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The unsettling and deeply disturbing images of children in Gaza mutilated, bleeding, and dead evoke similar images from our collective memory. One such image is that of Emmett Till, whose body arrived home in Chicago in September 1955. White racists in Mississippi had tortured, mutilated, and killed the young 14-year-old African-American boy for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Determined to make visible the horribly mangled face and twisted body of the child as an expression of racial hatred and killing, Mamie Till, the boy’s mother, insisted that the coffin, interred at the A.A. Ranier Funeral Parlor on the South Side of Chicago, be left open for four long days. While mainstream news organizations ignored the horrifying image, Jet magazinepublished an unedited photo of Till’s face taken while he lay in his coffin. Shaila Dewan points out that “[m]utilated is the word most often used to describe the face of Emmett Till after his body was hauled out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Inhuman is more like it: melted, bloated, missing an eye, swollen so large that its patch of wiry hair looks like that of a balding old man, not a handsome, brazen 14-year-old boy.”
Till had been castrated and shot in the head; his tongue had been cut out; and a blow from an ax had practically severed his nose from his face—all of this done to a teenage boy who came to bear the burden of the inheritance of slavery and the inhuman pathology that drives its racist imaginary. The photos not only made visible the violent effects of the racial state; they also fuelled massive public anger, especially among blacks, and helped to launch the Civil Rights Movement.
From the beginning of the early Civil Rights Movement to the war in Vietnam and more recently the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, images of human suffering and violence provided the grounds for a charged political indignation and collective sense of moral outrage inflamed by the horrors of poverty, militarism, war, and racism—eventually mobilizing widespread opposition to these antidemocratic forces.
Fifty years after the body of Emmett Till was plucked out of the mud-filled waters of the Tallahatchie River, another set of troubling visual representations emerged that both shocked and shamed the nation. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, grotesque images of bloated corpses floating in the rotting waters that flooded the streets of New Orleans circulated throughout the mainstream media. Dead people, mostly poor African-Americans, left uncollected in the streets, on porches, in hospitals, nursing homes, electric wheelchairs, and collapsed houses prompted some people to claim that America had become like a “Third World country” while others argued that New Orleans resembled a “Third World Refugee Camp.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tried to do damage control by forbidding journalists to “accompany rescue boats as they went out to search for storm victims.” As a bureau spokeswoman told Reuters News Agency, “We have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media.”
But questions about responsibility and answerability would not go away. Even the dominant media, CNN included, for a short time rose to the occasion of posing tough questions about accountability to those in power in light of such egregious acts of incompetence and indifference. The images of dead bodies kept appearing in New Orleans. For many, the bodies of the poor, black, brown, elderly, and sick came to signify what the battered body of Emmett Till once unavoidably revealed, and America was forced to confront these disturbing images and the damning questions behind the images. The Hurricane Katrina disaster, like the Emmett Till affair, revealed a vulnerable and destitute segment of the nation’s citizenry that conservatives not only refused to see but had spent the better part of two decades demonizing. But like the incessant beating of Poe’s tell-tale heart, cadavers have a way of insinuating themselves on consciousness, demanding answers to questions that aren’t often asked.
In light of this legacy of collective indignation to horrible images of human suffering, why is it that shocking representations of devastation, suffering, and the killing of hundreds of children in Gaza have elicited so little outrage among the mainstream media and intellectuals in the United States? In the international media stories abound of children being killed as part of the military imperative—supported by weapons from the United States—to stop Hamas from firing rockets into Israel, indeed a terrible act but one that has resulted in very few deaths. Jimmy Carter and others rightly argue that Hamas’s launching of rockets from Gaza is an act of terrorism. But terrorism is most destructive when it makes its own politics and use of power invisible—that is, when it disguises itself as its opposite, as a legitimate act of violence.
Even when terrorist acts become visible, should all acts of terrorism be treated equally, regardless of the scope and degree of military operations and human suffering they cause among civilians, and especially children? Certainly not for the Israeli government, which portrays itself as a victim and refuses to end the slaughter of civilians and children on the grounds that its military operations have not yet been successful enough. In this discourse, children no longer serve as an ethical referent against acts of barbarism, they simply become collateral damage, while a ghastly and inhumane act is justified under the pretense of historical necessity and “surgical strikes”—a language that reveals more about a political state that uses such euphemisms than the repugnant strategies it denotes.
