This year, I vowed to give September 11 a miss. It had been a tough few weeks. The name Jaycee Dugard was already as familiar to me as Scout Finch, and I could pinpoint with forensic accuracy the tent and shed in the blurry photographs where she’d spent the past 18 years. I’d heard so many replays of the rambling call that Phillip Garrido made on his mobile phone predicting that the abduction would be seen as ‘a powerful, heart-warming story’ that I knew it by sickening heart. I even knew the names of Garrido’s two daughters that Jaycee had given birth to, children who had never seen a doctor or dentist, never been to school.
But just as this story shifted to the inside pages, two unnamed brothers in a pit village near Doncaster emerged to take Jaycee’s place. Brothers aged 10 and 11, who face a life sentence after pleading guilty to beating, burning and sexually assaulting two boys, aged nine and 11, who refused to hand over their mobile phones. By the end of the week, I knew that the 11-year-old victim had been left unconscious after being hit over the head with a broken sink, that he had pleaded with the torturers, crying: ‘I can’t see. Leave me to die.’ I knew that the nine-year-old had been given the choice of killing himself or being killed by the brothers, that the two brothers were in foster care, and their mother, hooked on drink and drugs, had seven sons by three fathers.
For what it’s worth, all this was before three British Muslims extremists were convicted of plotting to blow up seven transatlantic airliners in mid-air in a co-ordinated attack intended to rival the horror of 9/11, a conviction made possible because the prosecution was able to show all the emails between the defendants, damning evidence that had been banned in British courts in earlier cases.
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But where does all this information, all these details of skilled psychopaths and committed evil perpetrators leave us? How do we keep going, pay the bills, make chicken stock, buy loo paper, worm the dog, fill the car, answer the letters, under the oppressive weight of disaster and tragedy, depravity and darkness? How do we stay upright when every car can be the means for abducting an 11-year-old? When there is no instrument-not social, not moral, not physical-that can protect children from feral mothers?
When every airplane can become a bomb? The great temptation is just to skim the papers. Turn off the news. Stick to the Proms and Poirot, biographies and literature. Take refuge in Sauvignon Blanc, lemon sole, new towels from The White Company, family, friends, labradors.
Blessed are they who find comfort in a faith that rationally explains good and evil. I know young people who actively work to change the world, working with the homeless and the unloved, trying to build trust and harmony.
I envy their faith in human kindness, their belief in human potential, their lack of zealotry and fanaticism. I’m inspired by their certainty that human goodness outweighs the paroxysmal evil that most days feels as unstoppable as global warming. It was with those young people that I succumbed and watched something to do with 9/11 after all. The film called United 93. Halfway into it, I wasn’t sure I had the stomach, but I stayed with it. When the passengers of United Flight 93 learnt the fate of the Twin Towers, they realised that they too were aimed at a target, most likely in Washington. They decided to die fighting, no doubt saving thousands of lives by accepting their own deaths in a lonely field. It is the story of human goodness versus human depravity.
This time next year, I may have forgotten the universal equation played out in the film: there are a million acts of kindness for every act of evil. I may vow again to ignore 9/11, but I hope I’m made of tougher stuff.