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Eyes Wide Open

Reflections on the true nature of killing

I saw my first murder victim when I was ten years old. I played organized baseball every summer, so while the rest of my family vacationed on the Connecticut shore, I stayed home in Springfield, Massachusetts, with my dad, a blood-and-guts general surgeon. If he had to operate at night, he brought me along. I often slept on a gurney outside the old Mercy Hospital O.R., where a nun in full regalia would tuck me in to sleep.

It so happened that on one of those summer nights, we passed through the emergency room, where on a gurney—the type I often slept on—lay a pawnbroker who had been shot to death during a holdup. His eyes were wide open, and he had a hole in his forehead the size of a dime. As we passed him, I couldn’t help but stare. I was mesmerized by his sad, gray eyes, which, I was certain, looked at me. My father grabbed my arm, trying to stop me from staring, and said, “Come on, for Christ’s sake. He’s as dead as Caesar.”

I was astonished. At that age, I could not understand how you could be dead yet looking out onto the world with your eyes open. For three weeks, maybe longer, I had to have the light on in my room all night long. The man’s killing petrified me, changed me, as all killings change kids and grownups.

I have now been around killings for more than thirty years, and I can tell you one thing: anybody who celebrates the act of killing—who finds glory or dignity in it—has never seen killing. Those who cheered the killing of Khadafy’s son in April or who treated the assassination of Bin Laden like a sporting event, complete with T-shirts boasting of a “head shot,” do not know what it’s like to see someone obliterated.

Hurrahs for the taking of a life are especially unsettling for us physicians. We spend our days striving to alleviate suffering, preserve life, and comfort those who are dying of organic diseases. If you have seen a policeman fighting for his life after being shot, or a fireman burned, held their hands or worked furiously to save their lives, then you know how frightening it is to be around killing. It rankles you to hear people in suits glibly speaking the language of killing—measuring success in terms of firepower, raids, combat, taking the battle to the enemy. They would not talk that way if they had treated men with missing limbs, or opened a chest to stop the bleeding wrought by a bullet, or witnessed a head wound from a sniper’s rifle.

And those leaders who think killing is like a computer game, clean, precise, painless. I’d like to get them into a trauma bay or a military operating room for one minute and see how quickly they decide to send our youth to kill and be killed the next time war presents itself as an option.

It’s time we decided who we are. Are we the species whose creations are as complex and as lovely as a Beethoven symphony? Or are we the species that revels in the lowest, most violent, most horrific of acts?

These days when I think about killing, the pawnbroker always comes to mind. His death taught me that just because one’s eyes are wide open, that doesn’t mean one is alive. Some of the wide-eyed living are, morally and spiritually, as good as dead. These are the ones who send our children to die for no real purpose, and plot killings, and boast about our nation’s competencies for mayhem and violence.

No, do not be fooled by eyes that are wide open. Look deep into them and see truth before we become like those who are unable to discern right from wrong. Americans must come to realize that the taking of a life, anyone’s life, diminishes all of us.

BRIAN GILCHRIST, A77, M84, is chief of pediatric surgery and vice president of Elliot Hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire. He was formerly surgeon-in-chief at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center.

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