Donna Britt: Be on guard: we could all become monsters

'The broad-brush painting of any group as less than human inevitably ends in disaster'

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"There aren't any monsters." These were my words last week to my frightened five-year-old son after he awakened at 3am and cried that the king-size comforter, piled in a heap on the bed across from his, "was moving". Smiling inwardly, I laid my cheek against his. Glancing at the quilted "villain", I studied its mountain of misshapen curves. And saw a monster.

"There aren't any monsters." These were my words last week to my frightened five-year-old son after he awakened at 3am and cried that the king-size comforter, piled in a heap on the bed across from his, "was moving". Smiling inwardly, I laid my cheek against his. Glancing at the quilted "villain", I studied its mountain of misshapen curves. And saw a monster.

Days later, recalling my son's suddenly appropriate fear, I wondered: What was I afraid of before the eternity ago that was Tuesday? Aging? Illness? Deer ticks? Remember the luxury of dreading death by shark? The convenience of fearing that which surely wouldn't happen? Like hearing about luckless golfers being struck by lightning. Something genuine inside us quakes. Yet, minutes later, our fear has shrunk to mere concern.

Now, in the aftermath of Tuesday's horrors, all of America is quaking. And everyone believes in monsters. I keep imagining quiet men with foreign accents, sitting alongside American classmates as they learn the secrets of flying. I imagine them practising and chatting with fellow students, and bringing their families to Florida – touring Disney World and eating at McDonald's. Men pledged to blowing the whole thing to bits. Monsters.

At the heart of every tragedy is a mystery. Why do some people live and others die? Are devils born or made? Why do some human souls bear deprivation and brutality and emerge more loving, while others slip into monster's garments? Another mystery: What creature guides a plane containing children and old people and bright, productive lives into a bustling building?

Despite the outrage that – I'm ashamed to admit – made me suspicious for a split second on Wednesday to see several Middle Eastern-looking students laughing at an unknown joke, I remember what I told my son: There are no monsters. But it's impossible to frame the actions of Tuesday's terrorists and their co-conspirators and supporters as anything but monstrous. After the tragedy, my anger and bewilderment gave way to pleasure at the sight of wind-whipped flags outside homes, and kids jumping off their bikes to tape copies of Old Glory to fences.

Such unity was forged by watching, over and over, the unyielding metal shells of a jetliner and a skyscraper blend with buttercream smoothness. By the hot, shared tears that poured from us, for all the dead and injured and all who grieve for them.

But yesterday as I cried, I found myself mourning for others as well: the innocents who will surely suffer along with the perpetrators who must be found and punished; for entire populations – men, women and children – whom we would judge as terrorists but who would never support such actions. Their losses, already, have been enormous. Like many Americans, I had shed no tears for them.

The broad-brush painting of any group as less than human – as somehow less than us – inevitably ends in disaster: with rocks being hurled at Arab American children and into Muslim centres, and with "acceptable collateral damage". Historically, it has ended with normal individuals – "good Germans", Tutsis and Hutus, Serbian Christians and Bosnian Muslims – behaving monstrously.

Most Americans, thank God, realise this. Human life as we know it is a festival of fear – of simmering anxieties and muted dreads whose worst effect is to separate us, if only through our distraction, from all the families and friends and strangers to whom we are inextricably linked.

Now that we have finally found an enemy worth wrapping our terror around, I've remembered something nearly as scary: Those who would label others as monsters risk becoming monsters themselves.

The writer is a columnist for 'The Washington Post'

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