Yesterday, I saw a film of such shattering emotional impact that it forced me to face just how much I have been missing lately by focusing more on artistic form than visceral emotion. In fact, I found being torn apart and rendered incapable of rational analysis to be nothing short of liberating.
But there I go again with the self-serving language that obscures rather than reveals emotion. I wasn’t “rendered incapable of rational analysis.”
I was crying and I couldn’t stop. On a bus. With people staring at me.
The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández (July 8th, 10 PM, PBS) tells the story of an 18 year-old American citizen – a son, a brother, a student, a friend – who was killed in 1997 near the Mexican border in Redford, Texas by US Marines watching for drug smugglers. While the rules of engagement did not call for deadly force, filmmaker Kieran Fitzgerald painstakingly details the series of events that led a U.S. Marine to shoot and kill Esequiel as he tended his family’s goats with a .22 rifle. Esequiel thus became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on American soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings.
So many of us respond to tragedy by playing an instinctive mental game. Surely, we tell ourselves, a tragic story will have one detail about a victim, one simple fact which will allow us to delude ourselves into thinking that we have found a reason for the unreasonable. Perhaps the victim was someplace he or she shouldn’t have been. Perhaps, even years before, the victim did or said something that even now allows us to temper our grief. It’s stunning how quickly we all, even unconsciously, resort to victim-blaming.
Some times we even say (or just think, if we are smart enough not to give voice to our least humane instincts) that “he got what was coming.” We think those words can provide a psychic antidote to the deeper horror that comes from pain that won’t go away. But that is when we must face the fact that good people like Esequiel Hernández, through no fault of their own, can sometimes die painful and tragic deaths simply by finding themselves in the cross-fire of powerful and violent institutions.
Esequiel dies because of an absolutely pointless and symbolic deployment of Marines as border guards in the “War on Drugs,” a mission for which they are scandalously unprepared. Before you know it — with the maniacal anti-immigrant rantings of media provocateurs like Bill O’Reilly playing in the background – a young man lies dead.
As I watched The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, I kept playing a mental game in a vain attempt to rid myself of pain: At least, I told myself, the evil of the killers will provide a different kind of relief. They can be hated and resented and serve as the vessels in which I will place my rage at a young life lost too soon.
But then “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” deals a second blow. Fitzgerald profiles the four Marines — although the one who actually fired the fatal shot chooses not to be interviewed — with such nuance and emotional depth that it becomes impossible to find the relief and resolution that would come from clearly evil killers.
They are human.
And then all I felt was despair, left with a difficult challenge we all face as we try to make sense of the world. Like it or not, we must accept that some tragedies are destined to remain open sores on our souls, forever unresolved, forever a source of grief.
In the end, though, “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” comes back to a young man and his grieving parents. He didn’t have to die, but he did, and even now — a day later — I can’t figure out a way to move from relentless grief to any thoughtful action. I can’t figure out where to direct my rage.
I can only cry for Esequiel. And his mother and father and brother.