On the Killing of Children and the Price of Our Freedom

obama-newtown-speech

Last night Hallie and I watched President Obama’s eloquent and moving speech at the interfaith prayer vigil for those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. About halfway through, when Obama discussed our nation’s collective responsibility to our children, a certain cognitive dissonance popped into my head – a pesky, but familiar distraction that remained with me for the rest of the speech.

Obama concluded by reciting the first name of each of the 20 children killed. When it was over we both sat silently looking at the screen. “Don’t say it, just don’t say it” I thought to myself.

“What did you think?” she finally asked me.

“Very moving” I said, “but..”

“But what?”

“What the hell,” I thought to myself, “go ahead and say it…”

“I don’t know, it’s hard for me to listen to Obama talk about our responsibility to keep our children safe knowing that he personally approves the drone strikes that kill hundreds of innocent children in other countries.”

Hallie rolled her eyes at me. But before she could say “Oh my God, can’t you give it a rest just this once?” I said it myself: “I know, I know, I can’t help it..”

Over the weekend, I thought of a certain moment in the Michael Moore documentary “Bowling for Columbine.” Toward the outset of the movie, Moore pointed out that the Columbine shooting took place during the largest one day bombing by the US in the Kosovo war.  He showed news footage from that day which showed the bloody aftermath of the bombing that killed numerous civilians, including those in a local hospital and primary school. The news footage also included President Clinton telling reporters that the US military was trying to “minimize harm to innocent people.”

Then Moore flashes the words “One Hour Later” and there’s Clinton again: “We all know there has been a terrible shooting at a high school in Littleton, Colorado.” Moore’s point was clear: there is an important connection to be made between our killing of Serbian civilians and the killing of students in Columbine.

So too, I believe there is a similar connection between the killing of innocent children in Newtown to the killing of innocent children in Pakistan.  Both are the product of a uniquely American culture of violence, insecurity and fear – and both are the consequences of a national penchant for manufacturing, selling and profiting from ever more sophisticated weapons of death.

Might it be that our Constitutional right to bear arms reflects a national sense of entitlement to create and sell weapons and to use them wherever and whenever we see fit?  And if so, might we be ready to limit this right for the sake of our children both here and around the world?

In this regard, I think the most telling moment in Obama’s speech was when he asked the rhetorical question:

Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Would that our President would ask himself that very question before he approves his next drone strike.

(Please read this recent report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that determines over 160 children have been killed in seven years by US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.)


22 Comments on “On the Killing of Children and the Price of Our Freedom”

  1. Israel has also been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of children in the past five years in Gaza and the West Bank, many killed by weapons made in the USA. We practice a global culture of violence and then are shocked when it happens here. Thank you Brant for pointing out the clear connections. That is why it is important for all of us to create and practice a clear Torah of Nonviolence as Jews, as well as promote an American culture of nonviolence.

    • Ellen says:

      The Palestinian terrorists are responsible for the deaths of innocent Palestinian children and other Arab civilians by using them as human shields while shooting rockets to Israel from residential buildings in Gaza. Theirs is a culture of violence that doesn’t seem to shock or surprise anyone in the U.S.

      • umrayya says:

        Ellen, this is an obvious attempt on your part at diversion from the real topic while also taking the opportunity to demonize Palestinians. I am not going to help you succeed in your diversion attempt, so this is the last comment I will make in response to you on this topic.

        There is abundant documentary and pictorial proof that using Palestinian children as human shields has been and still is a very common practice, if not SOP for the Israel military.

        – “Their report says troops ordered the boy to walk in front of them for several hours under fire, entering buildings and opening suspect packages.

        “The UN team responsible for protection of children in war zones says it found ‘hundreds’ of similar violations.”
        ………

        “Her report also accuses Israeli soldiers of shooting Palestinian children, bulldozing a home with a woman and child still inside, and shelling a building they had ordered civilians into a day earlier.

        “She cited the case of one family where the father was ordered out of his home and shot. Soldiers then fired on the family inside, killing one child and wounding the mother and three children.”

        http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7960824.stm

        – There is testimony from Israel soldiers themselves:

        Two soldiers testified how children were used as human shields. In Tulkarm in 2005, the ‘neighbor procedure’ was used in an arrest mission.

        “Usually a resident of the neighboring house is summoned and required to enter the wanted person’s home and call all its inhabitants to come outside [in other words, used as a human shield]. ‘We got all the people out. No one was the wanted person. We feared he was still there, inside. So at first neighbors were used, then some kid. Bilal, I even recall his name….And they kept sending him into that house to check that no one was inside, open all the doors, turn on all the lights, open all the windows’.

        1 minute 16 seconds into the video on this page you can see Israeli occupation soldiers using two Palestinian teenagers as human shields by making them stand in front of their vehicle.

        http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/adri-nieuwhof/choose-kid-random-aim-his-body-israeli-soldiers-confess-their-violence

        – And even when the soldiers are put on trial for these war crimes, which is nearly always because the incident has received too much publicity to ignore it, they are either not convicted, or get little more than a slap on the wrist.

        Two Israeli soldiers convicted of using a Palestinian child as a human shield during an offensive in Gaza in 2009 have received suspended sentences and been demoted.

        The soldiers had forced the nine-year-old boy to open suspected booby-trapped bags at gunpoint.

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11807152

        – And this irrefutable case from 2004.

        Rabbis for Human Rights say that Mohammed Badwan was tied by police to a jeep during a recent demonstration in the West Bank village of Bidou.

        “The police apparently hoped this would stop Palestinians from throwing stones during a protest against Israel’s West Bank barrier.

        …..

        Mohammed later told the Reuters news agency: “I was scared when they got me at first, I thought they would put me in prison. I was scared a stone would hit me.”

        Mohammed’s father, Saeed, said: ‘When I saw him on the hood of the jeep, my whole mind went crazy – he was shivering from fear.’

        http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3650791.stm

        And, Ellen, two more points before I return to the topic of this thread:

        – The Israeli Supreme Court banned the use of human shields in 2002, which of course means that the use of human shields by the Israeli military was a common, if not a standard practice prior to that date.

        – All of the cases I have cited here, and hundreds more, occurred after the 2002 ban.

        Now, can we please talk about the subject of this thread, and stop trying to divert the conversation?

  2. You are definitely not alone in asking yourself these questions, Rabbi Rosen. My wife and I have been asking them, and others, since we first saw the tears in his eyes. I think we Americans have a disconnect when it comes to children being killed in other countries. It isn’t as shocking, because it is “over there” and not “here.” Which leaves us in a moral and ethical wasteland that is eating us alive.

    If we should care about children killed by drones in Pakistan, what about those killed and maimed in Gaza, the West Bank and other areas where Palestinian people live? How is it that our President can grieve for our children, yet say not one word about these other children . . . and their parents and grandparents. My wife and I live in Sapporo, Japan; watching President Obama wax eloquent in Newtown is doubly painful for us, as it is also embarrassing and humiliating to see the radical disconnect that affects my country so radically and so deeply, identifying us as moral frauds who cannot be, and are not trusted.

    I applaud you, Rabbi Rosen, for taking the courageous stand you take. It cannot be an easy one. My thoughts are with you.

    Shalom,

    George Polley
    Sapporo

  3. Shirin says:

    My dear, dear, dear Rabbi Brant, if we were geographically closer I fear I would have no choice but to show up at your temple one Shabbat for the sole purpose of giving you an enormous hug!

    I have always disliked the whole notion of the “hero”, but if I ever changed my mind on that, you would be at the top of my list.

    OK, enough emotional excess. Thanks for making a connection that needed to be made.

  4. Levin, Rebekah says:

    Brant, good post. I felt the same thing.

    Bekah

  5. Brant, I love you, and I’m glad to give you Shirin’s hug, but I don’t buy this connection. As Adam Lankford writes in today’s NY Times:

    “It is tempting to look back at recent history and wonder what’s wrong with America — our culture and our policies. But underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers — including suicide terrorists — in other countries. The difference rests in how they are shaped by cultural forces and which destructive behaviors they seek to copy. The United States has had more than its share of rampage shootings, but only a few suicide attacks. Other countries are regularly plagued by suicidal explosions, but rarely experience a school shooting.”

    You’d be very skeptical of someone talking about a “cultural connection” to the killings of civilians in Pakistan by Pakistanis, in terrorist bombings (of which there are many), or of Iraqis by Iraqis (ditto), or of Congolese by Congolese, Sudanese by Sudanese, etc.

    The connection here has to do with what weapons are available, and to available mental health services. I really don’t think it goes deeper.

    You want to go for a cultural connection? How about this: in one of our Judeo-Christian sacred stories, God kills every child on earth, except for one family, and we still praise Him as just and merciful, week after week. Heck, we turn the story into a children’s book!

