When I first saw true hate. First in a series.

Photo by Jerry Habraken.

A note from the Editors in Chief: In response to the January 6 Insurrection, over the next week we will be publishing a series of short pieces penned by veterans who serve on the staff of Causeway Lit. We are proud to present the first, When I first saw true hate.

By Dane Sawyer.

On a Wednesday afternoon my six-month-old was still groggy from her nap so I bounced her on my knee. She looked at me, her eyes widened, she giggled and flashed her big toothless smile. In the last few weeks she has discovered eyes. She has started looking deeply into mine, and when I smile, she smiles. It’s how we talk now.

I heard the ding of a text message. “Do you think this is the start of a revolution?” my mom’s text said. “These protestors are getting crazy, it’s absurd.”

I stopped bouncing my daughter and turned on the TV.

Thousands of protestors were circling the capitol. The camera panned and I saw outnumbered police officers in riot gear standing behind a small metal barricade. Protestors pushed against it. A man in paramilitary gear leaned in towards a police officer and yelled, shaking the barricade, spit flying from his mouth. The camera zoomed in to his rage-filled eyes.

I don’t know how long I watched before I felt my daughter shifting her weight on my knee. I looked down and her eyes were locked on the screen. I turned it off, ashamed I had exposed her to such violent images and sounds.

In the quiet room, I sat, shaken, staring at the blank TV. I hadn’t seen eyes like that since Afghanistan.

I was in Eastern Afghanistan in 2012 and the US Army’s counter-insurgency operations were in full swing. Part of our mission was to directly fight insurgents; the other part was to stabilize and protect communities that were being terrorized by small groups of radicalized insurgents. It was on one of those counter-insurgency operations when I saw true hate for the first time.

My team was on an Afghan-led mission to surround and capture or kill a group of insurgents. As we headed towards the enemy, US Army vehicles trailed behind the Afghan convoy. We were only supposed to get involved if the Afghans asked for backup.

The convoy came to a halt and I heard gunfire in the distance. After a few minutes the fighting stopped, and later I saw Afghan soldiers walking back to their trucks, laughing and in good spirits. I grabbed my linguist and went over to get an update.

“It’s all over, it was quick. We surprised them. We killed them all but one.” One of the Afghan soldiers told me.

“Did he get away?” I asked.

The Afghan soldier motioned his head up the road. A man in disheveled clothing, an Afghan soldier on each arm, dragged his feet in resistance. His head hung as they led him past me and put him in the back of their pickup that was parked a few feet from where we stood.

“You can question him if you want,” the Afghan soldier said.

The prisoner’s shirt was splattered with blood and soil. He raised his head and locked eyes with me. It was a look of pure hate, the look of a man who wanted to reach out and murder me where I stood, and that look horrified me.

“His brothers’ bodies are just up the road.” The Afghan soldier said. “If you want to see them.”

In the wake of the insurrection at the Capitol – where protestors turned violent and tried to stop America’s democratic processes – there will be a lot of discussion about what caused the protestors to turn violent, how it could have been avoided or what they ultimately wanted to achieve. But one thing I can say is that on January 6, 2021, I didn’t see a political protest. I saw pure hate on display in the eyes of fellow Americans, and I am horrified.

On that Wednesday afternoon I was able to turn off the hateful eyes, protecting my daughter from the ugliness. But I worry that I won’t be able to shield her forever, that someday she will see the hate that some Americans bear for their own countrymen. I worry about what she will see when she looks deep into those eyes.

Dane Sawyer is from Yuba City, California and grew up in the shadow of the world’s smallest mountain range, the Sutter Buttes. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from BYU and a Masters in International Affairs and Global Enterprise from The University of Utah. He served in the US Army in Afghanistan and the Philippines. He currently lives in Norwalk, CT, with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t writing, he is being feared by trout in many of the Connecticut rivers.

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