurch, New Zealand, thought of his victims as subhuman. Both murderers invaded what should have been a safe space, a place where people go to drop their guards and pray, to be vulnerable and armor-free, and turned those spaces into abattoirs.

It is sick and it is evil.

We are heartened, however, by the reaction to the murders.

Jews and Christians and everyone else, religious and secular and agnostic and label-free, reached out to the Muslim community, just as they had reached out to the Jewish community in October, when Pittsburgh happened. They actually looked at each other. Really looked.

We will not pretend that there are no divisions between different groups. Each has some deeply held beliefs that the others misunderstand or even actively dislike. Because geopolitics forces members of some groups to feel enmity toward members of other groups, and because sometimes different groups’ needs genuinely clash, there often is real reason to distrust each other on a macro level.

But not when it’s micro; not when it’s so micro that there two people are, looking at each other in the face.

The murderer looked at people — including a toddler — and shot them.

In the meetings here, people looked at each other and greeted each other, offered each other water and comfortable seats and the gift of recognition. They looked and they saw each other.

History can move in either direction. It may not bend toward justice, except so slowly as to be entirely imperceptible on a human scale. But at least, this week in Bergen and Rockland and Hudson counties, it moved forward.

We can still have hope. And we do.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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