December 17, 2014

Beslan: Pieta for the 41st Photograph

Note: This essay was written September 4, 2004 -- In another life. In another place. In another time. But then, given Pakistan today, not really another place or another time after all.


handwithcrucifixbeslan.jpgThe boy that lies in his father's lap covered with crusts of blood gazing upward at nothing, nothing at all except his own pain.

The soldier with the unlit cigarette carrying the little girl in filthy underwear with a long smear of blood across her nose and down her chin.

The child's small hand with the dry pool of blood in the palm and the small gold crucifix lying in it.

The stretcher being run past the camera carrying what might, under the burns and the blood, be a young girl.... and another, and another, and another, and another, and another....

I began to gather these images yesterday, I think. Or was it the day before? I'm not really sure. The cascade of outrages, the piling of atrocity on top of atrocity, has become so unremitting that it is sometimes difficult to know where one episode of evil ends and another begins.

The waves keep coming and, because they are always to your back, they keep slamming you down into the hardpacked sand. You pick yourself up and spin around to face the next wave, but this sea of evil is cunning and the next wave will always come from behind your back no matter which direction you face. All you can know now is that there will be another one, and it will come at your back in the way the bullets came for the backs of the children in Russia.

Because I am both too old and too distant to either pick up a weapon to defend, or offer help and comfort to the wounded or the dying, I am forced back on silly, futile, small gestures such as gathering images of the atrocities. In this I disgust myself and, like those who did not stand with Henry V, hold my manhood cheap.

I thought that, perhaps, I could gather enough of them and arrange a kind of gallery as a testament, my own small memorial, to the children who were shot in the back or otherwise slaughtered by the diseased "militants" who thought nothing of these lives taken for their vile cause and their vile god. Somehow I would, I imagined, at least bear my own small witness among the millions of others doing the same around the world tonight.

And so I collected the images. I selected ones that showed the fascist smirk that always rises dark above any slaughter of innocents. I selected ones that revealed the courage of those who would try to rescue them. I found and saved some that revealed the chaos and sharp edge of the moment when all that a child may have in front of him is ripped out of him. I saved 10 images, saved 20, saved 40 and then came to the 41st photograph and stopped.

I stopped because in that one image, grainy, indistinct and from the far side of the world in a situation I could not imagine, I saw the one thing I was not expecting to see at all.

No, that's not it. It was not what I saw but what I recognized.

What I recognized was something that I could not see in the picture, but a recognition that came to me through the picture. I knew it immediately and at such a deep level that my first reaction was to look away, to go on to the next picture no matter what it was, to determine to never look at the 41st picture again.

But of course I did. I did because I had no choice. I had no choice because within this one picture I could see two separate episodes of my own life somehow together in one image that depicted an outcome that terrified me to the core of my being.

This is the picture I could not look at. This is the picture I must look at. I will try to explain -- not really to you, but to myself -- why it terrifies me more than all the other pictures.

She kneels among the dead children. She has long black hair pulled back and dresses in a loose black dress as she kneels at the head of her dead boy. She reaches out to touch, or perhaps arrange the hair, of her dead child. Her dark hair is parted in the middle and her arm seems to also be downed with dark hair. Her eyebrows too are dark and her skin olive. If I were to see this woman in another context, in a different and less death dominated photograph, at this focus and at this distance, I would think, for at least a long moment, that I was looking at my first wife.

She had this build, this coloring, the predilection for black clothing, and even an echo of the features of this woman since her ancestors came to America from the Balkans. She too would pull her hair back so. And she had, as I recall, the same ability to make a gesture that was at once strong and yet gentle when reaching out to touch our daughter when she was as young as the small dead boy that this woman caresses.

The life I had with my first wife was all long ago, and now I live far away in time, space and spirit from that woman as well as from that daughter. Now my life's setting is a small town, an ocean to the west, and a woman as different from my first wife as the sun is from the moon. And someone else as well.

In this life there is, to my continuing delight, a child. He's bright and funny and breathtakingly striking ten-year old boy so topped off with life and joy that he can stop your heart. At the present time, my step-son is fond of Nintendo, not at all fond of girls, keen for a swordfight about every ten minutes of his waking life, and both depressed and elated at the advent of the 5th grade at the opening of his school next week. If I could show you a picture of him you'd agree that he's a very promising young man.

And I can show you a picture of him.

He's up there, just above, my first wife's hand is touching him. Look carefully. You'll see him and her both. Together in one instant, in one impossible image.

If you are a parent, you know as all parents know, the single darkest and most secret fear of all. You know what I mean. Yes, that one. The one we never mention. The fear that it is forbidden to speak of. The one we don't speak of ... ever. The one that we push out of our thoughts before it even finishes forming. It is the fear you see there in that photograph. The photograph that shows you looking down at your murdered child.

