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Naming the Dead

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, by Flickr user profzucker

In July of 1977 a young man named Richard Herrin murdered his ex-girlfriend, Bonnie Garland, by smashing her head in with a hammer as she slept. Herrin and Garland had met as students at Yale, and had dated for two years, but she had told him she wanted to be free to see other people.

Amazingly, Herrin was not convicted of murder, but only of manslaughter, in large part because of the support he received from the Yale community, including the University’s Catholic chaplain. Herrin’s supporters argued that as a Latino from a Los Angeles barrio, he felt out of place and marginalized at Yale, which put him in a precarious emotional state even before Bonnie Garland rejected him. He was, these supporters said, a young man of extremely good character.

A psychiatrist named Willard Gaylin followed the case closely and eventually wrote an extremely powerful book about it. I read that book when it came out, more than thirty years ago, and have never forgotten it. The puzzle Gaylin set out to explore was this: Why were Herrin’s supporters so completely lacking in sympathy for Bonnie Garland and her grieving family? Why were so many of them contemptuous of her father’s insistence that the man who used the claw of a hammer to smash his daughter’s skull into fragments needed to be convicted of murder? Why did they so loftily lecture him on the necessity of forgiveness, and tell him that he just needed to “get over it”?

Gaylin’s answer — and this is what makes the book unforgettable — is that it happened this way because Bonnie Garland wasn’t there. Had Herrin severely injured her, but in such a way that she could appear in the courtroom, the sympathy of the jury and the audience would have flowed inevitably and naturally towards her. But by killing her — erasing her presence, turning her into a thing — he left the human sympathy that naturally arises in response to horror nowhere to go but towards him. “Poor young man. How he must have been suffering to do that.”

Gaylin’s book has come to my mind in the aftermath of this week’s Brussels bombings, as it has after previous, simliar attacks. From the right we hear: Look at the terrible people who did this! From the left we hear: Look at the innocent people who will suffer because of this! But from no one do we hear: Look at the dead — because they cannot be seen. They have left our world; images of them may remain, but they are definitely in the past tense. It is more natural and more interesting for us to stare at security-camera footage of the bombers. We are drawn towards those who breathe the air we breathe.

Therefore, since we can no longer see the dead, we must make a special effort to remember them. This is the great genius of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial: it does no more — and no less — than to name the dead. Their bodies are buried, or lost; but their names we can still speak. And the deep implication of the Memorial is that we should.

We do not yet know all the names of those who were killed in Brussels. Some are missing and feared dead, but their families still await definitive news. A few we know: Adelma Tapia Ruiz, Olivier Delespesse, Léopold Hecht. May they rest in peace.

But this exercise can only remind us of those who have died by violence whose names we cannot find: so, so many of those killed by Daesh, or by Boko Haram, or in wars around the world. Confronted by so much destruction and misery, we may find it easier to turn our faces towards the perpetrators, or towards those we fear might be targeted. These are temptations to be resisted. We must, for a time at least, turn our faces towards those who have died, and say their names, when we can discover them. It is the least we can do for those whom evil has found.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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