Sometimes class discussions take a turn down a dark alley. And it's difficult to get out again.
The grade five class talks about a scene from a book they are reading. The animals in the story are fighting over food. Suddenly the conversation shifts. "Did you see the pictures," says a student, "the ones with Americans doin' stuff to the naked guys in Iraq?" Many of the students say they've seen them.
"Yah," says another student, "and what about the picture of the guy who's gonna get his head cut off?" Yup, most have seen that one, too.
As they talk, their conversation mixes with uncertainty. They are afraid. And they want to understand their fear. As always, the teacher listens and helps them work it through. But this subject is heavy, and horrible.
In the past, the teacher allayed their fears. Answered their questions. Shared the words of Chinese philosopher Confucius: "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you." The students wrestled with the message. Thought about it. Absorbed it. They worked at being kind on the playground, in class, and at home with their family and friends. And the adults of the world were pleased.
Or they used to be pleased.
Since September 11, 2001, many in the adult world have regressed to childhood. Extreme, explosive violence is a guiltless response to every slight - real or imagined.
Or is it something deeper - something worse?
War and violence are marketed television products in the 500-channel universe. Torture now comes in wondrous variety: torture as politics, torture as justice, and torture as entertainment. Just choose to your taste.
In civilized countries, politicians use the word torture for sound bite press time. Those out of power condemn the act. Those in power play with the word. Torture becomes the questioning of "illegal combatants," or the "softening up" of prisoners. Americans contract out their torture to Syria, to Egypt, or to comic book Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay. It's American corporate outsourcing at its darkest.
It's just torture as politics.
Liberal American lawyer Alan Derschowitz argues in favour of government licensed torture. Of course, Derschowitz says such "legal" torture should be executed "openly" and "with accountability." After all, he says, we don't want to "adopt the way of the hypocrite."
So tell me, Mr. Derschowitz, should the teacher tell his students that there is "good torture" and "bad torture"? Or perhaps it just depends for whose god the torture is done?
It's just torture as justice.
Much of what passes for entertainment these days is awash in torture and murder. Dial up the faces of death on the Internet or watch endless revenge fantasies on film. The good guys are as dark and disturbed as the bad guys.
Our students witness the suggestively pornographic photos of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. Or they glimpse Al-Quada operatives in the moments before they behead an American. All images blend together with our reality-television entertainment. Torture is the flagship show in the new season of reality television - a Sin City video game overlaid on a tenth century crusade. See it now, live on CNN.
It's just torture as entertainment.
"Human beings," says an American novelist, "are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power." The novelist is selling the chimpanzees short. Ever see a chimpanzee force another chimp into acts of sexual degradation - for tourist photos? Or cut the head off another chimp - for God? Or unleash the forces of "smart bomb" hell on other chimps - for freedom, for imaginary weapons of mass destruction, for oil?
Alan Derschowitz worries about torture being hypocritical? What about the hypocrisy of demanding from our schools zero tolerance for violence, while letting our children stare for hours into the 27-inch chamber of horrors cable peep show?
Last year, after the war in Iraq began, a small peace button on my jacket gave deep concern to a customer in a coffee shop line up. He angrily wanted to know why I would support Saddam Hussain. Support Saddam Hussain? I just wanted peace - and a coffee. And why would a peace button be so contentious?
Maybe "peace" and "torture" are not absolute good and evil, anymore. Maybe we've regressed to infants with unsatisfied, amoral urges. And maybe, in an age when many in the civilized world spit with disgust on human rights, teachers should give up teaching their students right from wrong.
The alley is dark. And our children need a guiding light.
The writer is a school principal, teacher, and columnist for the Daily News in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org