Is any military strategy justified when it results in the killing of over 300 defenseless children? And what does it mean when the issue of military disproportionality is simply treated by the media as an obvious fact and not understood as part of the equation used to define state terrorism, particularly when the most sophisticated military weapons are used unchallenged against densely crowded civilian populations that have no comparable military technology? Why are the shocking images of Emmet Till or the bloated bodies of Katrina victims any more moving or a cause for outrage and collective action among Americans than the image of a two year-old child hit by an Israeli shell while running for safety? One such image was described by an aid worker in the following terms: “It was like charcoal. … Also without any limbs, because some of the animals ate some of his limbs.” Is it conceivable that Palestinians are now viewed as a population so disposable and without any redeeming value that even images of Palestinian children being blown apart by rockets and gunfire no longer elicit a need for moral outrage and rigorous political criticism?
What is it that connects the death of Emmett Till, the abandonment of largely poor African-Americans in New Orleans, and the deaths of innocent children in Gaza? All three are tied together by the racialized logic of disappearance and disposability implemented under the practices of a modern state. All three reference, as David Theo Goldberg points out in his newest book, The Threat of Race, populations marked as targets to be dispensed with, “heel on face eating dust when they have anything to eat at all … deserted, reduced to philistinism, untrusted because untrustworthy. And once deserted, having nowhere to turn, no one to appeal to but a few folks of conscience, they are fair game.”
All three embody the ideology of a racial state in which it is assumed that in the absence of African-Americans and Palestinians, including children, there would be no police violence, threats, insecurity, checkpoints, blockades, economic problems, immigrants—just a racially cleansed society no longer at war with itself and others. What unites all three events is the shame of racist violence and the practices of state terrorism, hardly a legitimizing foundation, normative or political, for the repulsive images and deadly actions of the type we see in Gaza promoted by Israel in the name of democracy.
Children provide a powerful referent for social criticism and collective change because their suffering and hardships offer the promise of both a public hearing and a potent social category by which to connect a range of issues and problems that are too often addressed in isolation as a subtle effect of identifying grievances without inquiring into their social and political roots. More than any other group, they provide a credible referent for opening up the possibility for progressive individuals and movements to create new ethical discourses and modes of advocacy within the wider struggle for democracy. Children invoke compassion and understanding, which are crucial to shaping the civic imagination. A critical analysis of the plight and killing of children in Gaza is important because it foregrounds the relationship between acts of military power and aggression and the lived realities of massive suffering and death shaped by an expansionist state. Moreover, it reminds us once again that the plight of children must play a central role in reclaiming those democratic values, practices, and relations that would make such treatment of children indefensible regardless of the appeals to justice, defense, and democracy made by those for whom a child’s death can be legitimated as one unfortunate element in waging a successful military strategy.
Of course, there is more at work here than the horror and immediacy of children being killed senselessly, there is a suppressed history, dangerous memories of entire populations being displaced after the 1967 war, and how unchecked state power can commit the most ruthless deeds in the name of fighting terrorism and spreading democracy. But there is more. There is also the issue of what a country becomes when it loses its ability to question power, views military values as the highest ideals, ignores international law, and becomes indifferent to the suffering of the most innocent and defenseless. Hannah Arendt once argued that when the public realm loses its power of illumination, one result is that more and more people retreat Afrom the world and their obligations within it.
Surely, in this instance, we are seeing more than a retreat: we are witnessing a crime against humanity for which indifference and silence makes one deeply complicit with the killing and disappearance of young children. Gaza reminds us that the “dark times” that haunted Arendt’s generation can now be seen in the images of wounded and dead children and should serve as a desperate reminder of what it means when politics, social responsibility, and justice, as the lifeblood of democracy, become cold and indifferent in the face of death.
HENRY A. GIROUX holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: “Take Back Higher Education” (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (2007) and “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed” (2008). His newest book, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.
Shaila Dewan, “How Photos Became an Icon of the Civil rights Movement,” New York Times (August 28, 2005).
Terry M. Neal, “Hiding Bodies Won’t Hide the Truth,” Washington Post (September 8, 2005).
Cited in Ahmed Abu Hamda and Dion Nissenbaum, “UN Wants to Know if war Crimes were Commited in Gaza.” Truthout (January 1, 2009).
David Theo Goldberg, The Threat of Race (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 119.
Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955), p. 4.