I wonder how it felt. I wonder if he really registered the heft of the rock in his hand before he hurled it or if his mind was already watching a different movie play out—the one where he bragged to his friends about what he’d done as they passed around a bottle of beer and celebrated his misplaced heroism. I wonder if he winced or smiled when he heard the glass shatter, louder than he expected, even in the city night with its constant hum of traffic and movement. The glass brighter than he thought, caught under the soft lights that illuminated the memorial at night, a thousand shards splintered on the ground like stardust littering the Milky Way. I wonder if it brought him any satisfaction, this purposeless act of aggression. Did it make him feel big or significant to deface a symbol of resilience, strength, and healing? He knew what he was doing, but did he understand it? I wonder.
Monday night, the Boston Holocaust Memorial was vandalized for the second time in about six weeks. The memorial is made up of a row of six towers, each one measures 54-feet high, encased entirely in large glass panes lit both from above and below. Identification numbers embossed on the entire length of every glass panel scroll like some kind of perverse computer code. The memorial is designed for people to walk through it where they are briefly enveloped in a corridor of quiet. They are forced to reckon with the proximity of those numbers and their significance. On sunny days the numbers throw shadows onto the person’s body. History presses its heavy palms to our backs. The memorial runs along a short section of street across from a section of Boston’s historic Freedom Trail, set close to Faneuill Hall—an area of the city where patriots once planned for revolution. It’s a simple, powerful, beautiful invitation to reflect both on atrocity and on the spirit it took (and continues to take) to fight it.
Monday night a seventeen-year-old boy from the neighboring town of Malden heaved a rock through the memorial. Performing his great act of cowardice masquerading as self-righteousness, the young person took off on foot only to be tackled and restrained by two bystanders until police arrived. That’s how we do in Boston; because not in our f*&$# town, though I choose to believe we don’t call dibs on this attitude. People will do what’s right. In this case, adding a thin piece of silver trim to an otherwise very grey cloud.
How could this boy do this? This is no longer a question I’m interested in. A millennia of philosophers, shamans, and religious leaders have come up empty-handed on the wrenching “whys” of our human existence. The question I’m interested in: what now?
I want to hate this kid.
I want to hate the terrorist who killed Heathery Heyer this weekend.
I want to hate every stupid white face of every stupid white person who clomped around Charlottesville this weekend in their pathetic khakis and backyard Walmart tiki torches fomenting hate and violence and horror. And while we’re at it, I’ll throw in a good dash of hate for the generations before who willfully antagonized in Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham and in a hundred other towns and cities over the last two centuries that we’ll never even know about.
As I think about the dark riptide clutching at our nation and ourselves, a lyric from a song passes across my mind: “Easy to be hard/easy to be cold.” It’s from the musical Hair, the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical (actual title) that debuted on Broadway in 1968. The show captures the energy and philosophies of the American counter-culture at the time—following a group of hippies longing to create a more utopic society, but subjected to the reality of an America and its politics in the era of the Vietnam War. “Easy to Be Hard” is a romantic lament sung by one of the characters who has had her heart busted one too many times by the man she loves. Regardless of the context, the song rings true: it’s easy to insulate ourselves from empathy, compassion, and understanding. It takes less thought to judge and embrace comfortable ignorance than it does to think critically, to see honestly, to be willing to witness someone else’s pain and rage. It takes less time to pick up a rock or torch than it does to have a conversation.
I do not like feeling hardened, which is not the same as feeling angry. Hard is petrifying in both meanings of the word: to be terrified and to be turned to stone. It might be easy to be hard, but it’s not worth the cost. We stay strong by staying soft.
Soft does not mean excusing criminal behavior or making room for hateful ideology to flourish. It does not mean that people aren’t held accountable for their actions and choices. It doesn’t mean we stop disagreeing. Soft means remaining open to hope, refusing to accept that things are static or insurmountable; it means engaging empathy, compassion, and understanding in real, lived ways. It means shining a light on the good, decent, kind, even heroic deeds and happenings in the world with the same ferocity we train on the horrible, tragic, demoralizing ones.
Stephen Ross was nine when the Nazis came for him and his family. They did not survive. He did. He lived through the hell of ten different concentration camps, through unspeakable cruelty at the hands of prison guards, and through a nearly fatal bout with tuberculosis. American troops liberated him from Dachau when he was fourteen and two years later he was brought to live in the United States. Stephen Ross earned three degrees and eventually came to work for the city of Boston for over 40 years. He realized his dream to pay tribute to the millions of Jews like his family taken by the holocaust with a memorial in the city, dedicated on October 22, 1995.
Stephen Ross stayed strong by staying soft. What would have happened if he gave into his hardness? I want to ask this of the young vandal. I want us all to ask this of ourselves. I wonder.