Looking back, I remember my thoughts on monsters evolving over time. When very young, the existence of the dark things on the edge of reality wasn’t even a question. Of course monsters dwelt out in the there! And sometimes, rarely, they would sneak in amongst us. Thankfully, parents and trusted strangers like police officers and firemen were there to beat them back into the abyss. I wanted to grow up to fight monsters like they did. With a powerful Lego gun or a swift broomstick sword, no monster could endure as long as I was brave enough to face it. And I desperately wanted to be brave enough to be that hero. Eventually this gave way to a cautious skepticism. They probably weren’t around, but no point in risking it. Finally, this resolved itself into the prideful, prepubescent rejection of a preteen who has seen behind the curtain and wants everyone to know he knew it the whole time.
But now in the back half of my twenties, I see the arrogance of my mistake. Monsters are very much real, and there isn’t nearly as over there as little Geoff had imagined. I’m not alone in my fear of monsters, either. A horrific hemorrhagic virus explodes from the dark places to sweep through Africa, prompting Americans to fear for their own safety an ocean away. Children travel thousands of miles to flee murderous drug pushers in their homeland, but are even worse monsters mixed in with them, streaming across the Mexican border? Either a dangerous thug tried to take an officer’s gun during a routine stop, or a racist monster gunned down an unarmed young man. In the Middle East, bearded monsters appear out of the swirling sand, beheading those who refuse to join the monsters or speak out against them. The media in all its forms devotes what little is left after discussing monsters to arguing how to kill them or who should be responsible. Monsters are quite real. Our society is thoroughly entranced by their terror. We are desperately looking for someone to slay the monsters, and unfortunately our monsters often lack the simplistic weaknesses of their fantasy and comic book counterparts.
Even now, a lot of people with special sets of skills are devoting a lot of time and energy to figuring out the identity of the masked man who beheaded two American journalists in a video released by the Islamic State militant group. They hope to identify him in order to bring him to justice. The decision has been made that this man in a black hood is a monster who must be sought and destroyed, as if that discovery will end the Islamic State’s reign of terror, or even terrorism as a whole. It’s the same attitude that tempts us to limit our focus in the case of the Michael Brown shooting to arguing whether Michael Brown was a monster put down or the officer who shot him is a monster still to be caught.
In any tragedy, we look for the claw marks of a monsters. We clamor to inspect the webbed footprints, rushing to match them to their owner whose blood we demand. Otherwise, we can’t possibly hope to be safe. But alas, no sooner have we swept away the last signs of their death throws than does the next worst terrorist group ever, biggest existential threat to America, most racist authority figure, wildest street gang, or scariest public health crisis emerges as a new monster clawing its way up from hell, robed in the fear of that which keeps even the most skeptical adults awake at night. Why won’t the grotesque parade end?
That sinking feeling snatching away victory is not a modern invention; it is as old as humanity. We see the terrible cost in Beowulf, the classic Old English epic poem chronicling the feats of the titular Geat warrior. A nearby king is plagued by a monster known as Grendel, descended from the fratricidal Cain, who routinely breaks into his hall and kills his men. Beowulf springs an ambush on the creature, ripping off his arm and sending him limping back to his cave to die. A celebration is held because another horror is dead at the hands of the accomplished hero.
But the funny thing about monsters is they always come from somewhere. Late in the night after the celebration has ebbed away, Grendel’s mother arrives thirsting for revenge. Beowulf, sleeping comfortably away from his ambush point in special accommodations granted for his victory, can’t arrive before the king’s trusted advisor is dragged away to his death. Beowulf is able to restore peace, but not without descending into the depths of the monstrous mother’s lair and not before a price is paid for the oversight.
From the smallest child to the most powerful politician or military leader, we long to be Beowulf the slayer of nightmares, and we as a society exceed at emulating his example. Rapists, murderers, charlatans, dissidents, terrorists, gang bangers, crooked cops, and even elemental forces of decay and entropy are imprisoned, killed, stopped in their tracks as the pile of trophies grows only higher. We celebrate and resolve to rest, but there is no permanent peace. Our celebrations are cut short as more monsters come screaming from there to here.
Why? Because we forget monsters have to come from somewhere, and until we remember that, more will come, many thirsty for blood in exchange for their fallen kin. Instead of attempting to understand what turns a son or daughter, a beautiful human created in God’s image, into something we fear and hate, we ostracize and dehumanize our enemies rather than realize the exact same potential rests in each of our hearts. The desperation of the inner city, the racial disparity in Ferguson, the corrupt politics of Iraq, the fears of Central American parents, and the poor medical readiness in the developing world simply do not matter; what matters is that these things are evil and must be put down. We accept no blame for the forces that turn our neighbors into monsters, desperately reassuring ourselves we’ll be safe as soon as we kill one more. If it is a monstrous group, we pick one, be they outspoken leader or videotaped executioner, and decide that their blood will grant us justice and peace. We dare not dive into the lair of the mother of monsters for fear of what we might find. Some new unimagined horror, an old foe long thought vanquished, or worse, we might even find ourselves.