That's what I saw in the photograph. I saw a wife and a son -- not mine, I knew, but mine just the same -- frozen forever in an instant that I prayed would never come to me, that would remain just what it was, a photograph of a woman and a child I recognized but did not know.

At some point in the last few days, I put my arms around my wife as we both looked out the kitchen window. From our small window you can see across the green and brindle hills down to the ocean where the slow Pacific swells roll onto Main Beach where a volleyball game is always on the schedule and the seagulls and surfers share the waves.

"Every single day," I said, " I thank God above that we are all here, in this good place, close to each other and still kept safe from things like those going on in Russia."

Next week my stepson will walk up the hill and take the bus to his first day of school. Seats will be assigned. He'll be given books and lists of supplies he must have. Nothing unusual will happen. In the afternoon, he will come home. My wife and I will have dinner with him, he'll do his homework and go to bed. It will be like that day after day. An ordinary life in an ordinary town in an ordinary time.

And the years will flow by and he'll go from strength to strength, from one bright moment to the next. His mother and I will watch him move ever upward into life as he gradually grows away from us and into his own life. This is how it was meant to be and how it will be. He will never be found in a photograph like the one I saw today. There's no place for him in the 41st photograph, the one I couldn't look at but saw just the same.

I am willing to do anything, anything at all, no matter what it may be, to keep him out of that photograph. That's my answer to what I saw. My question is, "Are you?"

Posted by Vanderleun at December 17, 2014 2:01 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

I've been crying a lot the last two weeks. I'm crying now.

I cry for my mother. She passed away last week at the age of 75. She was laid to rest on 8/26. We all miss her so much, especially Dad. (I know anyone who reads this will want to express their condolences, but it is not necessary.)

I cry because the road ahead for our nation and our allies is filled with danger here and abroad for all of us.

I cry for those killed and injured defending us and for those yet to come.

I cry because our nation stands up for what is right and good and true. This is such a good place with good people.

I cry because there are those in this country that don't see that this is a good and decent place.

I cry because I'm so proud and thankful that George W. Bush is our President and likely will be for another four years. We are truly blessed to have this strong and decent man as President.

I cry for these people in Russia. No explanation is needed.

Forgive me for being so emotional, but I just had to get this all out. The personal, national, and international events of the last several days have really gotten to me.

Posted by: RandMan at September 4, 2004 5:29 AM

This morning I got up, I did my usual thing,
I made coffee and went to my door to get my

The words across the top were. "The Slaughter of
Children" No hiding anything in our press, the
truth is there in the words.

There is a picture seen on the top fold of the
paper of a man carrying a child.

I saw the picture like that, but when I sat
down to read the front page, I saw the bottom
of the picture which showed the blood all over
the child.

I just lost it, I can not describe how I felt,
I could not eat or drink my coffee. I just sat
there crying for the children who will not
go unscared from this even if they survive.

The sheer wanton killing of children is the last
straw, we all know now what the terrorists are,
people who no longer have even a feelilng of caring for what they do, they can shoot at running children and explain that, HOW?

What will wake people up to the fact there are
enemies in the world that would not think twice
about killing children, wounding children and
scaring them for life with the feelings of fear,
pain, and will never have a sense of security

Wake up, they are out there, and the longer we
choose not to see them, the more we are likely
to lose the battle with them. The liberals can
say it is not important and live with that,
well, stuff them. They are cowards who would
put the safety of America in second place because
they think debating with people like the above
will solve the problem. Sure, Kerry could fly
over to where? Where can a person go to "talk"
with terrorists like these? If the likes of
Kerry win, we are in very serious trouble, even
if he did four months in Vietnam. Right?

Posted by: Carole at September 4, 2004 10:51 AM

Ya know, Gerard, I'd been trying to dodge this particular emotional bullet. What, between other life stresses and the impending 9/11 annual wound-reopening, I just didn't want to add to the burden.

It's been floating around the perfery of the wall of shock. I don't know if I wanted to breach that barrier, or wanted to remain cocooned, in my heart of hearts.

Well, it seems that I've finally gotten nicked by some the emotional shrapnel from this whole thing.

I guess the pain is neccessary, in some sense. In much the same way that development of muscle is often accompanied by discomfort. For the pain must come before it can lead to an anger that will fuel a long term resolve.

I guess it's needed. But I sure wish it weren't.

Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at September 4, 2004 1:25 PM

Bad news folks. This event did not really happen.

What happened was that a very large storm named Frances slowly went into Florida.

That is what happened. That is all that happened.

