Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On being a sixteen year-old son

I usually hate getting publicly political. I still do, actually. But considering that this blog isn't actually used for anything anymore, I figure I may as well use it to try out writing again.

I lost my virginity when I was sixteen. It isn't a particularly great story, or one I particularly felt like sharing, but I feel it's pretty zeitgeist-y for that age. I remember driving (I was driving! In a car! Me!) back to my house after watching a high school football game on Friday, getting caught waiting at the train tracks while going home. My parents were out of town for the weekend and my girlfriend was coming over the next day. I remember thinking to myself, "Hey! I could have sex tomorrow! How cool would that be?"

I don't talk to that girl anymore. No good reason why not, other than "16 year-olds are idiots." It may seem obvious now, but at the time telling her, "I thought there was no way a girl like you hadn't had sex already" was a really dumb and cruel thing. But that's ok. Life moves on. Teenagers are well known for making poor decisions at full speed. The best we, as a society, can hope for is that they'll finish growing up with a minimum of bodily and mental injury. That's often as much a matter of luck as it is of parenting or being part of student government or whatever. Having sex for the first time is a synecdoche of the teenage years; close your eyes and just hope that you get through it without any long-lasting negative consequences. Life will go on.

And it's true, life does. My junior year in high school was a whirlwind of SAT tests, lacrosse, and the worst teacher I ever had. This English teacher was one of those tyrannical liberals who believed that independent thought was only effective when subservient to an agenda. That class turned me towards the neocon parts of the web; I started reading James Lileks (who, to be honest, I still enjoy the non-political writing of) and was as pro-W. as a non-voter could be. I remember printing out some article Lileks wrote about how Michael Moore and Bowling for Columbine was full of shit, and showing it to my mother. She was disappointed by me, for sure, but I remember her telling me that despite any window dressing, Bowling for Columbine's message of "Not Killing People" was a good one. I agreed, I suppose.

But Moore's resemblance to that English teacher still rubbed me raw. At the end of the year, that teacher told me not to even try for AP English, that I was not a writer with any potential. Because I was sixteen, I believed him. This bastion of liberalism made me understand that my thoughts were not worth sharing with the world.

Thankfully, my parents believed in me. Still do, as far as I'm aware. I'm still amazed that, despite all the evidence I gave them to the contrary, they decided I was well enough worth keeping around. That age-sixteen year I went on two different college tours. I went on an east coast swing where I visited about a dozen schools that wouldn't let a lazy kid with good test scores like me in. I visited Maryland solely because my sister thought I would be able to find a suitable girl there. After seeing who I ended up dating at UMd, I wonder if she ever regrets that suggestion. As the youngest in my family, I had a lot of hopes and dreams imprinted upon me, that I would become the son/brother they hoped for. I never really did become what they expected of me when I was sixteen, but they loved and still love me all the same.

Later in the year, as the spring showed up - in typical Midwestern fashion, a month or so late - me and my father took a road trip in a big loop around. It was another ostensible college tour; UCincy and Vanderbilt, I guess, but it was really an excuse to be around each other. We went to the Louisville War Museum, the Louisville Slugger Bat Factory, a half-dozen good restaurants, at least three Graeter's, and a Reds game. My beloved Reds had one of those years when they were in first place on June 7 and would finish the year 29 games out. Because I was sixteen, I just knew, at the time of that trip, that this would be their year. Sixteen year-olds are gullible like that.

Looking back on it, I am impressed with how my father treated me. He always treated me as the son he expected me to be, not the son I was. I remember throwing a temper tantrum one day because of something Halloween-related, and he just glanced over at me, told me I was being immature, and to stop being immature. He let me make my own decisions, especially around the college deal. He was alright with me pursuing ROTC, considering West Point, and all of that. I think a lot of this was because he was comfortable knowing that my role models, him, his father, his father-in-law principally, were good ones. Like most sixteen year-olds, I was both horrified to follow and inexorably drawn to my father's path. It never occurred to me that he could be incorrect back then. Not because he said he was infallible, but because most children find their parents infallible.

Even now, at the ripe old age of 24, when I should know better, traces of that filial belief in infallibility remain. Despite being confronted by any number of monsters and jackals in the legal community at my father's funeral, I stuck around law school. Despite all evidence pointed contrary, I stayed awake through the October evenings in 2010 to watch the Reds roll their way past the Phillies in the playoffs. Despite anything I know he would've said if he was still around to tell me, I don't think I'll ever be able to be the father he was.

