It really is difficult trying to come to terms with atrocious events like the one recently witnessed in Manchester. This is especially the case when it involves young innocent children. Words often fail us in such times. I still feel saddened, angry, and outraged. But most of all I feel exhausted.
I feel exhausted by the images of yet another senseless tragedy, just like I feel exhausted when seeing images of dead children washed up on shores of Mediterranean. I feel exhausted by the familiarity of the political discussion where the condemnation doesn’t invoke serious thinking on violence. And I feel exhausted by the political vampires who feeding off the intolerable conditions become parasitic to violence in order to manipulate the genuine fears of those who wish the nightmares away.
Terror needs this outrage. It also thrives in a world of reductive sentiments, where readymade solutions are prepackaged into neat divisive boxes, full of neatly contained anger and resentment. I can’t profess to understand this desire to willfully destroy the lives of such innocence. I don’t think I ever will. But I do think the author J. G. Ballard was right when he wrote, “Like all dreams that come to pass, there’s a nagging sense of emptiness. So people look for anything; they believe in any extreme — any extremist nonsense is better than nothing.”
There is something truly devastating about the current tactics being deployed by groups such as ISIS. Not only is their violence symbolic, its also consciously intimate. That’s why its so terrifying. They send a conscious message about whom they kill — whether it’s the non-believer who may believe but not enough according to their puritanical scale, the homosexual, the journalist, the aid-worker, and now youth and children. Their violence is precisely an assault on people like you and me. And their dystopian realism is also an assault on the future.
But in our search for answers we cannot simply act as if this violence is devoid of history. This is not about justifying, but more a call to have a frank, honest, and committed discussion about how we might truly break the cycle of violence. In this regard, we need to ensure with care and sensitivity that the fallen victims are not appropriated by the machinations of war, as is so common in these cases. As Howard Zinn reminded us, “We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children.”
The killing of innocence, especially children, is sadly something that is part of our broader cultural fabric. We could go all the way back to Aeschylus Oresteia, which tells of the killing of Agamemnon by his wife Queen Clytemnestra who is avenging the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia. She was slaughtered for some “greater good” in order appease the God so that war could commence. We might also think about the Bible and the Massacre of the Innocent, which was one of the first times I recall from childhood of being exposed to the brutalities of the world.
The 20th century is littered with the corpses of innocent children. From the savage and brutal reign of King Leopold of Belgium, who seemingly took great delight in torturing and killing children, onto the truly devastating images of children in Nazi Germany concentration camps, who endured unspeakable horrors, the human ability to wage violence upon its most vulnerable is without limits. But of course, despite never again, it didn’t end there. Lets just think of the images, which still haunt us in more recent times. From Nick Ut’s famous image of the Napalm girl, to Kevin Carter’s 1993 Vulture and the Sudanese girl — the burden of which contributed to Carters suicide, onto the more recent tragic image of little Alyan Kurdi washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean, the senseless death of innocence still shames us.
Some might argue that these conditions are tragically inevitable. The explanation is simple: humans are naturally violent because we are part of a violent natural world, and unfortunately children will be caught in the crossfires of our political differences. But let’s address two things here. Firstly, its not differences that cause conflict. Both sides in any conflict are remarkably similar in their language, justifications for violence and uncompromising attitudes. Enemies have more in common than what sets them apart. And secondly, there is nothing natural to violence. Such is the myth of so-called human evolution. Even if we come at this from the most animalistic perspective, what is truly remarkable is the ways humans are not more violent than we might expect. That is not to say that millions don’t needlessly suffer in war. But on an individual level, given all the history of warfare and all the injustices in the world, humans show a remarkable ability to live peacefully in their daily lives. Its just our politics fails us.
So what can we do? Well for us adults we have a simple choice. And that choice can begin by asking the most basic question: what do you think ISIS and all the fascists of the world fear most, your hatred or your love?
And for those of us who have beautiful children (and even if you don’t), my advice would be: on your way home tonight, go and buy a copy of Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland and start reading it before they sleep and dream. Alice in Wonderland is, to my mind, the most important and brilliant book of political theory ever written. It begins with Alice chasing a white rabbit who has no time for anything. Could there be a better metaphor for the contemporary moment than this? In Caroll’s Wonderland the nonsensical is the rule, the exception has become the norm. It’s a place full of injustice, where violence is arbitrary and power is unmediated. And let’s consider the Queen, is there a more fitting caricature of Donald Trump — she utters therefore it’s true?
But more important in this brilliantly crafted tale is Alice. She continually learns to see things from different perspectives. Indeed, this little girl is a real revolutionary subject in the most affirmative sense of the term. Alice doesn’t negate the world; she brings out its wonder. Alice doesn’t hide away; she resists what is patently intolerable. Alice doesn’t judge the strange fellows she meets on her journey; she accepts people for their differences. And most importantly of all, Alice doesn’t lament, because she is armed with the greatest weapon of all — the power of imagination. Lewis Carroll once said, “You know what the issue is with this world? Everyone wants some magical solution to their problem and yet everyone refuses to believe in magic.” We can put this quote another way — let’s not give to our children a world that’s catastrophically fated.
It is often said that our children are the future. This statement of fact truly needs more political and philosophical consideration. When children are caught up in the ravages of violence, what is being attacked is precisely the idea that the future might be steered in a different direction. Breaking the cycle of violence means teaching them about the challenging nature of the world so they don’t become afraid, but can continue to find reasons to believe it in. Or to echo the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”