Innocence Exhumed

The image of a little boy sometimes appears unbeckoned in my mind, disturbing otherwise innocuous musings. A few years ago, his father–a man of grave composure, perhaps beyond grief–accompanied his child when he appeared on the “Democracy Now” TV program. The boy, perhaps four years old, sat on his father’s knee, fidgeting and anxious—perhaps because his arms had been blown off and prostheses filled the sockets where his eyes used to be. A little child—horribly dismembered by U.S. soldiers occupying Iraq. Whereas moral outrage over such war crimes may dwindle over time, such images linger on in one’s mind, as if ceaselessly calling out for retributive justice like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Try to visualize, if you can, many such children—can you picture in your mind ten or 20 or 200 or 2000 or 20,000 or 100,000 such boys and girls?–mutilated, burned, traumatized by bullets and fiery bombs? Now single out one of these children, a boy or girl, perhaps a child who reminds you of your own child or your own childhood. Try to “feel-into” this child’s emotions: terrified bewilderment, a shocked sense of deep hurt and betrayal, lacerating physical torment, a despair beyond anguish.

What do I mean when I issue a clarion call on behalf of such outraged innocence? Little children, like all little children–their idle play and gentle imaginings suddenly pulverized by weapons of senseless malevolence and fiendish cruelty. Little children, awakened into a world they could never have imagined, a world in which bad people suddenly appear, bad people who want to shoot them, burn them, dismember them. Little children, crushed by a deep sadness and despair which knows no consolation except death.

Now what, we may ask, is the mentality of these bad people, these perpetrators who invade the child’s world, bringing horrors and torment in their wake? We were given a psychological clue recently, when Gen. David Petraeus claimed that Afghan parents were deliberating burning their own children in order to bring discredit to the U.S. military. I was reminded of another claim, that of Gen. William Westmoreland, that a Vietnamese child terribly burned and disfigured by napalm had actually been burned by a hibachi. This is the mentality we are dealing with: first declare innocent little children your “enemy,” then torture them unceasingly with weapons devised by scientific sadists, then claim that those you so horribly tortured really did it to themselves.

Our UNCEASING DEMAND FOR JUSTICE will not perish so long as we are able to IDENTIFY WITH the innocent victims, particularly with the curious, hopeful world of these children—a world crushed and trampled in an instant when soldiers and bomber pilots “just following orders” and mindlessly (or intentionally) impose the tortures of hell upon them.

Some final images? Look at Google Images, type in “cluster bomb” or “napalm” or “white phosphorus.” Now examine the photos of children that you see, children lying on the ground in shock, children whose arms are now bandaged stumps, children who stare unbelievingly into the void. Now scrutinize their faces: zoom in as close as you can and try to “feel-into” their hearts. Now: what do YOU feel? And what do your feelings tell you to do?

WILLIAM MANSON previously taught social science at Columbia and Rutgers universities.

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William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).

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