350 deaths are just not enough to wake us up.... not when there's a REALLY cool storm, and all those brave reporters on the beach, and stuff.

Sorry. Didn't happen. I know. I'm (not) watching it.

Posted by: Andrew X at September 4, 2004 8:04 PM

This tragedy is beyond anything the cruel terrorists have done. I do hope that people in the USA wake up and stop slandering our leaders
who are trying so hard to protect our nation from such barbarity. Perhaps seeing the Russian families and a community which could easily be American will help them realize that this is not just a problem in the middle east.

Posted by: Pat in NC at September 5, 2004 5:28 AM

Beautifully done. Thank you.

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at September 5, 2004 7:42 AM

Please--where are the photos? I've done a google search, but can't seem to find them. Anyone know?

Posted by: betsybounds at September 5, 2004 7:53 AM

If you're feeling helpless after reading this, you can donate to help the children who survived. On the Russian Embassy website, there is a link to a fund which is a legally constituted 501(c)(3)) organization in the US. Originally established to help the victims of the Moscow theater disaster, it is now collecting funds to be distributed to the orphaned children, and those children who were injured as a result of the Beslan school massacre. Go here to help:

Posted by: Kerry Hardy at September 5, 2004 8:48 AM

I was looking through all the AP pictures of this tragedy a few days ago when I also came upon this picture. I started crying, I haven't cried in years, hell I don't even have kids. I guess for me, I was expecting to see examples of death, fear, sadness, etc. in the photos. I was never expecting to see love.

As the shock wore off and anger set in, I could see why these conficts can get so ugly like in the Balkans. If I had lived in that town, my first response would probably be to find me a sniper rifle and take a road trip down to Chechnya. But then all first thoughts on these matters are irrational.

Posted by: jason at September 5, 2004 9:44 AM

What a powerful post. I am in tears. I see my son. Keep this article and pass it on.

Posted by: Former Marine at September 5, 2004 10:29 AM

    "I am willing to do anything, anything at all, no matter what it may be, to keep him out of that photograph. That's my answer to what I saw. My question is, 'Are you?'"

    That's the question, all right.  And my answer is "Yes, indeed.  Whatever it takes, however long it takes, however many of them we have to kill."


Posted by: Stephen M. St. Onge at September 5, 2004 7:15 PM

Your writing on this subject is exquisite- beautiful, tragic, and honest. Thank you for giving voice to unspeakable fear.

Posted by: Sara Thomas at September 16, 2004 1:37 PM

Pieta...upon searching through the rhetoric of art, to inform a painting who's visage came to me in prayer, I came across this piece of writing titled "Pieta for the 41st Photograph". While the author finds disgust in his actions, we all must realize that he is wielding the greatest weapon of all. It is a heavy sword, raised with quivering lips, unrelenting tears of sadness, and collapsing knees. This sword is not swung and it does not stab. It is compassion. Its mere presense terrifies both the unlikely warrior and the enemy. The author holds his sword high, but stares at the ground in humility. Would you follow him into battle?
This is the pieta that will haunt my painting...and what I will paint is love. To the author, thank you.

Posted by: Scott K at October 15, 2004 12:08 PM

Homo homini lupus. -- Man is the wolf of man.

There but for the grace of God go we.

A beautiful piece of writing, and to your question, "I am willing to do anything, anything at all, no matter what it may be, to keep him out of that photograph. That's my answer to what I saw. My question is, "Are you?" our answer must be yes.

God grant us the wisdom to know what that "anything at all" is, and the courage to do it.

Posted by: Grumpy Old Man at October 17, 2004 8:45 PM

"God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!"

If you are religious: God gave us minds to understand and wield the fire at the hearts of stars. Time to use it?

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at July 19, 2006 4:33 AM

Thank you, Van.
As Captain (soon to be Major) B. says:
One team, one fight.
We all have a duty to fight evil, and you are doing your part.
Keep on fighting, Sir!

Posted by: Ben USN (Ret) at September 2, 2006 5:45 AM

This was Russia's tipping point. No quarter for these devils. As a strong, committed Christian, I find it appaling in my heart, that I have lost absolutely all compassion for these Islamists. If anything ever fit the perfect description of the great whore of Babylon, this is it. Evil this wicked , this perverted, is the religion of Satan, it can only be described in theological terms. The Glory of the Christian faith is mercy and forgiveness, I have never seen or heard or read anything, anything in the religion of Islam that leads to this, only death and insanity. I will do anything to defeat this evil so that my children do not have to face it, anything. Our tipping point is coming. Thank you for your lucid writing and great insight, it is helpful to many, many people.