Without knowing much of him, I doubt Anwar al-Awlaki was half the man my father was. My father was a lawyer who could have spent a lot of hours golfing or whoring or whatever else partners at law firms do. Instead, he built a pro-bono program to help people fight their way out of debt without going through the crippling and humiliating bankruptcy process. Al-Awlaki gave speeches on who to murder and how.

Given that, though, I don't know what al-Awlaki's son, Abdulrahman, thought of his father. One can be a bad person and a great father. One can be a bad person and a worse father. I don't know, I mean, they are two independent  variables. In They Would Never Hurt a Fly, Slavenka Drakulic has a story about Ratko Mladic's relationship with his daughter. He doted on her and did everything he could for her, including sending her abroad for a better education. When she learned in school that her beloved father was the mass-murderer responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica, it took her years to process how that could be the same man who she saw eating sausages and rooting for Red Star Belgrade. She was much older than sixteen when she killed herself with father's prize pistol, knowing she would never be able to confront him with how she felt.

We will never know how Abdulrahman got along with his father; whether they argued about America's role in the world, where young Abdulrahman should go to university, or maybe even about the Rockies chances in the upcoming year. Abdulrahman was born and partially raised in Colorado, after all. Sixteen year-old Abdulrahman was killed in a drone strike along with his father in Yemen.

He may have grown up and become another virulently anti-American idealogue like his father. He could have also gone to med school and become a pediatrician. When I was sixteen, I wanted to join the CIA and go after terrorists. Had I followed up on that dream, I could have ended up being part of the decision to kill Anwar, his son, and others. Instead I spent a sleepless night wondering how I was just a few seemingly-miniscule life decisions away from actively pursuing the trial-less execution of two American citizens, one of which was born in 1995 (a year that, until now, has always been shorthand for "the year Eddie George won the Heisman").

The youngest person executed in the United States, Sean Sellers, was sixteen when he killed a store clerk, his mother, and his stepfather in 1999. He was afforded a public trial and a full trip through the appeals process before he was executed by lethal injection ten years later. Abdulrahman was the same age when he was killed by a Hellfire missile that can be traced back to the secretive Join Special Operations Command (JSOC). Sellers, for better or worse, had a media circus surrounding his execution. He had a trial, went through the juvenile justice system, and was given full opportunity to defend himself before execution. Abdulrahman likely did not know he was a target. US officials asserted that he was in his twenties, and needed to be refuted by the al-Awlaki grandparents sending a copy of his birth certificate to the Washington Post. If Abdulrahman was having lunch with friends and family - even vehemently anti-American friends and family - in his hometown of Denver, he would be put through juvenile justice and likely have nothing on his permanent record. But since he did the same in Yemen, a country the United States is not at war with, he was targeted and killed.

To say Abdulrahman was executed in a manner befitting a just system is not something easy to say with a straight face. The teenager was killed blithely, without regard for his guilt other than by association, without regard for his demographics other than his lineage. In Gettysburg, the 1993 Civil War film, Jeff Daniels intones that in America, "[W]e judge you by what you do, not by who your father was." That seems to not hold water today. If Abdulrahman did indeed have anti-American feelings, and if JSOC indeed has a national security interest in executing every teenager with anti-American feelings, there wouldn't be enough Hellfire missiles to kill them all. Teenagers are supposed to be the ones who think that their beliefs, hopes, and dreams are matters of life-and-death, not the Armed Forces. Unlike we may for a sixteen year old, we would not expect JSOC to send a 10-pound Hershey's Kiss to apologize to a girl they offended.

I have no idea what Abdulrahman's political views were and how much of a threat they posed. He was  given less rights then someone arrested for triple murder. He may have sworn to dedicate his life to destroying America. He may have sworn his allegiance to Tim Tebow and the Broncos, also. His ideology, the only reason he was killed, is locked away as a state secret. His quite malleable ideas may now be spattered on the ground, but they're not a matter of public discourse.

Oscar Wilde, of course, said it best, "I am not young enough to know everything."That said, sixteen year-olds are foolish. There's a reason we don't let them vote, go to war, drink, or any of that. We don't expect them to make good decisions. We don't expect them to be fully grown-up, with a life plan that is inflexible and unchangable. We expect them to love their parents and trust them. And we - you, me, and everyone else with a navy blue passport - killed one of them, one of those gawky, foolish, teenagers, for doing just that.

1 comment:

  1. This was beautifully written, AJK. Keep sharing your insights!