Just Tell Me What to Feel, and I Will

If you look for it, you’ll find it. A yearbook photograph of Jihadi John when he was a boy. He was a goofy-looking kid with a goofy-looking haircut, and a goofy smile to match. He wore a dorky school uniform, he played soccer, his favorite band was S Club 7, and when he was older, he was an IT salesman.

He was killed Thursday in a drone strike. He was killed for beheading James Foley, and Steven Sotloff, and David Haines, and Alan Henning, and Peter Kassiq, and Haruna Yakawa, and Kenjo Goto, and scores of Syrian soldiers whose names I’ll never know. In the last 48 hours, I’ve looked at that photograph more times than I can count. I think about him. I think about his parents. I find myself thinking about my children, and I think about the ever-widening gap between the world I was born into and the world I’m leaving behind. I have two-year-old twin daughters. Right now, Paris is on fire, and the only thing they know about the world is its nearly limitless possibilities.

I find myself feeling glad Jihadi John is dead. When I woke up yesterday morning, I found myself thinking fuck him, and fuck everyone. I watched the news and found myself wanting the world to be cracked wide open, to be covered in ash and tinder, I found myself thinking that the only thing that can save us anymore is the terrible might of our great, great country.

**

On Saturday, Army’s football team took the field against Tulane carrying the Army Football flag (first), the American flag (second) and the French flag (third). There’s a script for the way we process tragedy, and this is a big part of it. Our football team carried those flags because one of the worst things imaginable happened in France just hours before, and because on September 12th, 2001, Le Monde ran that beautiful headline, and because when we go to war, we go alongside the French, and I suppose because the very fabric of our nation was formed by the French.

We are extraordinary in our efficiency when it comes to such things. When terror strikes, there are things we do and say, there are directions we always turn, there are mechanisms with which we provide ourselves the exact same amount of comfort we have provided ourselves for the last 15 years.

We quote Bono. We watch the monologue on “Saturday Night Live.” We super-impose certain colors over our Facebook pictures. We carry flags.

And then we turn toward sports. To talk about fear (and how we’re not going to give into it) and to talk about freedom (how no one’s taking it away from us). We stand quietly for one minute and we sing each other’s anthems, and eventually something fundamental passes, and we move on.

It’s a script. It’s the only script from which we read when this sort of thing happens, and if we are getting better at anything in this terrible world, we are only getting better at performing it.

**

We turn toward sports.

The week after September 11th, I watched football and I watched baseball and I cried my fucking eyes out. I did the same thing when Steve Gleason blocked that punt, when the Saints returned to the Superdome on September 26th, 2006. (By the way, that game is like a document of an entirely different NFL. New Orleans had just been pieced together, Steve Gleason could still speak, Michael Vick hadn’t been arrested, Tony Kornheiser was on Monday Night Football, and Stuart Scott was alive. Also, U2 played before the game, because Bono.)

I watched sports after Red Lake High School, and Nickel Mines, and Virginia Tech. After Fort Hood, and Aurora, and Gabby Giffords, and Sandy Hook.

And after Little Rock, and Benghazi.

And Charlie Hedbo.

And Boston.

And Paris.

Now, nearly 15 years since September 11th, I’m almost exactly as professional at mourning tragedy as they are about scripting it for me. I always find myself thinking, when I see the news, “I have to make sure I don’t miss pregame this Sunday.” I listen for the tribute, my eyes glaze over, and the texture of the world remains radically the same.

Which is also to say: the script has become a form of “doing.” Of “responding.” I take my feelings to my television, I walk through the familiar steps, I feel things deeply, I consider all that for which I’m lucky, and by 1:15 PM, my tithe is paid.

**

The thing I’ve been noticing today is the thing I’ve been trying to come to terms with in writing this–the rage I feel, the hate I feel in my heart. And where it is that all that rage ends up.

There’s a photograph on Instagram of Nick Alexander, the merchandise manager for the Eagles of Death Metal, kissing his girlfriend. When I look at it, I just about lose it. I find myself thinking about the terrible final moments of his life, and the final moments of everyone who was trapped in that concert hall. I think about the children who were killed–they were all children–and I want people to die for it. I find myself wanting people to be killed.

And, of course, people are being killed. They are being killed everywhere.

On Thursday, we killed Jihadi John and his driver. We’ve been killing high-level ISIS soldiers every other day since May.

Just after we killed Jihadi John, a guy named Adel Tormos–he was a father to a young daughter–did that most impossible mental calculus and tackled one of two suicide bombers in Beirut. It’s impossible to know how many lives he saved, but Adel Tormos and 42 other people died in Beirut on Thursday because, just before ISIS attacked France, they also attacked Lebanon.

As of October, 1771 people were killed in Syria (690 of whom were women and children), and 300 people have been murdered in Baltimore this year. 417 people have been murdered in Chicago, and last April (lest we forget) 147 Kenyan college kids were gunned down at Garissa University, ad nauseam/infinitum/mortem.

And yet, this morning, it was not enough killing for me. I looked at that picture on Instagram, and I wanted more. I felt like someone had to pay for this. As Adel Tormos’s cousin said, “May they get worse than what happened to us.”

Someone will pay; someone is always paying. Nick Alexander was paying, and Del Tormos too. The kids in Kenya were paying, as are the kids in Baltimore. All of this is payback for something else, just like all of the payback yet to come.

I watched hockey Saturday night, I watched football all yesterday afternoon, and I heard the script read over and over again. it’s a box that must be checked so we can get back to the minutiae of our lives without feeling like we forgot to say something. Tragedy strikes, I turn toward sports, the script runs, and, wrapped inside all of that familiarity, the hate in my heart softens. I watched the Steelers for three and a half hours yesterday, and I watched a replay of a San Francisco Giants game last night. I feel like I’ve done my part, and I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to feel.

Next weekend, no one will pause for even a second when we bomb the fuck out of the men, and also the women, and also the children, of the Third World. More people will die, the hope being that maybe this time, if we kill enough people, no one will hate us anymore.

***

Mike Simpson is a fiction writer and a sportswriter. You should follow him on Twitter.

For information about the French Red Cross and how you can help, please click here.

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