It was an almost normal photograph of an almost normal little girl. Two things make it abnormal. One was the black bar superimposed across her eyes to hide her identity. The other was her right arm, which ended at her elbow. I was a child when I saw the photograph, probably only a bit older than the girl herself, who was five. It was in one of my mother's medical books. She was attending nursing school at the time, and there were journals and textbooks scattered throughout the house. I often looked through them, amazed by the pictures of skeletons and nervous systems and patients with weird maladies. My mom didn't care, as she was pretty progressive and didn't believe in hiding anything from me. When I stumbled onto the photo of the anonymous, one-armed little girl, I asked what had happened to her. Taking the book from me so she could read the text I was too young to read myself, my mother hesitated a moment before answering. "The little girl was told to keep out of the peanut butter. When she didn't listen, her father put her arm in a vice and sawed it off." Some people have all sorts of moral truths: taxation is theft; abortion is murder; don't mix meat and dairy; and so on. Not me. Most of mine are pretty basic. Perhaps the most basic comes from viewing that awful photo years ago: Do not be cruel to the weak.
It seems so simple, so obvious. But is it? From history books to newspaper headlines, there is a barrage of examples of those who gleefully inflict pain and suffering on those who are weaker than themselves. Whether or not I want to, I can't help but remember many of them. Some I read about, some I know of firsthand. A co-worker severely beaten for her purse. A preschool girl raped by her babysitter as punishment for wetting the bed. A friend's sister serially molested by their stepfather. A puppy with his eyes scooped out. A kitten doused with kerosene and set on fire. The Holocaust. Bosnia. The Sudan. And so it goes, forever, both forward and backward in time. So what does it actually mean to take a stand against cruelty to the weak? I admit, it's easy to be cynical. It's like looking at those bumper stickers that say "Another Man Against Domestic Violence" and thinking, well, that balances out against all those pro-domestic violence stickers out there. Cruelty is going to exist no matter what I do or don't do, so what can I do? For one, I can be kind, the opposite of cruel. It's such a little thing, but I believe minor gestures like helping someone carrying a heavy load or even holding the door open for somebody really do matter. Going back to the bumper sticker example, I hate to admit it, but there is something to the sentiment expressed in the one that says, "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." There is another, less overtly-hippie side to my hatred of cruelty. By accepting as a truth that being cruel to the weak is wrong, I not only must avoid being cruel myself, but I must strive to prevent cruelty from occurring in my presence. This is why I practice martial arts and work hard to be strong. I train to hurt people because I hate to see people get hurt. Knowing of so many incidents were innocents were brutalized while others looked on fills me with both rage and sadness. I truly hope I am never placed in that sort of position. I don't want to be a hero. But I don't want anyone to be victimized in my presence wit me unable to prevent it. It could be argued that this major truth of mine, this moral outrage against cruelty, is more of a reactive truth than a proactive truth. There is something to that argument. However, when it comes down to it, no matter how we define ourselves and our beliefs, there is always an element of reaction. There would be no liberals without conservatives, no atheists without believers, no light without dark. Senseless cruelty is very much the dark in the human soul. To some extent, it's in all of us. The trick is not to succumb to the darkness either within or without, but to be the light. For a little light can chase a lot of darkness.