Recently the New York Times featured an article in their Sunday magazine on Kristin and Tatiana Hogan, four-year-old twins who are conjoined at the cranium and share a neural bridge. I read it with fascination, but what lingers still is the striking picture of two smiling, joyous children surrounded by a loving family. As a physician remarked in a recent post on the Arizona Bioethics Network, “you can just hear them laughing.”
The picture of these children engendered in me a sense of common humanity, a deep connection with the miracle of life that transcends the often jarring distortions and differences that simultaneously both define and separate us. The story of the twins and their family in a small town in British Columbia recalled stories in my own circle of family and friends – the niece who dotes on her daughter with Downs Syndrome, the wife of a close friend who looks after her two 50-something brothers with profound intellectual disabilities, the friend who stays home to care for her paraplegic husband. Each gives freely of themselves to help those they love, and both they and the object of their devotion are transformed in the process.
As it happened, the story of the conjoined twins appeared right around the time as the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general accused of genocide and ethnic cleansing during the 1990s war in Bosnia. This news also captured my attention, for it was during the later 1990s when I was a volunteer at a literacy center that I came to mentor and befriend Sakib F., a Bosnian Muslim whose wife had been killed by the Serbs and who had escaped to America with his two teenage daughters.
Sakib didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived. His daughters had to translate for him. Over time a bond of trust and respect grew between us, and I was able to help him and his daughters with basic needs such as housing, health care and employment. I came to know Sakib well, and he confided in me his profound hatred of the Serbs and his revulsion with all organized religion, which he saw as responsible for the violence tearing apart his country.
“Islam no good, Christianity no good,” he said disdainfully. “Religion isn’t for people. It’s for power.”
When I heard they captured Mladic, I immediately thought of Sakib, whom I haven’t seen for a number of years. Is he celebrating the news? Is he still consumed with anger and hatred? Has he achieved any measure of peace?
Then, after reading about the conjoined twins, I got to thinking of Mladic himself. Who loves him? Who should have loved him as a child but didn’t? Because of the horrible things they have done, are there some people who are beyond the pale of love and forgiveness?
As jarring as it may be to first gaze upon the Hogan twins and other children born with rare congenital conditions, the heart quickly recovers in most of us to see the common humanity behind the deformed mask. Those who feel no sense of empathy for these children are perhaps so psychologically deformed themselves that there is a sense in which it can be said they are not fully human. Serial killers, for example, are said to have no empathy for other people.
Which brings us back to Mladic. Even under conditions of war (and assuming the allegations are true), there is something tragically wrong with someone who can slaughter thousands of innocent people and dump them in mass graves, or force others to do such unspeakable acts. Still, the question remains: Can we nevertheless feel a sense of empathy for such a person? Can we see ourselves in Ratko Mladic?
It brings to mind the refrain from the song, God Will, by Lyle Lovett: “God does, but I don’t, God will, but I won’t, and that’s the difference between God and me.”
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.