As a writer on human rights issues I don’t lack reasons for concern. There are not too many countries nowadays where human rights are not abused in some form, where violence does not strike in one of its multiple forms. Although writing topics are plentiful, this situation is especially upsetting for anybody who yearns to live in a peaceful world. At such moments when aspects of the human condition are overwhelming, I visit one of the many neighborhoods outside Manhattan -- where I live -- and where the change of locale can do wonders for my mood.
One of my favorite places is Brighton Beach, an area on Coney Island in the borough of Brooklyn, a subway ride away from Manhattan. When the weather is pleasant and I have some free time I go to the boardwalk, sit in front of the sea and the salt breeze energizes me. When it is cold, I visit one of the plentiful ethnic stores and delight in their variety. When my appetite is in full force I go to one of the many restaurants in the area to savor food unlike what I eat at home every day.
The area is populated mainly by Jewish immigrants that left the former Soviet Union starting in the 1970s and whose influx continues today. Years ago, the area was dubbed “Little Odessa,” since many of its residents came from Odessa, a city in Ukraine. I remember the welcome surprise of a friend -- with whom I was having dinner at one of the local Russian restaurants -- when he realized how many patrons came from there, his parents’ hometown.
Reading the news recently has been particularly disheartening: the continuous violence between Israelis and Palestinians, with no hint of an effective rapprochement between them. And the sustained violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, countries whose sores never seem to heal.
On March 11, one or more American soldiers went into a shooting rampage that ended with the death of 16 civilians, mostly women and children. Showing considerable frustration, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that he was at the “end of the rope” regarding the U.S.’s lack of cooperation to investigate this matter properly. In Iraq, hardly a week goes by without a bombing incident causing scores of victims. And the carnage in Syria, with no signs of abating, is causing enormous losses in lives and the forced migration of thousands of people to neighboring countries.
I want to forget about these events, I want to believe that I live in a world without wars. I take the subway and after almost an hour I am in another planet. I am sitting by the sea in Brighton Beach. Today is a relatively cold day so there are few people around. A young woman comes with her child and sits next to me. The mother sends him to play on the sand. By the occasional remarks the woman makes to him I take her to be of Russian origin.
The child is happily playing with a ball. Suddenly he leaves the ball. Seeing a line of giant ants moving along the sand, he takes a bunch of them and crushes them with one hand. Putting her knitting aside, his mother beckons him, puts her hand on his shoulder and in heavily accented English quietly but firmly says, “Don’t do that ever again. You don’t hurt anybody—do you hear me? You don’t hurt anybody.” The child looks at her with a mixture of fear and surprise. Then slowly, very slowly, his head down in shame, he drops the dead ants one by one on the sand…