A global perspective on American child deaths
December 17, 2012
'You come from a culture where it is okay to kill children,' the Iraqi woman said. We were sheltering against the wall of a building in Fallujah in April 2004 while the city was under attack by US forces.
I began to protest, but she continued, in broken English: 'Let me say it another way. You come from a culture where your people think it is okay to kill our children.'
What could I say? There were several little bodies at my feet, bloodied remains laid out on the footpath and covered with thin sheets. The children had been shot by US snipers that day, among at least 1000 civilians killed in that ferocious attack.
This Iraqi woman knew there would be no collective outrage at the killing of Fallujah's children. No front-page headlines. We would not know their names, see their faces or hear their stories. Their killers would not be pursued, labelled 'mad' or 'evil', or made to face a court. There would be no calls for 'change.'
Some commentators have compared the response to deaths of the children in the small American community of Newtown with the young victims of US wars. The point is valid. A life is a life, and all life is precious; a fact that has enough weight of its own without the need to draw comparisons.
Yet the dark, shocking words of the Iraqi woman in Fallujah have been haunting me these past days as the grief of the Newtown shootings has overwhelmed us all.
What might be helpful at this time is to build on this grief and passion of the US and international community, and allow it to shape a wider discussion; to trigger a new empathy for grieving parents everywhere, an empathy that crosses borders, and which might result in change for children worldwide who are affected by US policy.
Whenever I've been with parents grieving their children lost in the violence of recent wars, the same questions has emerged out of their grief and anger: 'How would the US President feel if his children were killed in a bombing? How would Americans feel? How would your people feel?'
The question grasps at the hope that if those in the West made the effort to imagine how they might feel to lose a child violently to a drone strike, a missile, or a sniper, the result would be greater empathy and understanding.
The endless, heartbreaking cries at yesterday's prayer vigil for the Newtown victims provided a glimpse of the horror, the emptiness, the confusion that grieving parents feel. The profound love parents have for children is something all cultures have in common.
In an amazing scene, Pakistani children held a candlelight vigil in Karachi, in solidarity with children from Sandy Hook Elementary School. They held a sign that read: 'Connecticut School Killing: We feel your pain as you would feel our pain.' The children were referring to the (according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) 176 children who've been killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004; 'collateral damage' in the 'war on terror'.
Americans are now accusing the powerful Nation Rifle Association of treating victims of US gun massacres as 'collateral damage' of the right to bear arms — the 'price' that has to be paid for freedom.
The deaths of the Newtown children and of Pakistani children may both be the result of self-interested US political policy and an all-pervasive culture of violence. But there's one major difference that grieving parents in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza would point out.
The Newtown killings are considered an act of someone who is 'sick' or 'mad', and are universally condemned. But their children are killed at the hands of an intelligent, sophisticated, technologically advanced society which is fully aware of what it is doing. These deaths receive little attention, let alone condemnation.
This reality created an awkward elephant in the room during Barack Obama's passionate call for change at yesterday's prayer vigil. 'This is our first task, caring for our children,' he said. 'If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged.'
He talked about victims who 'much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?'
When I imagined Obama's words 'our children' as referring to all the children of the world who are impacted by US war policy, I shivered with hope.
Perhaps the grieving parents of Newtown, who share the loss of parents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, can lead him to this bigger, more compassionate version of 'our children'.
When I speak to ordinary people around Australia about children as the victims of war, there is outrage. People care, they want to know their names, see their faces, hear their stories.
For this natural empathy to be activated we need the mainstream media to broaden their scope, and western leaders such as Obama to broaden their circle of care.
Donna Mulhearn is a freelance journalist and peace activist. She will return for her fifth visit to Iraq early next year. Follow Donna on Twitter
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18 Dec 2012
Thanks Donna for drawing the connections, was thinking similar thoughts this week!
18 Dec 2012
Donna, this is a series of very long bows. I don`t think it is right or fair on those horribly affected, or indeed ordinary Americans, to link the case of a peaceful, law-abiding town in Connecticut with a war zone or an armed Islamist insurgency. Let`s just hope that if military-type weapon are now banned in the US that at least some good will come out of this tragedy.
18 Dec 2012
There are several lessons to be learned from the tragic shooting of the schoolchildren in the United States. A sad one is the influence of the gun lobby in the USA - typical of the undemocratic power of 'single issue' groups in various countries, including Australia.
This applies particularly when the major parties are nearly equal in strength, and the result of elections can depend on such groups, especially when they have the resources to make large donations to political parties or individual candidates. Financial assistance from 'developers' at election times is a well-known example.
