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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Black paint in the tunnel

I ride through a pedestrian/bike tunnel every day on my way to and from work. There is almost always graffiti in the tunnel. It seems to be a favourite place for graffiti-painting teenagers with time on their hands. It’s out of the way and can’t be seen from the street so it’s an ideal place for idleness. About the only time there isn’t graffiti in the tunnel is the day or two after the city crew comes by and removes it with their sandblasters and gallons of grey paint.

Mostly, I don’t mind the graffiti. I actually like some of it – the stuff that’s artistically done. For a long time, the word "Hush" greeted me as I entered the tunnel, and it often made me smile. I wish the city crew could leave the good stuff there and just get rid of the pointless messy stuff.

A few weeks ago, they cleaned the graffiti off, and it was clean for a couple of days. Since then, however, the graffiti painters have returned. But these aren’t the artistic graffiti painters – these are the ones with just a single can of black spray paint and an evening of boredom on their hands.

A few days ago, a swastika appeared in the tunnel. A big, black, ugly swastika. There is nothing even slightly artistic about it – just an unevenly painted ugly symbol of hatred.

I don’t understand hatred. I don’t understand the feelings behind something like a swastika. The idea that one group of people can hate another group of people so deeply that they wish them destroyed boggles my mind.

Most of the time, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I don’t (usually) yell at bad drivers, because I try to assume that they’re cutting me off because they’re having a really bad day and need to get home to their sick kids. If someone’s rude to me in the grocery store, I try to imagine that they don’t have much love in their life so they can’t entirely be blamed. As much as I can, I try to put myself in another person’s shoes before I cast judgement on them for their actions.

The problem is, I can’t put myself in the shoes of anyone who would paint swastikas in a tunnel. I suppose it was just an ill-advised joke by some bored teenagers, but I can’t fathom the kind of boredom that would reflect itself in hatred.

There are lots of things I CAN understand, if I try hard enough. I can understand prejudice – at least a little bit. I can go back in my memory bank to the day a new girl moved into our homogenous little farming community. When she didn’t fit in well, and everyone thought she was a little odd, it was easiest to chalk it up to the fact that her skin colour was different from ours. And when she moved away again, only a year later, it was convenient to assume that her family’s transience had something to do with the fact that she wasn’t like the rest of us.

The truth is, though, I don’t have to go all the way back to childhood to find the deep roots of prejudice and ethnocentricity. Every day, I see homeless people on the streets of downtown, and almost every day, I have to resist the urge to equate their homelessness with their ethnicity. So, you see, though I work hard to drag out any little vestiges left in my heart, I can understand prejudice.

I can understand anger too. I can go back to that day in the park, some time after I’d become a mother, when I saw a man luridly revealing himself to everyone who walked by, when the anger welled up in me, and I knew instantly, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I could kill or at least seriously injure a man who would sexually threaten my children the way I had been sexually threatened several years earlier. And suddenly I knew why, on the day that I walked into my parents’ kitchen and told them I’d been raped, my dad told me the story of the man he’d known who’d hunted down his daughter’s rapist and castrated him. I remember knowing that, just like my pacifist father, I was capable of the transformation that would cause me to destroy the man who’d hurt my daughter.

I can understand anger, but I’m still not sure I can understand hatred. Perhaps it was hatred I felt on those nights after the rape when I’d lie in my bed, staring at the window, praying that no one would ever crawl through it again. Perhaps it was hatred when I cried myself to sleep, knowing that those filthy hands and tattooed arms had destroyed every last shred of the little bits of innocence I’d still held onto. Perhaps it was hatred, but mostly I think it was anger and fear. I can’t say I feel hatred now, after the years have mellowed and matured me.

The truth is, I can understand a lot of ugly feelings that might be the seeds of something dark inside my heart. And if I think about sinking deep into the shadows of that anger and prejudice, and allowing indoctrination and peer pressure and a little bit of mob mentality to wash over me, perhaps I’d come out on the other side of hatred too.

Maybe, just maybe, there is very little distance between myself and those who paint swastikas and kill for their passion, their prejudice, and their hatred. Maybe there’s enough darkness lurking in the shadows of each of us that, if it were fed the right amount of ugly fodder, we could become Nazis or KKK or Janjaweed.

I don’t know. I pray to God that it’s not true. I hope with all my heart that nothing will ever hold enough power over me to turn my little bits of darkness into hatred.

I'm pretty sure the idle, bored, teenage swastika painters aren't murderers, but I hope they recognize the seeds of hatred growing in them before it's too late. I hope they lay awake tonight knowing they’ve done a very bad thing. I hope one day their circles of friendship enlarge enough to include a Jewish person or a person of colour and they find out that love is better than hate.

8 comments:

Gina said...

Amen, Heather.

Dale said...

When we were kids, my brother had a hatchet, for camping. He used a red magic marker to draw a swastika on the leather sheath. My father was angry when he saw it.

"Do you know how many people died because of that symbol?" he asked Pat.

We didn't understand Dad's outrage until many years later. Truly, Heather, my brother had no idea what he was doing. Maybe those Wpg teens are as ignorant.

PS. If anyone ever hurt Meagan that way, I would just die inside.

Anvilcloud said...

Dale may be right. I remember putting a swastika on my notebook in grade school. My teacher was a Jew, and she told me in no uncertain terms to get rid of it. I didn't know what it was all about, but i sure erased it. Maybe they don't know, not really. Maybe they do, and that would be sadder.

Heather said...

I get what you're saying, Dale and AV, and I suspect that you're at least partially right. (I'm not living in fear that Nazis or skinheads have moved into my neighbourhood. :-) However, it seems to me that, even beyond the meaning of the swastika, there's a fairly significant leap between drawing on a hatchet sheath or notebook to painting graffiti in a tunnel. Even if it's not hatred, and it's only casual disregard for public property, it's still something that's outside of my realm of understanding.

Dale said...

Don't even get me started on the topic of graffiti. Like you, I cannot understand why kids feel they have to spray paint everything. It's become much, much worse the last few years. Uh-oh! I feel a rant coming on.

Simply Coll said...

Maybe I am naive but I am hoping that the persons who painted the swastika did it more for the shock value with out fully comprehending its history and meaning. Hatred is very scary. I too do not believe that I have ever really known hatred but my life has been easy and my life has been quite sheltered. I have never wanted for much. I too wonder how I would react to some of the horrors I know others have lived with.

oshee said...

Well said.

Liz said...

The thing about symbols is that they are powerful representations which are meant to conjure emotion. The swastika was used in native american as well as ancient egyptian symbology. Unfortunately, it's associated with nazi-ism and always will be.

http://history1900s.about.com/cs/swastika/a/swastikahistory.htm

Heather, thanks for linking to your previous post. It took me a couple days to process it, because it's my worst fear (as you well know, being a mother of daughters). Your post shook me to the core, but your positive nature made me feel a lot better.