A Question of Conscience (or “Cynicism”)

By Martin Falatic
Written 1994-03-11
Revised 1997-03-19, 2010-08-04

The street below was deserted, as the rain fell relentlessly from the low, nighttime clouds. He watched through the window, eyes scanning the sidewalks like a vulture, high and dry in a Spartan flat on London’s West End. The pane was ajar, and he felt the moist breeze filter through the crack. He heard her heels clicking quickly across the pavement before he saw her come into view. “Bloody fool,” he muttered under his breath, as he lit another cigarette. He leaned back in his chair, and sucked the smoke deep into his lungs, letting the vapors numb him. A terrible scream broke through the night, and he jumped to the window. Her screams turned to muffled cries as the thugs beat her to the ground, groping, grabbing at her purse, her clothing. He watched the spectacle in silence — indeed, shrinking back into the darkness of his room to avoid their view. The phone lay idle nearby… he knew the police would be summoned, help would arrive too late, as always. The neighbors’ lights began to flicker on one by one, and the thugs made their getaway, leaving the moaning victim lying helpless by the curbside. “Goddamn trash!” he spat into the darkness. He slid the window shut, closing himself off from the world outside. “I’m not risking my life for her… someone else can,” he thought. He closed the drapes tightly, and leaned back in the recliner. Sleep came quickly. Three hours later, she died of massive hemorrhaging. The examining physician estimated she had bled for 30 minutes before help arrived. Meanwhile, the man slept, contented that he didn’t owe the world anything.

The men walked in silence to the dark house. The moon was new, but one could still discern the distinctive garb as they moved swiftly through the night. This had been brewing for some time, and more than a few of the townsfolk kept a watchful eye on the new tenants of 622 Knox street, some out of fear, or anger, some simply out of curiosity. Four men were dispatched and they quickly moved in to guard the exits of the house. Another two began staking the cross deep into the front yard, the gasoline wetting their costumes, making them heady with fumes. Steve Freelin watched through the side window of his kitchen as the fire was lit. Outside, the Klansmen congregated around the burning cross, as their leader spoke a litany of hate. The neighbors watched from inside their homes, some in awe, and some in silent fury. Many of them knew the Klansmen, and did not want to risk their families’ safety by standing up to the evil they professed. Some even sympathized with the rhetoric that had grown into a crescendo over the last year, since the first public gathering of the Klan on the stairs of the Braden County courthouse. Others found themselves furious at the sight, but kept their rage inside, hoping the Klan would eventually “go away.” Mr. Freelin cocked the shotgun, deeply afraid for his family, his home, hateful of the mob that desecrated his home with fire and spray-painted slogans.

The first blast swept the nearest Klansman off his feet, landing him face down in the mud. The next two blasts wounded five more, before a .38 caliber slug traced a path through Mr. Freelin’s heart. Until shots were fired, the policeman was just another spectator from afar, unwilling to act, mindful of the sheriff’s Klan connections. The Freelins left within the week, and the townspeople went back to their daily routine, immersed in the comfortable blindness of their community.

The camera followed the people as they enjoyed the sunny afternoon, some tending the scare fruits and breads at their kiosks, some bustling to get necessities for the coming weeks. The reporter on the scene reiterated the peace plan that was being hammered out in Washington, and gestured behind him to point up the small crowds gathering around the food stands and the UN relief center, here in the heart of Sarajevo. Looking into the camera, CNN-Atlanta’s anchorwoman asked him to elaborate on the food shortage that was plaguing the relief effort. She failed to see the monitor behind her, only hearing a brief burst of static in her earpiece before the sound cut out. It took her several seconds to turn and see what 12 million viewers across the globe were witnessing.

The shell hit almost 100 feet to his right, the explosion sending fragments of metal slicing through everyone and everything in their path. The camera was still active, leaning against the lifeless body of the cameraman. The image was at a crazy angle, showing the bombed area, the dead and dying in a gruesome tangle, the people running for their lives as the sound of another rocket pierced the air. The second shell struck near a building where people were seeking shelter from the attack, and the last image seem worldwide and uncensored was that of a young man flying through the air, his limbs splayed out behind him like a rag doll. People around the world watched this in the comfort of their homes, but many simply numbed out the pain, and tried to ignore what the small screen had tried in vain to teach them.

The hate, the violence, the pain lives on, and it grows every time we try to ignore it. Prudence tells us that to interfere, to try to change, is dangerous. Better to live in fear of such things than to rise against them and risk one’s security. Better to immerse oneself in work, or play, or idle daydreaming, than to go out and make a difference. Better to live for tomorrow’s Heaven than to try to fix the “irreparable” Now. Better to credit divine plan with the suffering around us, to give in to “prophecy”, to close our eyes in the hope that someone else will bring justice or end the suffering. Better to stay locked inside our souls, than to risk touching the outside world. To touch the flame is to risk getting burned, and it is in our nature to shy away. But is it right? Or can we do better?

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