Etched in flesh

I must confess that my first reaction, upon hearing about the thug who had his seven year-old tattooed with his gang’s symbol, was that the solution seemed pretty straightforward: a bullet under the chin of the sperm-donor, along with a good home for his son, and if someone will pay for two plane tickets to Kansas I know plenty of people willing to supply both.

The public defender, whose job it is to argue moral equivalencies in a world increasingly preoccupied with the latter and not the former, elaborated the mitigating circumstances. The tattoo was only the size of a quarter. The kid asked for it. How is this different from circumcision? He left out, but might have added, that holding a man like the boy’s putative father responsible for moral decisions is like asking a turnip to recite Shakespeare.

Serpent-tongued inanity is no longer the singular province of attorneys; the tattoo artist’s mother-in-law chimed in with the observation that her many tattoos tell the story of her life. Nobody doubted that for a second, dear.

In a world where every day children are raped, beaten to death, made to kill, torn from their homes or from the wombs of their mothers, this is such a small thing, which is itself tragic. I react with horror all the same, with an inclination to do violence, because here we see the cycle writ small, evil planting evil’s seed in the very flesh of a child.

This little boy deserves a chance to write his own life’s story, or at least not to have it etched into his skin by people who have been gradually transmogrified into monsters by their own failed parents and communities. That’s what we object to — not the fleeting pain of a small tattoo, but this literal marking of a child, this claiming before his time, before he has developed any capacity to maybe, possibly, by the grace of God, choose something other than tribal violence and an early grave.

“I want to be like you,” the boy is reported to have said to his father. Here is the painful truth for every parent, that they want to be like us even when we don’t want to be us. They are crafted to follow our own miserable paths and so if we have an ounce of love for them we strive not only to walk a better path but to point them heavenward, to a Father who does not fail them, who centuries ago exchanged the physical scarring that was the crude language of His earth-bound people for the deeper mark of soul-cleansing water.

And so this is why we pray for them, for own children and for those who are lost, and if we reflect on the state of our own souls we pray as well for the predators, for the father who scars his son, for the lawyer who defends the indefensible, for a nation too craven and benighted to call evil by its rightful name. We pray for the perpetrators as well as the victims because more often than not we have been the perpetrators as well, in spirit if not in fact, and so we cling to a promise and warning that we will be forgiven as we forgive.

We pray for all of them, the ones we love and the ones we should love, and we pray especially for ourselves, that something will happen, that the great setting to rights will begin, that one deep night we will awake to light and the sound of trumpets, obliterating all memory of what we have seen and done here.


  1. Bradley J. Moore

    “I want to be like you”
    Now that is the scariest thing about parenthood – you are right. And it unfortunately perpetuates both the good and the bad. Yes, sometimes prayer is our only refuge.

  2. Ed Chinn

    As a father (and now a grandfather) this piece strikes me as profoundly beautiful. Only a serious parent could have written it. I deeply appreciate the authenticity of this piece. We’ve all said (or thought) and heard, “I want to be like you.” Thank you so much, Tony.

  3. Joe Strummer

    “The public defender, whose job it is to argue moral equivalencies in a world increasingly preoccupied with the latter and not the former, elaborated the mitigating circumstances.”

    Is that really what defense attorneys do? “Argue moral equivalencies”? Or do they… you know… require the state to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.


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