Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Faces

Without words, faces can tell you a lot. This week I was struck by the faces of a few individuals. The recent photograph of the young man who entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and viciously shot innocent worshippers, is frankly frightening. Someone might say he is emotionally disturbed—that seems obvious enough—but what he himself is now saying in court is that he very much chose to undertake the actions that he did. He is unrepentant, unashamed of his actions. And his face tells if not quite the whole story, certainly a large part of it. When interviewed by the police, he was unrepentant, casually describing his horrific act and explaining the bizarre motive, borne out of racial hatred, for it.

The Charleston shooter, whose name is not worth mentioning. Mugshot taken by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, June 18, 2015

And that might have been enough sadness for one blog and a sufficiently egregious example of racism for an entire a decade, even if it is admittedly simply emblematic of a wider societal characteristic, but I saw what nearly everyone else saw this week, the sad story of four young people in Chicago, two male, two female, who held a mentally handicapped person hostage, posting images of the ordeal on social media even as they tortured him, also motivated by hatred sprung from racial prejudice. The faces seen in their mug shots told a similar story: defiance.

We cannot see the face of the disabled teenager, who fortunately escaped when the torturers went down a flight of stairs allegedly to kick in the door of a neighbor who complained about the noise that they were making as they brutalized the young man. It is hard to fathom this, hard to make any sense of the degrading of humanity caused by such hatred. Again, it is defiance. Add to that shamelessness. The complete obviation of right and wrong. Going beyond good and evil in a most Nietzschean sense, with emphasis on going beyond evil. Diabolical in the truest sense of that word. Not simply übermenschlich (but still, if in a diluted sense, menschlich). Rather, lacking any sense of humanity. Inhumane. Inhuman.

The names of these folks from Chicago do not merit mentioning. Their faces speak volumes (photo of screenshot).

Both of these terrible events are simply emblematic of the worst that we can find in our ranks. The fact that their faces reflect not simply soulless people but people whose soul is dedicated to evil might leave us with a sense of hopelessness. President Obama assessed the state of affairs nowadays, brush stroking the situation in Chicago itself:

“’In part because we see visuals of racial tensions, violence, and so forth; because of smart phones and the Internet. … What we have seen as surfacing, I think, are a lot of problems that have been there a long time. ‘Whether it’s tensions between police and communities, hate crimes of the despicable sort that has just now recently surfaced on Facebook, … I take these things very seriously. The good news is that the next generation that’s coming behind us … have smarter, better, more thoughtful attitudes about race. I think the overall trajectory of race relations in this country is actually very positive. It doesn’t mean that all racial problems have gone away. It means that we have the capacity to get better.’”[1]

Mr. Obama sounds to me a bit detached, as he seems to view the particular example that he cites, the very one we are considering here, at only a great distance. His assessment of the event in Chicago comes across a bit glib, a bit Pollyanna, with a kind of rosy-cheeked optimism that might be a bit more difficult to muster should one have one’s boots firmly planted on the ground, should one have been able to stand next to the police officer who discovered the young man just after he escaped. And if he should look hard into the faces of the perpetrators, if he and we all could have seen the face of the victim as he was being tortured, perhaps our own view of the situation would be more engaged, as well.

But even if Mr. Obama’s evaluation of the state of race relations in our country does not quite inspire you with an abundance of hope, it is surely more hopeful than the stark faces of the alleged perpetrators of the Charleston shooter. In any case, sometimes you don’t need to see a face to envision hope. A picture sums up the opposite attitude, not man’s inhumanity but one person’s humane care for a fellow human being.

A soldier carrying a fallen comrade. Sometimes it is the face you cannot see that tells the story. Photo credit: amnondafni

The photograph above shows no face—it needs none. You can’t tell if the person being rescued is black or white or any other color; you can’t discern the race, religion, even gender of the rescuer. But you can discern that hero’s personal philosophy: it is to go back for the lost and fallen, to rescue, deliver, bring hope in the face of hopelessness; it is, simply put, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Perhaps that’s all you need to know.

Sometimes seeing the face of the hero is helpful, too. Sargent Jerrod Fields is a world-class sprinter, despite losing a limb in the service of his country. His face is that of a hero both in battle and in competition.

Sgt. Fields’ face tells the story: he was a hero and role model serving America abroad and remains one at home. Photo by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs

Joseph Tomasella, a specialist from the New Jersey Air National Guard, serves at the Coast Guard Air Station, here pictured as he participates in an exercise. His face tells the story: he is unafraid, he is a hero.

Joseph Tomasella, of the New Jersey Air National Guard 177th Fighter Wing. Photo of the United States Air National Guard taken by Sgt. Matt Hecht.

And the list could go on. One such firefighter, Mike Hughes of Wenatchee, Washington, recently returned to see the graduation of a young woman whom he rescued when she was but an infant.

tomasella-with-infant“It’s a miracle that I did come out of that,” the young woman who was saved as an infant said. “I feel like I owe him so much. It’s just amazing that I have got to meet the guy who saved my life. I just can’t thank him enough. There are way too many words to describe how much I could thank him.”[2]

When, in the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, the angel Clarence speaks to the patriarch Joseph, of George Bailey, “He has a good face. I like that face!” maybe he has a point. One might debate about whether there are angels like Clarence moving amongst us unseen. But one would be silly to debate whether there are heroes doing so, albeit for the most part they are as unseen as angels.[3] Perhaps you know one. Perhaps you are one and don’t yet know it. Look in the mirror: your face may tell the whole story.

[1] Quotes of President Obama taken from


[3] Take Smoky, for example, who is said to have been the first known therapy dog:



Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply