One of the things about working with very young children for a long time is that when another 21st-century catastrophe is revealed to us, the first thing one tends to visualise is the actual concrete effect on children. And the thing about these catastrophes – wars, economic meltdowns, terrorist attacks, illegal occupations and so on – is that children are always affected, are, in fact, usually in the middle of what’s talking place – underneath the missile strike, in front of the tanks and bulldozers, in the middle of the family with the suddenly unemployed parents, walking to the shops past the wired-up suicide bomber, riding in the backseat of the family car as it approaches a US army checkpoint.
But it’s often still a shock, when we hear of one of the many disasters of war, to find out that children were killed in large numbers. It’s as though we are pulled up short, thinking in surprise over our morning muesli, ‘What on earth were children doing there?’ General media stats on catastrophes usually don’t mention the percentage of casualties who are children. A third of the population of the world is children so any act of war will always have among its victims a substantial number of children. Amid all the statistics of horror and human disaster we keep in our minds, how many of us know how many children have been killed in the past decade of the Israeli occupation of Gaza? How many children died in the September 11 attacks, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq or even in the Holocaust?
If you don’t know, take a moment to think about the possible reasons why before reading further.
The numbers go like this: during the past decade of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, at least 124 Israeli children have been killed and 1446 Palestinian children, including children shot at close range. In the eighteen months following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a third or more of the 100 000 civilians killed were children under fifteen years of age. In the Holocaust, over a million of the dead were children, though we can’t really know how many were murdered, perhaps as many as 1.5 million.
In the September 11 attacks, eight children aged from two to eleven years were killed, and 1300 lost parents. Rates of trauma and psychiatric illness in the latter are ten times the US average. (You can probably transpose these stats to the children of Gaza and Iraq as well.) After the attacks, the then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, referred to the dead children as ‘among the first to give their lives in this war on terrorism’.
The Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara last week killed the fathers of 28 children.
Generally speaking, invading military forces don’t usually spruik their actions by announcing: ‘We will launch a targeted missile assault, destroy the hostile forces and kill 200 children’. ‘Battlefields’ are supposedly places where military forces struggle heroically for victory, like Agincourt. What they really are, more often than not, are ‘homes’. Homes are places where children live, and as children, we inhabit homes and other spaces in ways in which we never will again.
These days – these years – I find myself thinking a lot about the children I’m writing about. And I do that thinking because I think I have a responsibility to do so. Because thinking is better than not thinking. I’m not talking about spending my day in a state of unrelieved gloom or haranguing my companions about their moral responsibilities. I’m trying to speak out of a sense of responsibility, to create that sense in my own mind. I can go through the day thinking about many things, and most of them, let’s face it, will be astoundingly trivial. If I remember the impact of the expression of the boy Mohammed in the video above – and there’s one facial expression of his in particular which really moved me – I can let that govern my day.
I’m not on a boat bringing aid to Gaza. I am not anyone of influence or power. I am, as far as you’re concerned whoever you are, a mildly interesting blogger. Whoever I am though, I can use my time on the planet to think. And this week, and maybe next week, I can choose to think about Mohammed and the children like him. It may seem slightly weird to be thinking about a 12-year-old boy from Gaza while I was underneath the house this afternoon in twelve inches of crawlspace, lying in a pool of mud and cold water trying to fix that stupid bit of idiot hippie plumbing that someone put together fifteen years ago, but that depends on what you believe thinking to be. The few cubic inches inside your skull – to use Orwell’s phrase – are incredibly precious, and to be honest I’d rather have them occupied by Mohammed than a whole lot of other things, experiences or people.
I wasn’t always this way, just as I wasn’t always a lot of things. It was only when I saw, many years ago, photos of the aftermath of the Halabja poison gas attack, the streets of the town littered with the bodies of small children that I thought, ‘Ok. Got it. War = Dead children’.
Madeleine Albright’s infamous statement – a statement that she later tried unconvincingly to defend – bears looking at again and again I think. In the 60 Minutes interview, her face is a mask, almost robotic. If we ask ‘What could she have been thinking?’, the unpleasant answer is, she probably wasn’t thinking anything. That’s what makes it such a difficult response to grasp. Albright is embodying a kind of dreadful emptiness, a space where the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children registers only as a calculation in the debit column of her mental account book, a calculation that seems almost premeditated. Note that Albright doesn’t try to contest the figure of 500 000 and, in fact, doesn’t even seem surprised.
There’s something terribly broken about her response, as though we are watching a person whose mental faculties are so impaired that there is no awareness that some vital part of herself might be missing.
These horrible wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on for the best part of a decade. It seems like all we’ve ever known in this century are war stories. They’ve become the backdrop of our daily conversation, like the war in Nineteen Eighty-Four that has been going on forever and always will go on. We ourselves now seem to be in a state of perpetual war in other lands, wars our mighty leaders have skilfully turned into a state of siege at home, as though hordes of screaming Iraqi insurgents were beating on our doors with the butts of their AK-47s. When actually, the only people beating on our doors are children with nowhere to live.