*Warning: This story contains graphic imagery which may be troubling for some people, especially people who have recently suffered a loss of a loved one.
This was originally written in 2004. The news events described refer to the Abu Ghraib prison abuse and retaliations back and forth following that incident.
Last week on the news I saw my dad in a heap of other men in a prison. He was stripped naked. My brother was shown with a bag over his head and his hands bound. He was naked. My husband was shown down on the ground being led on a leash, naked. And …my heart broke into a million pieces.
The next day, I watched again and saw my nephew kneeling before a group of masked men that were about to kill him. They beheaded him. He was just a kid really. He just wanted to help others. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. But it got worse… that afternoon, my son came home and told me that his middle school teacher thought they should know how really bad the war was and so he showed the class they full, uncut version of the killing. The knife, the blood, the cry of victory as they held up my nephew’s head, was all shown to these children so they would not forget.
The next day, I turned the TV on again. This time I saw myself carrying my son’s limp body, dead but still warm. He looked like he was asleep, but he was gone. Blood was on his chest. On the TV, you could see my twisted, anguished face. He was only eleven.
The news lately has been almost more than I can bear. I suppose we are to take a stoic position and rationalize fault and justice, war and political policy, the bad apples and the tragedies. But, I can’t help wonder about these people. All of them. I find myself fighting to preserve my own innocence because to share their moments through the media, I must either become hardened or surely I will go mad with the sorrow of it all. Sometimes I just choose not to look.
I can choose that. That’s my right. Isn’t that what they say about censorship? We don’t need it because we can choose what we will watch. But, it never really works that way. Either we look out of morbid curiosity, or we look because we say if we don’t look we are burying our heads in the sand. So… since war is no stranger to mankind, the difference now must be our new ability to go there from our own arm chair and see first-hand. It’s the media coverage and what its doing to our people that is new.
The abuse trial is top news right now. There’s opinions on all sides and I probably have had all of them so far. Trying to assign fault or justifying actions makes me feel better. That’s a pretty common way to handle shocking stress. We say, “They deserved it,” or “They were just following orders,” or “The soldiers had been there too long,” or we go the other way and say, “The soldiers got out of control,” or “There was an attitude of superiority.” All this makes us feel better as we raise our fist and take our stand.
The question is, does it matter who’s right? Damage has been done and more damage is to come. The men that were abused are someone’s father, husband, and brother. Maybe they were out in the street doing what they thought was the right thing and got pulled in. Maybe they were asleep next to their wife and pulled from the house in the night. Humiliation and pain is what followed. And what of the soldiers? The father of the sentenced soldier was quoted as saying he will always love his son and he will always be a veteran in his mind. The soldier gave testimony that he was following orders. Was it the right thing to do? No, but he made a choice at that time. He had been a good soldier before that. You would have saluted him in a parade. You would have given him respect for standing up in the face of danger to protect our rights and our country. But today, we would spit on him, right? Pain and humiliation are what followed.
I read the stories of the young man who was beheaded. He was working there to repair and rebuild the country back up. He was driven by a desire to help. He’d already done similar work in Africa. He was a young man with a mom and dad and brother and sister. He had been warned to leave, but the work still needed to be done, so he stayed. He was picked up and, through some odd turn of events, he was at the hands of other men who proudly stood up for what they thought was right. For the sake of revenge and independence, this young man was boldly slain. They said it was for the abuse from the soldiers in prison. If the men in my family had been in that heap and their nakedness and humiliation had been published around the world, would I have been driven to such passion? I don’t know. I’d like to think not. But if I were them, I can see how they would think they are right and justified.
Just this week, new images have flooded my TV. The innocent bystanders of war. They call it collateral damage. On one side we hear that a wedding was really a cover up to smuggle in soldiers. On the other side, we hear that there was a huge wedding celebration in a rural town with gaiety and family everywhere. One hundred bombs were dropped on them, they say. Out of nowhere, they came. Two homes destroyed. Women clutching toddlers left strewn in the after math. I can’t figure out who’s telling the truth. I’d like to think we are, but I’m not sure. All I know is, there was a quote from a man who said after it was over he found his wife dead and their baby, also dead, was still in her arms. His little boy’s mangled body lay at her feet. So what’s the truth anymore? I see in them my best friend and her two children and there is her husband with tears… my heart breaks.
All this takes a toll on me. I don’t want to think about it, but I feel remiss ignoring it. I can harden my heart and say, “That’s just war. I don’t know them. They are foreign to me.” I can choose to take a side and put my energy into defending it. In the end, I’m afraid the emotional collateral damage on all of us will one day make us unable to feel anything.
There’s no real answer. I know that something must be done. We, as a planet, don’t seem able to sit down and work out our differences in a boardroom. So, passions flair and with the banner of justice, we all step in to take sides.
What if we embrace our humanity and let ourselves feel their hurt, betrayal, fatigue and agony. If we stop hardening our hearts and really look at people, if everyone on all sides would do this, maybe we would have a little more compassion and that would be just enough to stop the humiliation and the pain. Would you really lose anything by seeing them as they are: people just like you who are full of pride and passion, people with wives and husbands and mothers and fathers and children. The media has given us all these images that can either harden us or give us a chance to see the real damage: the heartbreaking losses. What will you do? Will you turn away, choose sides, or will you see all the damage inflicted by pain and humiliation?