Posted by: tim bell at September 2, 2006 8:34 PM

I wish it WAS Russia's tipping point, Tim. But oil money talks, which is one reason why Putin and Co. continue to sell arms to Iran. The Russian leadership WANTS high oil prices. And they will dance with the devil to get them.

Posted by: RKV at September 5, 2006 3:55 PM

I understand completely your response to that photograph. A very brave and beautiful rendering of your pain.

I know a man, highly educated and sucking off the government teat for his green start-up company.

He would do nothing to prevent slaughter - even in his own family. A pacifist who will never condone war. I loathe his cowardice.

I would die for my child, but not before I'd emptied a few clips.

For the innocents who are targeted throughout the world - I support and give thanks for the might of the American military.

Posted by: Cathy at September 1, 2009 11:34 AM

Remembrance of things present.

Thanks for keeping it alive, Gerard.

Posted by: Lance de Boyle at September 1, 2009 11:36 AM

9/11 was one thing, I thought. Thought that was it for me, watching the whole world change before my eyes.
And then there was Nick Berg. To top 9/11 because we went back to work. Someone's son; to realize he had a father. Like I have a son. And then he was my son.
That was it for me again. Because they will stop at nothing. Things we can't imagine.
How could some call them freedom fighters.
I'll never vote Dem again, I swore. I question anyone's judgement who would run in that party.

Posted by: Ricky Raccoon at September 1, 2009 2:22 PM

Oh Gerard, now you've gone and made me cry.

I know that dreadful feeling well, ever since 2/2006, when my girl had her first seizure. While that seizure affected her for a while (and then she resumed her college life), I was forever changed. Every phone call from her conjures a moment of panic until I hear her voice, and not someone else's asking, "Uh, hello, is this Katy's mom?"

Posted by: Obi's Sister at September 1, 2009 3:21 PM

I can empathise with you, as well as the grieving woman. However, as the course of my life has never included being a parent, perhaps there is some level of feeling which I cannot comprehend.
It doesn't seem to fit the agenda of our media to show the atrocities committed in the name of Allah. Political propaganda and hidden agendas will not serve America well when dealing with religous fanatics bent on world domination. If we cannot somehow get back to politicians serving their constituents instead of spending their lives lying to get ever more power and influence at the taxpayers expense, I fear that I will be like the grieving woman. The only difference is that I fear I shall be grieving the downfall of the greatest nation that God ever created on this planet. I do not know if that would be an equivalent emotional experience, but I pray that I never find out.

PS Is it JINGOISM to claim that your country is the best ever if it's true?

Posted by: Roger Drew Williams at September 1, 2009 5:31 PM

A more recent searing image.

The thin Afghan farmer, his eyes averted - perhaps from the camera's stare, perhaps from the reality of his severed ears and nose.

Now his regret that he dared to vote in the recent election as he crouches on a cot.

That image of that white white gauze against his weathered skin - hiding the horror.

This will always be with me.

Posted by: Cathy at September 1, 2009 6:23 PM


Posted by: pdwalker at September 1, 2009 10:41 PM

Thank you for writing this and for remembering.

Your pen is indeed your sword and you wield it well.

My two young children started school in a German school the same week that the Beslan Massacre occured. It hit too close to home for me. I watched the whole thing go down in real time on the internet at a site set up for moment-by-moment updates. It was like watching the twin towers fall in slow motion over the next four days. I was outraged and stricken.

I don't think I'll ever forget Beslan, and there is not a day that goes by that I don't pray, as my children go off to school, that we never experience something like that here in the US.

After Mumbai, my first thought was "Beslan," and when reports came out that lots of school buses have gone missing, I bought the book, "Terror at Beslan." It's been sitting on the shelf ever since.

I hadn't been unable to bring myself to start reading it, until today, five years later.

Posted by: waywardinn at September 2, 2009 6:15 AM

Sorry. Double negative. Correction: "I hadn't been able to bring myself to start reading it, until today, five years later."

Posted by: waywardinn at September 2, 2009 6:19 AM

Luke 9:59-60

59 - And He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father."
60 - But Jesus said to him, "Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God."

Posted by: chasmatic at December 17, 2014 6:24 AM

Ten years on, I hope your stepson has grown into some of that promise.

I read this while my kids played today, and had to fight back tears. Lord, have mercy.

Posted by: Julie at December 17, 2014 10:11 AM

This piece brought me back to the morning of 9/11. As I watched the tower burn, I knew that I had family in one of the topmost floors, a cousin. Then the second plane hit and removed all doubt as to the cause. Our cousin died that day.

As the years slip by, I realize that there are so many of my countrymen who do not, or no longer, feel the personal element in beheadings of Arabs a world away. I always will. Never forget. Nor forgive.

Posted by: Michael Gersh at December 18, 2014 3:18 PM