Dear FO° Reader,
This February, I married my beautiful wife, Clare. Immediately after the wedding, we changed cities. Somewhere in the flurry of packing boxes and starting our new jobs, the honeymoon got lost. We finally settled on a time and a place months later — mid-October, in Rome. Any later, and the heavy autumn rains of the Mediterranean would have set in. As it turns out, we managed to snatch the city’s last week of dry weather.
Of course, while we were buying the plane tickets and booking our hotels, we did not know that Hamas was about to launch an unprecedentedly massive attack on Israel, slaughtering civilians with shocking cruelty. Neither did we expect the ferocious Israeli response that would reduce so much of Gaza to rubble. But as we flew from Newark to Fiumicino, missiles were flying over Gaza. On social media and in the international press, supporters of the warring sides were throwing bombs, too.
War, war crimes and toxic discourse
Now, I’m no pacifist. I understand that a people can only endure so much before, as an armed society, it rises up to strike with force against injustices. But what I read and heard sickened me. I saw my peers minimize, deny or even celebrate kidnapping, torture, rape and brutality. So desperate were they to see some kind of change in the status quo that they were willing to approve of anything that disrupted it, even that.
War crimes, by definition, are the things that are still evil even when war is justified. That is, still evil even when a society arms itself to fight against grave injustice. Some things you just do not do. As both an editor and a social media user, I spent a week listening to Americans and others forget that there are lines, even in war. And then I left for Rome.
In the Old Testament, there was a law (Dt. 24:5) that for one year a newly married man could not be called up for war, so that he could share his joy with his wife. So, at least for the honeymoon, I decided to turn my phone off and not think about 2023 for a few days. I needed to forget the callousness and the comfort with brutality and war that I had accosted. I decided to get away from social media bombardment and be present with my bride.
A Roman honeymoon better than Roman Holiday
Note that my wife had not been to Rome before. The feeling, once you land in this glorious city, is immediately different. The train from the airport takes you past palm trees and cypresses. We got off at Ostiense station and were immediately greeted by a 2,000-year-old pyramid and the impressive city gate constructed by Maxentius, the last pagan to rule in Rome. On that first day, we saw the imperial-era marbles at the Palazzo Massimo and the Basilica of St. Mary Major, where the relic of Christ’s manger is kept. Our hotel allowed us to climb to the roof, and from one vantage point we spied the domes of the Pantheon and St. Peter’s and the rooftops of the imposing Victor Emmanuel Monument and the Palace of Justice. We were awash in the eternity of the city.
There, 390 BC, 410 AD, 846, 1527 and 1943 (the last three, ADs obviously) are as present as 2023. The city has been attacked by Gauls, Goths, Arabs, Spaniards and Germans. And the city has attacked them all, as well. Rome is an unmistakable reminder of the violence that human beings are capable of. And yet, it is also a monument to their aspirations, their anxieties, their passion and their piety. Rome is humanity.
Somehow, in spite of being filled with so much history and so much humanity, Rome is not a pandemonium. Other people press in on every side in its crowded streets, but you have only to look upward to see the graceful domes of Christian churches filling the sky with their stillness. Rome is a city of contemplation. Once the capital of the world, it is also in a way outside of it, a portal into the eternity and stillness of Heaven.
Rome’s real treasures are not the mighty Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain, but the bones of Peter and Paul and the wood of the Cross at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. The culture of Rome’s people, their love of art, their seriousness and their faith are what animate the city.
Spending time in Italy has made me reflective. These days, I seek depth and have come to hate soft news. But the most important stories in the news tend to be about wars, crime and death. Both television and print media are an endless torrent of negative stories. If you want to escape the negativity, you can turn to stories about puppies getting adopted or local kids doing a craft project. Few positive stories seem to have any weightiness.
This editorial strategy creates the impression that positive stories are merely entertainment, while negative stories are serious. Yes, serious minds must never ignore suffering and injustice in places like Gaza, Ukraine and Sudan. Yet year after year, consuming news about war after grinding war will make the human heart go sick. One must have a respite, but soft news is far too insubstantial to fill this role.
Profundity, not frivolity, is the antidote to despair. Rome reminds us that the most important things are not the bad things. It teaches us that the human spirit has a depth that is deeper than sin and that the world has a magnitude that is greater than war.
Raphael, School of Athens, in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.
So, take your tired mind to Rome. Spend some time with the art, with the intellect and the spirit. If you cannot make the journey, then go to Rome in your heart. Think and talk about the good and the beautiful. Direct your attention to the things that have a significance beyond the necessary, even the direly necessary. Then, with your mind refreshed, you can come back to the world and to the needful work that is thinking about states, wars and suffering.
At Fair Observer, we try to do both. We debate and seek to understand war as we strive for peace. But we do not forget the core values that animate human existence: art, the mind, family and the meaning of love.
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