The descriptions are heart wrenching. Young boys and girls taken from their homes, forced to become killers and/or sex slaves. Boys having their skin scrapped so cocaine can be rubbed right into their blood stream before a battle, told that if they have faith they’ll be invincible. Even when rescued, they often find themselves unable to fit into normal life. How can you kill, maim, and brutalize at age 13, feeling powerful and in control, and then suddenly blend into village life?
How can you go from having people cower in fear at the sight of you to begging for food or doing a menial job for people who you know you could terrorize and kill?
I admit, I had tears in my eyes much of Friday as I read about the heinous school shooting in Connecticut. Having two children (ages 9 and 6) I imagined myself in the shoes of their parents. I visualized what it would be like to have my six year old screaming as someone pointed a gun to his head and blew it away. I let myself imagine those images in order to not let my mind abstract the suffering that this act brought about.
Yet, as debate turns to gun control, school security and other such “solutions,” I think about other children. Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I co-teach a course on Children and War. It includes child soldiers, families in war zones, the children of deployed American troops, and children growing up in gang ridden ghettos.
Back when my oldest son was three I got a book called Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire was the Commander of UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, from 1993 to 1994. Pleading for support and more soldiers he watched the Rwandan genocide unfold as the Hutu majority tried to exterminate the Tutsi minority. Instead of stopping the killing, the UN pulled thousands out of his mission leaving him with just 250 soldiers to protect groups of Tutsis who happened to get to a UN zone.
Dallaire’s ordeal itself is worth learning about – he went from suffering PTSD and attempting suicide to now being a true humanitarian fighting against the use of child soldiers. But I still remember the day I got his book. I had just brought the kids home from day care and the three year old wanted to play in the driveway. His younger brother was still an infant asleep in the car seat. So I took a chair and started reading while my son was playing.
In the introduction Dallaire describes a time when his convoy was stopped and he saw a three year old boy nibbling on a UN biscuit. The boy looked lost. Dallaire had warned his troops not to get emotionally connected to the children they saw – they couldn’t bring them all into the compound. But he broke his own rule. He followed the boy to a hut, where the child stepped over his dead father and went over and snuggled against his dead mom, still trying to eat the biscuit.
Dallaire lost his capacity to close off the pain. He said he decided then and there to adopt the boy. He picked him up and started carrying him back to his vehicle, but before he got there Tutsi boys came and demanded the boy. “He has to be raised by his own people,” they curtly told Dallaire. These boys were 12 or 13 and well armed. They snatched the boy and disappeared.
I put the book down and looked at my son and imagined that happening to him. I sat in the garage with tears running down my cheeks thinking about him in such a situation. I vowed to inject the human side of world politics into my courses — we Americans get used to abstracting the violence and suffering into concepts and terms we can discuss with apparent intelligence but no feeling. But if we lose the sentiment, we lose the humanity.
These things cross my mind in the wake of the shooting. 20 dead children is a tragedy, horrific and vile. Yet these children aren’t more valuable than children being manipulated and brutalized in war zones or young girls being turned into sex slaves.
These things are on going. Every day there are lives in the balance. So I feel a bit put off by the Facebook posts of people sharing a “prayer chain,” listing the names of the children or getting into emotional debates about gun control. I felt the national pain on Friday, I had tears just like the President did as I thought about it. But what do we do next?
We spend a lot of money on weapons systems, corporate welfare, and ways to support huge financial institutions because they drive the economy. With a fraction of that money and a fraction of the energy there could be a global focus on bringing stability to sub-Saharan Africa, creating conditions where communities there could be self-sustaining, and do immense good.
The same groups that hate any kind of gun control here don’t want the US to participate in the UN Small Arms Treaty being negotiated. They claim it will circumvent the constitution. They’re wrong – no treaty can do that, by law any treaty that violates the constitution is invalid. What they don’t want anything that might suggest guns are bad. Yet those flows of small arms into these war zones is one reason we have so many child soldiers and war lords operating in areas of anarchy.
So yes, let’s debate gun control and domestic issues. But I wish that we’d expand our vision a bit and think about children suffering violence and despair elsewhere, especially since our weapons and policies helped create conditions where these problems could fester. Wouldn’t it be nice if the emotion people feel after a tragedy could yield long term action on a variety of fronts to protect children rather than either fading away after the media cycle or getting gobbled up by partisan fights over guns and schools?
Because tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting happen every day. We just don’t notice them.