It is time that the mass media gave more publicity to such practices and condemned them. And that laws governing elections be strengthened to ensure that the principles of democracy are not over-ridden by greed and the power of the dollar.
18 Dec 2012
18 Dec 2012
Thank you, Donna, for the challenge your article has brought to me. We need to be reminded of all children who die so tragically and needlessly without being named and grieved over by the rest of the world. And we too are culpable.
18 Dec 2012
Bravo Donna! What can we do to change the way leaders of US political and military systems think? Surely their perceived notion of freedom is ill-conceived. Why do they see other nations' children as being of less value than their own? When will they learn to appreciate that all children of the world have equal dignity and a right to life? Its time for the US to do some soul searching and set things right in their own country before they go telling other nations how to live.
18 Dec 2012
An excellent article. Why is it that the children are the ones who suffer - by their own death or the death of parents and family? They are the innocent ones.
18 Dec 2012
Donna, you are right to recall the atrocity of Fallujah in this context. The callousness of the dark side of America continues to horrify me - even as I salute the great goodness that also exists in America. Let us hope Obama can make some headway on banning public access to assault weapons at least - and at last. This could be the defining issue by which his presidency will be judged. He is not superhuman but he has powerful allies now on this. If ever there was a time for political leadership, it is now.
Random thoughts. The killer started by murdering his own mother, then the kids at school. She bought and kept at home the assault weapons and ammunition that killed her and the kids. Frightful - Hollywood could not have come up with a more awful storyline.
But at least - if Obama can now truly shift the climate of debate on this - something might be done? There seems to be a democratic numerical majority for gun control of some kind in the USA now. But they are up against big power and big money.
John Howard’s voice should be heard in the USA now. He could be a voice for good.
18 Dec 2012
Thank you Donna for being so sensitive in your naming of the elephant in the room and asking us to look beyond this tragedy to the tragedy of violence against children and other innocent people that is rarely named, much less challenged.
18 Dec 2012
There is a sadness that the intrinsic tragedy of the death of the Connecticut innocents is demeaned by media sensationalism, by the lucrative armament industry (gun lobby), by America’s culture of violence as entertainment, by illegal warfare, – and by the cynicism of the world that views these deaths through the rightful perspective of US hypocrisy that bewails the deaths of its own innocents yet engages directly or indirectly (supply of arms) in the deaths of Afghani and Gazan children and in the horror defects and deaths of babies in Falluja.
Thank you Donna
PS to Eugene- Iraq was filled with peaceful, law-abiding towns before the US and Coalition of the Willing's illegal war and occupation.
18 Dec 2012
A good article! It is bemusing how the mainstream media react to a mass shooting in an upper middle class town in America.
It seems to me that Americans think that they continue to live in a wild west culture and everyone needs to carry a gun and their folk heroes are blokes such as Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and Jesse James.
18 Dec 2012
My issue with this article is that its perspective is not global at all. Overall, I agree with most of what Donna Mulhearn wrote. It is what she has passed over that frustrates me. The article reserves its criticisms for America alone. Whilst they grieve for their own slain children at home, the Americans are insensible of the plight of children dying in their military misadventures. It is the foreigners, an Iraqi woman and Pakistani children, who are capable of empathy. Why must we only hope for an empathy that will result in a change for children affected by US policy? Is the US government the one and only force in the world that inflicts evil on children? As Donna Mulhearn has spent so much time in Iraq, she must know of the scores of Sunni and Shia killed in their sectarian wars, children included. African warlords regularly kidnap children to make them soldiers. The children are forced to commit the most heinous acts, often on their own families. Children in Asia are sold into slavery by families to repay debts to moneylenders. These evils are brought on these children without any reference to American foreign policy. I suggest that Donna Mulhearn remove the blinkers. Evil resides in places other than America alone.
19 Dec 2012
Donna, this is an excellent piece. Thank you. May I also suggest, strongly, that Evil in Africa and elsewhere cannot justify evil in America? MJ, ensuring change for children affected by US policy tackles a very large percentage of the problem.
20 Dec 2012
Empathy? From the US political class? The same ones whose Secretary of State said - on a nationally televised 'news' show in 1996 - that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children UNDER 5 was 'worth it'? Sorry, no sale.
02 Jan 2013
Thank you, Donna, for reminding your readers that as long as children are paying the price for adult policies that take no account of children's welfare, there will be a need for change - in attitude, in action, in accountability. I am impressed by the clarity of your advocacy and the depth of your humanity. Thank you again.