If every life really matters...

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Late last night, after everyone else had long been asleep, I was catching up on the last of my Christmas shopping. In the midst of researching customer reviews and trying to decide whether to gamble on "standard" versus "two-day" shipping, a small cry echoed down the hall.

We're at the stage when we're trying to let our daughter practice some self-soothing. Most parents know this as the necessary-but-agonizing period when you have to let the child cry for a couple of minutes before breaking down and racing to the crib to pick them up. We trained ourselves as parents the first time around to start a timer on hearing the first cries, and disciplining ourselves to wait a fixed number of minutes before capitulating.

Well, last night, we crossed the threshold and I decided to give the little one an extra bottle. Parents know: You want them to sleep through the night, but there are just some times when a kid goes through a growth spurt and you have to refill a small tummy a little more often than usual.

As my daughter drained the bottle and dozed, I got the simple pleasure of rocking her back to sleep. As she finished off the last couple of drops, she pushed away the bottle and arranged herself in the same hands-clasped-behind-the-head pose that I remember "The Dude" adopting throughout "The Big Lebowski". I had to stifle my laugh so as not to wake her.

What I've just described is completely true, deeply sentimental, and yet totally ordinary. What parent hasn't shared that feeling?

It turns out, at least one parent no more than walking distance away from my home.

You see, I don't live all that far away from where Natalie Finn died last October. It's not in my immediate neighborhood, but it's closer to my home than the radio station, closer than my church, and closer than the nearest hospital.

If you followed the trial in the news this week, then you heard things so inhumane they are hard to describe. I'm glad I don't have to adopt a tone of journalistic neutrality about this like my colleagues in the newsroom do. There must be a word that puts "ghastly", "heartbreaking", and "appalling" all together -- and even that word seems inadequate to describe how Natalie Finn was treated. Starved, endangered, imprisoned, and kept under inhumane conditions.

All closer to my own home than places as ordinary as the nearest car dealership or the airport.

A conviction for first-degree murder seems the only legitimate conclusion. It isn't enough, but it's the closest to justice that we can expect. But we, as a community, need to ask ourselves whether we're looking hard enough in the world around us for the vulnerable. Are we acting as individuals, as neighbors, and as taxpayers and voters, to carry our portion of the responsibility to protect those who can't do so for themselves. As John Stuart Mill wrote, "Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury." Any civilization worthy of the name must be eager to find out why and how the system failed to protect this child and her siblings.

Coincidentally, the verdict in the Finn trial was delivered in that trial on the fifth anniversary of the unspeakable crime at Sandy Hook Elementary.

I can't reflect on that event without having to arrest my own thoughts. It's beyond my comprehension how something so bad could have happened to so many innocent children. It's so awful that, not long after it happened, I wrote a script to keep on hand just in case I ever happen to be on the air when something so terrible happens again. I know that even trying to comprehend the facts in the moment would be too much to bear, so I know the only chance I might have anything thoughtful to say is to have prepared those thoughts well in advance.

But it's wrong -- just wrong -- that I have to even imagine the possibility that an event like Sandy Hook might ever happen again. It's been five years, and I have very little faith that we've done substantially enough to create a safer world for children since then. We will never have all of the psychopaths, the murderers, and the broken people entirely out of our midst -- but we don't have to leave ourselves more vulnerable to the worst things they can do.

We need the long-overdue report on the police response. We need to treat mental health care more like mental wellness care -- with an eye towards the impact any one person's pathologies might have on the broader public. And we need to be objective about the real dangers: Homicide is the #3 or #4 cause of death for everyone in the United States in every age group from 1-4, 5-9, 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34. And suicide is #2 or #3 for ages 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34. Those are urgent public-health issues; they shouldn't take away from our attention to other risks like cancer or injuries (unintentional injury being the #1 cause of death in every age group from 1 to 44), but if we don't face the facts about things we can change, then that makes us unwitting accomplices.

And looming large over all of the news of the past week -- including a murder trial to obtain justice for one child, and the 5-year anniversary of a crime that took the lives of 20 children -- is the prospect that we could at any moment charge headlong into a hot war with North Korea.

Credible estimates say a war on the Korean Peninsula could sacrifice 20,000 lives a day. Every day. And, inescapably, those would include lots and lots of children. A war there could not be contained to sanitized battlefields -- Seoul is closer to the DMZthan the State Capitol building is to the ISU Memorial Union. There's no room for real escape.

The problem is, the Korean situation is being treated all too often like something abstract and unreal, when it is in fact extremely real. And I am entirely unconvinced that we are treating it with the gravity or an appreciation for the complexity it demands. I'm not saying that there are easy solutions, nor that the present situation is the fault of the people presently forced to deal with it. But now that we're here, we can't let a narrow-minded approach take over just because it makes for snappy sound bites on television.

If Korea turns into a conflagration, it will take hundreds or thousands of times as many children's lives as the school shooting we memorialized or the neglect in a home practically just down the street. And history won't much care who was trying to prove what to whom in the lead-up to conflict. It will only remember a casualty count.

The thought of long-range nuclear weapons in the hands of a hostile totalitarian dictatorship is a troubling one. It's one that requires urgent strategic and tactical thinking. It's a possibility that demands hard work and unrelenting efforts in diplomacy, in the application of asymmetric pressure against an adversarial leadership cabal, and in our own efforts to prepare an effective defense.

But just as much as I feel the weight of my parental obligations with one small child in arms, just as much as I am dismayed that a young girl could be so appallingly neglected practically in my own neighborhood, just as much as I am troubled by the nightmare of a school shooting that takes 20 children's lives, so too should we all feel the immeasurable weight of the thought that a careless turn to war could take 20,000 lives a day -- maybe even 100,000 in the first 48 hours.

It's not abstract. Those are real people with real lives who care the same for their babies as we do. And it's on us as a self-governing nation to put pressure on own leaders to be accountable, careful, and above all, responsible for what happens next. If one life matters (and it does), and if 20 young lives matter (and they do), then we can't be passive about whether our next step is towards war.

 
Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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