On my radio show this week (www.blogtalkradio.com/openbook), my friend Alice and I talked about monsters. Not the childhood kind that hide under beds and in closets, but the real-life kind…the ones you don’t see until it’s too late. The ones who walk among us, hiding behind human faces.

During the L.A. riots, I lived in Long Beach, just south of L.A. What I saw during those days can only be described as monstrous. Please understand: I am not singling out a particular group of people. It seemed to be everyone. The whole world had suddenly taken off their masks, and I saw what I hadn’t seen before: I had been walking among monsters. Certain images stick with me still: A businessman in a BMW driving up to an electronics store and gingerly walking through broken glass to steal a TV. The angry face of a man, on the roof of his business with an assault rife, shooting to defend his property. The laughter of a girl bragging about how many outfits she’d just stolen for her baby. A tank rolling down the street where I grocery shopped every week.

And I remember this: standing in my bedroom and thinking, “How can I go on living in this world, knowing what I know?” I’d seen the monsters, and they were us. How was I supposed to forget that?

In an early episode of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” Giles the librarian explains that people forget what they cannot face to be true (in this case, a vampire attack). This is true of most run-ins with monsters. I thought I’d never forget what I’d seen, what I’d learned, and in some ways I haven’t. But I learned to cope with it and let it fade to a less frightening, less vivid picture. A little active denial didn’t hurt, either.

What I know to be true is that God does not make monsters. We do. We take the gift of free will and use it as a club to beat someone else, as a rock to throw at a kind helper, as a weapon of mass destruction. Why? Because we can. The hideous reality is that we abuse the unique quality that makes us like our Creator. I’m willing to bet God really dislikes that.

So what can we do about the problem of monsters? We can keep ourselves from becoming one by practicing empathy, by promoting gentility, by promulgating kindness. We can turn the other cheek, giving potential monsters a chance at regaining their humanity. We can forgive.

There will always be monsters among us. The trick is to love them, love them fiercely. No matter how scary it gets.

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