Lives in the Balance

childsoldier2

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.

Children being led to safety Friday after the shooting

Children being led to safety Friday after the shooting

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.

Not an easy read, but one of the important books of our time

Not an easy read, but one of the important books of our time

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?

Thinking of his daughters, the President let his emotion show

Thinking of his daughters, the President let his emotion show

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.

As the Jackson Browne song notes, "there are lives in the balance."

As the Jackson Browne song notes, “there are lives in the balance.”

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.

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  1. #1 by lifeasiknowitphotography on December 16, 2012 - 20:13

    Your last sentence is so powerful, and so true. I read this snippet on a photo on FB today that also pushes us to think in a different mindset about the incident:
    Morgan Freeman’s brilliant take on what happened yesterday :

    “You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here’s why.

    It’s because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single *victim* of Columbine? Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he’ll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.

    CNN’s article says that if the body count “holds up”, this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another. Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. Fox News has plastered the killer’s face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer’s identity? None that I’ve seen yet. Because they don’t sell. So congratulations, sensationalist media, you’ve just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next.

    You can help by forgetting you ever read this man’s name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news.”

    I think that the fact that you bring in the human side into your classes is really important, as it is often overlooked. It’s crazy that there are in fact things like this that happen everyday. In fact, even just on Friday there was a similar incident in chins, yet I only saw one post about it among hundreds on facebook. Yes, the CT incident was very sad, and heartbreaking, and I hope I never have to experience that as a parent or a teacher, but I feel that all of our energy gets funneled into the wrong places after incidents like these, when in fact, I think we just need to realize that we need to do more for our people.

  2. #2 by thalesomiletus on December 17, 2012 - 08:23

    Let’s not lose focus and make this “about guns” when we know what the real problem is:

    http://anarchistsoccermom.blogspot.com/2012/12/thinking-unthinkable.html

  3. #3 by lbwoodgate on December 17, 2012 - 09:19

    Great post Scott. Juan Cole reminds us on his blog that we shouldn’t forget about the 176 children killed in Pakistan by our drones

  4. #4 by GiRRL_Earth on December 17, 2012 - 14:15

    Reblogged this on GiRRL_Earth and commented:
    A post worth re-posting.

  5. #5 by Feargus10 on December 17, 2012 - 20:56

    Another great post. I sometimes think it is a bit rather the opposite though. I hear people talk of children suffering and enduring atrocities and it is sort of a “that is what happens in harsh developing nations” perception among people. I think what this did was show that atrocities can happen here too. We need to keep the wide lens though, and work for a better world, a safer world for all.

  1. What Is The Value Of A Human Life? « THE SCARECROW

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