Sometimes, being compassionate is the most profound form of cruelty.
We have been inundated, lately, with stories of people who are victims of circumstance and addiction. The opioid crisis has replaced AIDS as the most-talked-about health catastrophe of the new century, and it reflects the same political and social schisms that divided us in the last one.
We hear about morality, accountability, legality, humanity, isolation, and the empirical and emotional cost of compassion. We commiserate, to a point, with the sick. We commiserate, to a much lesser degree, with the collateral victims, like family and friends. We blame the afflicted for their disease, and at the same time give them a pass for engaging in the activities that made them sick in the first place. We recognize “innocent” victims, like Ryan White, who was infected with AIDS through a blood transfusion, and the patients who became addicted to opioids because a greedy doctor overprescribed a trendy and lucrative new drug.
And we feel helpless to stop the dying.
It’s too complicated to synthesize in one column, in a series of columns, or in all the eulogies spoken at all the funerals at all of the graveyards filling up with lost generations. Someone I loved with all of my heart lies in one of those graveyards, and his memory will haunt me forever. His birthday was this week, and he would have been 51. He left us on the cusp of 30, so I understand that devastating loss.
And there is a generation of men who would be about a decade older than me if they were alive today, the ones who died before they discovered drugs that made HIV a condition and not a death sentence.
We are human, and if we have loved someone who lost a battle with disease and despair, we cannot be immune to mercy. My faith commands me to care, and I do.
But that doesn’t mean compassion is the only appropriate response. I am a human being, not a saint, and I’m tired of being preached at about my obligation of empathy for the addict.
Last week, two beautiful young lives were destroyed in a moment of bestial violence. The motives of the alleged killer are unknown, because after he murdered his innocent prey like a wild and feral thing, he loped off to a place in Kensington and overdosed. Still, it’s not a stretch to assume that the slashing and stabbing and shooting of a Bucks County couple was the penultimate act of a man who needed his heroin fix, and the money to get it.
A short while before Daniel Mooney invaded the home of Christina and Tyler Roy, he was suspected of stealing a car at a nearby gas station. He then allegedly killed the Roys and stole their SUV, which he (again “allegedly”) sold for what investigators called “a paltry sum.” It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out what he bought with that money.
Again, there is no confirmation that Mooney murdered the Roys, or that he did so to feed his habit. That’s impossible, because the suspect and the victims are now silent and beyond the jurisdiction of any earthly tribunal. Still, we can’t escape the fact that Daniel Mooney had a history of addiction and a history of crime. It’s really not too hard to connect the dots.
So let me repeat what I’ve been saying whenever a merciful soul tells me that addiction is nothing more than a disease: It’s time for us to stop pretending that the only language we are allowed to speak is that of the social worker or the ever-tolerant loved one who fights to see the son or daughter or parent or brother hidden within the hollowed-out human before them.
We can love the people they once were. But we need to see them as they are now. How about saying things like “he killed these good and decent people because his addiction was more important than their future”? How about we balance each “safe injection site” story with a rumination on all the collateral damage that addicts wreak on their families, and more important, on the larger communities in which they exist.
On my radio show Sunday night, I had a conversation with Patty-Pat Kozlowski, who is running for a seat in the state legislature from the 177th, which includes some of the neighborhoods most devastated by the opioid crisis. Patty is a good woman, and much more compassionate than this writer, but she isn’t afraid to speak this truth:
“We call it heroin addiction, but buying heroin and shooting heroin is still illegal and a crime.”
So is murdering two beautiful people to feed that addiction. Compassion has its limits. Justice does not.