It’s not death that I’m afraid of, really. It’s the unknown. What lies beyond once life leaves these sacks of meat that we live in? But if I must choose between the unknown and the sacrifice of another human being, I will choose the unknown.
I grew up praying in the church down the street from where I live now. Sometime in my teens, I lost that religion. I tried others, searching for fulfillment, but it wasn’t there. So, I moved on, happy to just be. I settled into life, found a career I enjoy, married a spouse I love, and had a couple children. Life was good - for a while.
It seemed like it started suddenly. One day I was living my mundane life, like all the days before, and the next there was violence in the streets. But I guess the roots of hatred began growing a long time ago. It began when people started saying “them” and “us.” “They” looked different from “us,” “they” worshipped different gods than “us,” and “they” lived a different lifestyle than “us.” It spread when “we” started blaming “them” for the faults in our communities - the crime, the economic hardships. It thrived when the politicians and leaders permitted the fear and perpetuated the false dichotomy. There was this idea that “they” were less than “us” - less desirable, less worthy, less human. This idea grew like weeds in a garden, and the roots to those weeds spread wide and deep.
I never bought into this idea, and in all honesty, I assumed most people wouldn’t either. Perhaps I was wrong. Why hold malice towards others for simply being different? Nevertheless, the speech that divided us soon devolved into acts of violence.
At first the brutality was so distant from my daily life that it was easy to dismiss. It was written off as insignificant. The owner of the little convenience store on the corner was brutally attacked one evening. The attackers had shouted slurs as they kicked him to the ground. I shook my head in disgust as I read the story on my tablet at the local coffee shop. The man was a “random target,” the article claimed. The car of a woman who had lived her entire life in this town was vandalized one day. “Go back to where you came from,” was inscribed on it. News reports said it was just “kids being kids.” I sighed with disapproval as the evening news played in the background.
I was too blind to see these actions for what they were and what they would become. Most people were like me, I think. We saw the crimes of hate but were too complacent with our own lives to do anything about it. There were a few who spoke out against these abuses, but those who agreed with the discrimination spoke out even louder.
Eventually, walls were built. First came the walls of the mind - shutting out what we were seeing and hearing; justifying what was happening around us. Following were the walls of the heart - the judgment of others as less than; the disdain for those who were different. In time, those walls became tangible. We separated them from us until the fences wrapped around the unworthy and caged them into the box we had built for them. We locked out and locked up those we feared, those we hated, those we were not brave enough to love.
It was mid-spring when the riots began. A prominent community leader had been shot and killed walking home alone late one night. He had warned of the dangers of allowing the unworthy into our society. His body was found the next morning. No one saw who pulled the trigger, but that didn’t matter. The unworthy were blamed. It was said that, of course, only those who were different would want to hurt this great man. It was said that this was an attack on our way of life.
Angry protesters began marching in the streets. They yelled about the hatred and violence of others, while ignoring the hatred and violence within themselves.
Then the killing started. The undesirables were hunted down. The unworthy were targeted as the enemy.
I didn’t leave my house for days once the chaos began. My family and I were safe. We had the “right” look, the “right” background, and the “right” lifestyle. No one would be beating down our door trying to harm us. So we waited. Waited for it to end. Waited for tension to die down. Waited for the government to step in and put a stop to the cruelty that was happening in our streets.
One day a woman showed up at our door with a small child in her arms. She was scared and was asking for help. We turned her away out of concern for the safety of our own children. We closed the door on her and that sweet, innocent child. She left. Moments later we heard the gunfire. I cried that night. I knew that the woman and her child were dead, and they were dead because of me. No, I didn’t pull the trigger, but I didn’t stop those who did. I didn’t even try.
The next time someone showed up at my door, I let them in. I gave them food. I gave them water. I gave them safety.
More came seeking sanctuary. Soon there were too many to keep sheltered in my home. At night, I would sneak them into the old church down the road - the old church that I used to pray in. It had long since been abandoned.
I would bring them food and water. I would listen to their stories. Some had been yanked from their beds while they slept. They had nothing. They were barely able to escape with their lives. They cried for their family and friends who were missing or dead.
It soon became too dangerous for my family. If we were caught sheltering fugitives, repercussions would fall on all of us. We sent our beloved little children to stay with extended family across the border. My partner stayed behind with me. We had the luxury of protecting our children and agreed to risk our lives to help others do the same.
Eventually the authorities did step in. They began arresting the undesirables. They rounded them up in large vans and took them away to relocation centers. Many went willingly just to escape with their lives, because the killing hadn’t stopped. Why haven’t the killings stopped? I continued to help and to hide those who stayed behind.
During the day, I would go to work. I felt like a fraud, living a hollow life. I’d smile at coworkers. I’d nod my head while they talked excitedly about the purge. After work, I would travel around to various stores, buying food and supplies. I was careful to not buy too much at once or too often from the same store. By this time, sympathizers were being arrested daily. Those found guilty of helping the unworthy were sent away, and no one was certain what was happening to them.
We continued this way as days turned to weeks and weeks to months. I knew I couldn’t hide these people forever; I just hoped it would all be over before we were found out.
I don’t know who eventually gave my name to the authorities. It could have been a neighbor, a coworker, or someone I barely know who was just trying to escape the accusations themselves. It had become all too common for those arrested to trade the names of their friends for their own freedom. The hunt for sympathizers increased as the undesirable population disappeared across the border or into hiding. People were regularly being arrested or taken in for questioning. They would disappear for a few days or weeks and return with bloodshot eyes and bruises. No one spoke about what had happened to them.
They came for me at work. The sight was so common by that point that most of my colleagues barely looked up from their desks as the men escorted me out.
All of the jails were full, so they brought me here, to this old community center that has been converted into holding cells. Every day they question me. They beat me. I say nothing.
I don’t know what will become of those still hiding in the abandoned church that I used to pray in. I don’t know what will happen to my family. I don’t know if or when the violence will end, and I don’t know what will become of my own life.
But if I must choose between the unknown and the sacrifice of another human being, I will choose the unknown.