In an act of domestic terrorism, Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb next to a federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 of his fellow Americans. On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people when they hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and crashed another in a field in Pennsylvania. And on October 7, 2023, Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 Israelis in a surprise attack on Israel.

Two things are true in all three cases. First, all of the perpetrators were fueled by grievances against the governments of the countries that the victims were citizens of. Second, the men, women, and children who were senselessly murdered in those attacks had little to do with the government policies that had so angered the terrorists. Among those killed and wounded in the Oklahoma City bombing were kindergarteners who had been dropped off by their parents at their school inside the building minutes before the bomb went off.

Many such vengeance attacks occur around the world each day, most of which we never hear about. And largely, the victims tend to be innocent people. Whenever I see or read about any such incident, I instantly think about my first-year college roommate at Kyiv State University, Dmitry Vasilev.

I have written previously about Dmitry and most likely, his name will continue to appear in my writings. That is because his character, which I had the extraordinary privilege to observe over the course of a year, has been a shining light for me ever since I left Kyiv in 1986. He has greatly influenced the way I relate to people today. I frequently say that I went to the Soviet Union to study for an engineering degree, but by far the best education I received there came from living with Dmitry for that one year.

The Soviet Union that I was about to travel to in 1985 was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. Consequently, few people knew much about that society, but in Ghana, there were some people who had lots of opinions about the place. Pretty much everyone I consulted had horror stories. They were everything from being relentlessly followed everywhere by the KGB, to having to stand in long lines for every basic necessity. The things I heard were so frightening that I all but decided to forgo the scholarship that I had been awarded. But as a poor young man with no other options for tertiary education, I had to take the plunge.

It was in that agitated state of mind that I opened my dormitory room door one afternoon to see a young, white gentleman with a suitcase in hand. Because I had zero knowledge of Russian at the time, I couldn’t ask him anything but I knew right away from his gesture that he was coming to live in the room with me and my other roommate, who was also a Ghanaian.

For the next several weeks, I made no eye contact with Dmitry. I made sure I stayed as far away from him as I possibly could, and managed to convince my Ghanaian friend to give him the cold shoulder as well. He, in my mind, was the KGB spy that I had been warned so much about.

As the weeks went by, it became clear that Dmitry was trying hard to get closer to us. That prompted me to move even farther away from him. In order to inflict harm on their targets, spies have to win trust, so Dmitry’s friendly overtures made me even more uncomfortable.

It turned out that I was completely wrong. Dmitry was a quiet, kind gentleman with the purest soul imaginable. He genuinely wanted to be friends with us. Every other weekend, he traveled home, and we later learned that he always lamented to his parents that he was unable to relate to his roommates who had traveled to his homeland from a foreign country. Whenever he returned from those home visits, he brought us baked goods and fruits from his parents, who kept encouraging him not to give up trying. In the end, he managed to win our trust. We by then knew enough Russian to engage in conversations with him. He began to accompany us everywhere, showing us around places in the beautiful city, and helping us with language class homework.

I never explained to Dmitry why I had been so distant in the beginning. At the end of that year, my Ghanaian roommate and I graduated from the language program and were about to part company with him to go and study at different universities. I was by then so ashamed by the way I had treated him that I vowed never to repeat that mistake. We both thanked him profusely for his kindness and friendship. Sadly, I could not stay in touch with him after I left Kyiv due to difficulties with telecommunication in the Soviet Union in those days.

I had been in America for just nine days when an all-white jury in Ventura County, CA acquitted the four white police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King, a black man, during a traffic stop a year earlier. The acquittal so enraged the black community in Los Angeles that it set off days of riots in the city. It was one of the most violent unrests in American history, with over 60 people killed, 2,300 injured, and an estimated $1 billion in property damage.

During those riots, a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, stopped at a traffic light at an intersection in Los Angeles. Television coverage showed a group of black men pulling him out of his cab and beating him mercilessly. As he lay helplessly on the ground while still being punched and kicked, one of the men picked up a cinderblock and bashed his head with it. It was a horrifying scene, and I feared that he had been killed. Thankfully, he survived, but it was later reported that the hit had fractured his skull in 91 places and caused severe damage to his brain.

As I watched that appalling attack, my thought quickly turned to Dmitry, and tears began streaming across my face. Just as I had mistaken him for an evil Soviet spy, the black men saw Mr. Denny as a guilty person who deserved mistreatment simply because he was white. I started to wonder how many Dmitrys had been killed or maimed in similar fashion elsewhere out of vengeance, or from projections of other people’s fears onto them. The harm I inflicted on Dmitry wasn’t physical, but the mental and emotional hurt I caused weren’t trivial. Quite fortunately for me, I had an opportunity to redeem myself.

The sad reality is that such vengeance attacks often trigger even worse retaliatory actions. In the war on terror that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, tens of thousands of blameless civilians were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. forces. Over 30,000 Palestinians, mostly innocent men, women, and children, have reportedly been killed by Israeli soldiers in the current war with Hamas. The deaths of these faceless thousands are simply classified as collateral damage.

I am immensely blessed to have had that opportunity to live with Dmitry. Because of him, my default assumption now is that every human being I meet is a good person, until I have tangible evidence to suggest otherwise. For me it is a helpful way to navigate the fractious world we live in today. I sincerely wish that more people would have similar transformational experiences. The world would most likely be a less violent place.