There's a picture I saw recently, of a man slumped on a park bench with his head split open. On one foot you can see his shoe and the neatly tied shoe laces. I'll bet when he tied them earlier that day the last thing he thought of was that a man tens of thousands of miles and a world away would be staring at them through a computer screen. That he himself would be dead, oblivious to the problems that were troubling him only the night before. Death is so final, so unsettling.
Then there are the pictures of emaciated bodies, many bearing the marks of torture. The men are strangers. They mean nothing to me. As I stare into the eyes of one of them I feel a strange disquiet. What would I look like if that had befallen me? A week's worth of stubble, my colourless lips slightly parted to show teeth, my hands bound together. I wouldn't feel anything of course, but then it occurs to me that those we leave behind do feel something. They feel a lot. I once heard a story about a wise king who told his followers that when he was to be buried that he must lie in state with his hands outstretched and palms upwards. It was to show the world that he was leaving it with nothing, exactly the way he entered it. I've never heard of such a king, but I listened politely because clearly the person telling me the story was far less concerned with the historical accuracy than with instilling in me the understanding that it's not the money we make, the station we reach or the things that we acquire in this little journey, it's just our actions that matter. And our actions determine the effect we leave behind on people, on those who might mourn us. All that decoration and fuzz that different religions demand, the rituals and solemn prayer, they are for the living, not the dead. The dead don't care about this world anymore. They are somewhere else, or nowhere.
No, the ritual is there to help those of us left behind. So I stare now at the dead man on my screen and I think that somewhere there was a mother who carried him for nine months, who breastfed him and laughed as he took his first steps. Somewhere there were people who cared for this man, a woman who might have caressed his hair, children maybe that might have laughed as he carried them high. He might have been miserable enough to have never experienced any of these things, and in that case maybe death was a blessing for him, but let's say this dead man, let's call him Zeyd, had a blessed and happy life. He didn't know that somewhere in the world somebody was building the barrel bomb that would split his skull open and throw him on a park bench like a ragged drunkard who has just collapsed in a heap. We can say he had an infinite number of choices to make, whether to walk down that street or not, whether he could have decided to stay in whatever wretched hovel of a home he lives in and not come out that day, but after it happened, after that one singular event, nothing could have changed and it could never have been other than the way it happened. What a pity, what a terrible waste, what a sad sad day to live and see this being done to human beings.