A three-year-old boy is brought to the ER by Rescue, CPR already initiated at wherever they found him, bruises all over his body, left arm askew, certainly broken, not only unconscious but with the floppy motor tone and fixed pupils that signal brain death.
A thirty-something year-old woman is brought by Rescue at nine AM, her face a mass of bruises and lacerations, both fresh and old. Her nose is broken, her eyes are blackened, her lip is cut. She is alert and angry and hostile and still drunk.
A twenty-three year-old man is brought by Rescue from a convenience store after a robbery. He has a red hole in his face, almost indistinguishable from his nostril. Unlike the first two, he articulates what happened. “I told him, ‘Don’t shoot, you can have the money. Here’s the cash register. Just don’t shoot.’ He shot me anyway.” This he kept repeating, convincing himself that this actually happened, as he adjusted to a new reality. Traces of anger dawned as the repetition continued with the awareness that he had been shot anyway by a stranger who already had the money.
This is my introduction to the Emergency Room in New Haven, Connecticut; I am in shock. In my world children were never beaten, women were never struck, and no one I knew would shoot anybody unless the other drew first.
Up until this point I had been willing to believe that all people were good at heart but were sometimes misunderstood or misled or emotionally distressed, and at moments made mistakes, things for which they were sorry and would repent and ask forgiveness, if only given the chance. I am an idiot in my innocence–not innocence as in the absence of guilt, but innocence is the sense of naivety–and I am now confronted by random acts of violence that must change my understanding of my fellow man.
The world is not filled with the innocent until proven guilty, but with the guilty, only some of whom are convicted. Maybe the motivations that move society are not generosity and enlightened self-interest, but self-interest alone, and the rough calculation that all actions are permissible as long as the negative consequences can be avoided. Thus, it is okay to silence that whinny kid with a swift kick or two, to slap that drunk wench into submission, to shoot that kid who might someday identify you in a line-up.
And if that is the way the world works, I have been playing by the wrong rules. The choice is not whether to do good or to do evil, but whether to be a victim or not. I need to look to my own interests first, then my family, then my friendships–although I shouldn’t think of them as friendships anymore, but as alliances.
I blame my father for my idiotic innocence. He was not only a gentleman but a gentle man. I remember only one time that he raised his hand to spank me, and this ironically for fighting with my brother. I don’t remember the blow, but I remember what he said afterward.
“Don’t you know,” he said, “how little time we have together? What few chances to love each other?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. My life was a continual competition with my brother. We fought out our differences. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost, and always I prepared for the next battle. What was Dad thinking? He’d been an officer in an armored division in Europe during World War II; certainly he must understand the need for conflict. Dad’s words puzzled me then and still puzzled me again as I stood on the bloodied floor of the ER.
A choice needed to be made: innocence or preparation for battle; allow mercy or demand justice?
But the practice of medicine demands mercy. Sooner or later, the one who killed the child, the one who beat the woman, the one who shot the store clerk, all come in injured themselves. And they are cared for with all the same resources that their victims received, perhaps with more reluctance on the part of the caregivers, but with the same skill. Even knowing better, we act as innocents; our only battle is with the disease or the injury. Justice is invisible, but vengeance is never an option.
Still, I wonder if I am a sucker, never ready for battle. Mercy is my discipline, but a small ticking clock in the back of my mind waits for justice to show herself.
Years later I testify at a murder trial. The victim had suffered a severe head injury resulting in an acute subdural hematoma and multiple areas of bruised and swollen brain. Acute and chronic alcohol abuse complicated her care by liver and bone marrow damage. In short, her body did not have the reserves to heal her wounds or stop her bleeding. Despite a major operation and a week in intensive care she succumbed to her injuries.
At the trial, the woman’s boyfriend was accused of beating her to death. My testimony is limited to answering questions from the prosecutor about the mechanisms of her head injury; the defense attorney asked no questions. The boyfriend is convicted.
Justice finally appears; I should be satisfied. But I am not.
What I know is that the woman died as the result of her alcohol addiction. And whether or not her injury was the result of a fall or an assault, her boyfriend was convicted as a result of his alcohol addiction. The blame lay less in the blow to the victim’s head than to that obscure first drink given to a person emotionally and physically susceptible to addiction, and the lack of opportunities for redemption along the way–and this is true for both the victim and the perpetrator. They fell like two lost children clinging to each other in the dark and stumbling together.
Justice appears and is served, but she is a blind and cruel lady. I am happy to turn away from the courtroom and back to the hospital where mercy reigns.
Sometimes I worry about my adult children. They are never prepared for battle. I have watched my them treat others with mercy more than justice. They have committed random acts of kindness: befriending refugees, paying for a dangerous tree to be removed from the yard of a stranger who couldn’t afford it, sticking with a friend who was not only sick but crazy. They acted unconcerned about how these others got into their situations. They acted like suckers.
Dad would have been proud.
Random acts of violence can rob me of my innocence and drive me to seek justice instead of mercy. But innocence is not a possession to be lost; it is a quality to be chosen. And if innocence is chosen, random acts of kindness prevail.