I have been a mother for nearly three decades.
Those three decades have been a time of constant war: civil wars in South America, civil wars in Africa, ethnic wars in Eastern Europe, religious and ethnic wars in the Middle East, disappearances, genocides, rape camps. And always, as I have experienced the joys and sorrows of watching my sons grow, and learn, and struggle the struggles of American children, there has been the constant larger sorrow of knowing that in other places children were taken for warriors, children were raised to hate.
Of all the atrocities humankind has committed in my lifetime, that seems to me the greatest — to taint the hearts of children with hatred.
In his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs, 2002), Chris Hedges tells of visiting the Palestinean refugee camp Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip and how, from the Israeli side of the perimeter fence, an electric fence that separated the Palestineans from an Israeli settlement, soldiers in a Jeep called out insults over a loudspeaker. Called out insults in Arabic: “Come on, dogs. Where are all the dogs of Khan Younis?” “Son of a bitch!” “Son of a whore!” “Your mother’s c*nt!”
Goaded thus, the boys of the camp rushed the fence to throw rocks at the armor-plated jeep on the other side. And then the soldiers shot the boys with M-16s.
I had seen children shot in other conflicts I have covered—death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo—but I had never watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport. (p. 94)
But that is not all of the story. That is not all of the horror.
Because dead, these boys become martyrs for the cause, their very funerals, their wounded bodies, turned into propaganda tools by the militant Islamists. We have all seen these funerals on our televisions.
Hedges quotes the mother of one of these boys, a thirteen-year-old not killed, but wounded and lying in hospital.
“The children are fed this hatred of the Jews from the day they are born,” she said. “All they hear is that we have to get rid of the Jewish enemy. The call to fight is pumped out over the radio and the television. The trucks go through the streets of the camp praising the new martyrs and calling for more. The posters of the martyrs are everywhere. And the kids see their fathers, helpless against the Israelis, out of work, and admire the militants with guns. They want to fight.” (p.98)
I pick out this incident, not to demonize Israeli soldiers (Hedges says those soldiers may have been Lebanese Christian mercenaries, people with a long enmity with Palestine) and not to demonize Palestinean militants. Demonizing the other is a tool of war; it is the tool used to teach hatred and I don’t want to use it.
I pick out this incident because it is the most vivid and succinct illustration of what is becoming of our children.
The other night Bill Moyers asked Jon Stewart, “Have you lost your innocence?” And Stewart answered, in paraphrase, you lose your innocence when you have children. It’s then that you see the world as it is and it’s then that you realize that every human is some one’s child.
Hatred perpetuates itself in the children and I have no idea how to stop the pattern. I can’t even perform the futile act of writing poetry about it. I’ve tried. What I’ve written has been angry and anguished and sincere. But sincerity does not make poetry.
One thing, I’m pretty sure the right step is not to send in more invading armies. Children are being used as human shields in Iraq. Their families are being ripped apart, their schools destroyed.
Maybe the first step is to see it and mourn it. Maybe if enough of us mourn for the children, if enough of us mourn enough to just do something like stand in the park for 15 minutes on Mother’s Day, remembering that every human being is some mother’s child. Maybe that will be a start.
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