Dublin, on U.S. Inauguration Day, didn’t seem to notice. Oh, they played a few clips that night of the American president saying, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”
But that was not their lead story.
The picture on the front page of The Irish Times was a large four-color picture of a small Iraqi girl. Her little body was a coil of steel. She sat knees up, cowering, screaming madly into the dark night. Her white clothes and spread hands and small tight face were blood-spattered. The blood was the blood of her father and mother, shot through the car window in Tal Afar by American soldiers while she sat beside her parents in the car, her four brothers and sisters in the back seat.
A series of pictures of the incident played on the inside page, as well. A 12-year-old brother, wounded in the fray, falls face down out of the car when the car door opens, the pictures show. In another, a soldier decked out in battle gear, holds a large automatic weapon on the four children, all potential enemies, all possible suicide bombers, apparently, as they cling traumatized to one another in the back seat and the child on the ground goes on screaming in her parent’s blood.
No promise of “freedom” rings in the cutline on this picture. No joy of liberty underlies the terror on these faces here.
I found myself closing my eyes over and over again as I stared at the story, maybe to crush the tears forming there, maybe in the hope that the whole scene would simply disappear.
But no, like the photo of a naked little girl bathed in napalm and running down a road in Vietnam served to crystallize the situation there for the rest of the world, I knew that this picture of a screaming, angry, helpless, orphaned child could do the same.
The soldiers standing in the dusk had called “halt,” the story said, but no one did. Maybe the soldiers’ accents were bad. Maybe the car motor was unduly noisy. Maybe the children were laughing loudly — the way children do on family trips. Whatever the case, the car did not stop, the soldiers shot with deadly accuracy, seven lives changed in an instant: two died in body, five died in soul.
BBC news announced that the picture was spreading across Europe like a brushfire that morning, featured from one major newspaper to another, served with coffee and Danish from kitchen table to kitchen table in one country after another. I watched, while Inauguration Day dawned across the Atlantic, as the Irish up and down the aisle on the train from Killarney to Dublin, narrowed their eyes at the picture, shook their heads silently and slowly over it, and then sat back heavily in their seats, too stunned into reality to go back to business as usual — the real estate section, the sports section, the life-style section of the paper.
Here was the other side of the inauguration story. No military bands played for this one. No bulletproof viewing stands could stop the impact of this insight into the glory of force. Here was an America they could no longer understand. The contrast rang cruelly everywhere.
I sat back and looked out the train window myself. Would anybody in the United States be seeing this picture today? Would the United States ever see it, in fact? And if it is printed in the United States, will it also cross the country like wildfire and would people hear the unwritten story under it?
There are 54 million people in Iraq. Over half of them are under the age of 15. Of the over 100,000 civilians dead in this war, then, over half of them are children. We are killing children. The children are our enemy. And we are defeating them.
“I’ll tell you why I voted for George Bush,” a friend of mine said. “I voted for George Bush because he had the courage to do what Al Gore and John Kerry would never have done.”
I’ve been thinking about that one.
Osama Bin Laden is still alive. Sadam Hussein is still alive. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is still alive. Baghdad, Mosul and Fallujah are burning. But my government has the courage to kill children or their parents. And I’m supposed to be impressed.
That’s an unfair assessment, of course. A lot of young soldiers have died, too. A lot of weekend soldiers are maimed for life. A lot of our kids went into the military only to get a college education and are now shattered in soul by what they had to do to other bodies.
A lot of adult civilians have been blasted out of their homes and their neighborhoods and their cars. More and more every day. According to U.N. Development Fund for Women, 15 percent of wartime casualties in World War I were civilians. In World War II, 65 percent were civilians. By the mid ’90s, over 75 percent of wartime casualties were civilians.
In Iraq, for every dead U.S. soldier, there are 14 other deaths, 93 percent of them are civilian. But those things happen in war, the story says. It’s all for a greater good, we have to remember. It’s all to free them. It’s all being done to spread “liberty.”
From where I stand, the only question now is who or what will free us from the 21st century’s new definition of bravery. Who will free us from the notion that killing children or their civilian parents takes courage?
A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society. She is an active member of the International Peace Council.
© 2005 The National Catholic Reporter