    If only we were peaceful non-Judeo-Christians, like the Assyrians. Or Romans. Or Mongols. Or Aztecs.

    • umrayya says:

      Eric, I have noted with disbelief that for a shocking number of otherwise very decent people; some of who I know personally, the first – and only – public reaction to last week’s horrible losses was to dig up every tired NRA slogan they can find and post it on Facebook, e-mail to everyone they know. This began almost as soon as the news began to come out. These otherwise decent people could not even wait for the murder victims to be identified, let alone buried and mourned, before they ran up to the rooftops to “defend” their right to bear arms. In most of the cases they haven’t even bothered to offer a pro-forma expression of regret about the deaths of 20 babies.

      If you don’t think that is a sign of a problem in U.S.culture, I do.

      • emselinger says:

        Actually, Umrayya, I do think there’s a horrible problem with guns in US culture. And the behavior you describe strikes me as evidence of a true, deep-running sickness of the soul. I just don’t think that it’s linked to our callousness about air strikes and drone strikes or killing more generally. That’s not “uniquely American” at all.

        It’s the connection in Brant’s piece that I disagree with, not the individual points.

      • @Eric, I’ll stand by my connections. At home and abroad, we cling to our penchant to manufacture, sell and profit from ever more sophisticated weapons of death. At home and abroad, there is a strong national cultural sense of entitlement that disavows any laws that would inhibit our “freedom” to bear arms. At home and abroad, our sense of entitlement leads us to use these weapons with impunity – with inevitably tragic results.

  6. Sarah Q. Malone says:

    Dear Brant –

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful, moving, and indeed often truly beautiful posts.

    Peace and blessings,

    Sarah Q. Malone

  7. i_like_ike52 says:

    The moral myopia you are all showing here is truly appalling. No mention of the too-numerous-to-count Muslim suicide bombers who have kille thousands of children, mostly Muslim, but Jews as well. These people are considered HEROES by many in the Muslim countries. No one in hte West considers Lanza a hero. I just read that the Taliban just slaughtered a group of health workers in Pakistan distributing anti-polio vaccine

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/world/asia/attackers-in-pakistan-kill-anti-polio-workers.html?hp&_r=0

    . THERE IS YOUR CULTURE OF DEATH. The American war there is a war of civilization against barbarism. Your self-hatred as Americans, by putting the blame of the culture of violence on America only in this piece, delegitimizes you.

    • gpolley2 says:

      Interesting, i_like_Ike52, that you mention “moral myopia” and then go on to say that the American war in Pakistan “is a war of civilization against barbarism.” Isn’t that the way it’s always been, including our war agains the “barbarian savages” (American Indians) living in North America? Does “a war of civilization against barbarism” shrug off the killing of innocent children and noncombatants? How does this fit within a moral framework? For the life of me, I can’t imagine a “moral framework” that would that I would have anything to do with, “American” or not.

    • Vicky says:

      Your comments suggest that you typically see violence in terms of ‘America versus Muslim terrorists’, and that condemning US drone policy without also condemning the Taliban means giving the Taliban a pass. It doesn’t.

      Like it or not, it is the US that has pioneered and advanced the use of drones, which make murder very clean, very clinical, very distant – a man presses a button in New Mexico, and another man dies in Afghanistan. Or a child dies. But there’s no blood to mop up and no mutilated little face in front of you (and this is no more ‘civilised’ than suicide bombing). Obama has read the names and seen the photos of the Sandy Hook children, but he can’t do the same for all those poor kids who have been killed by drones – they’re faceless and distant. Drone technology sanitises killing, and to me this is the distinguishing characteristic of this particular culture of violence.

      This isn’t the same as saying that other brands of violence don’t exist or that violence isn’t fostered anywhere else. Brant didn’t write that either. It’s extremely frustrating and quite sick when people’s knee-jerk reaction to someone’s unease about Obama’s ability to disregard dead children in Waziristan is, “But they do it too, they’re barbarians, they’re worse, you’re just self-hating…” As if the only possible reason for mentioning those Pakistani and Afghani kids (and tell me honestly, could you name the number who have died, without going to look it up?) is self-loathing. This position is not only staggeringly self-centred, it’s also violent in its own right. You don’t let those kids exist as kids with grieving family – no, they’re just some kind of collateral in a ‘war against barbarism’, if you mention them at all. And if they are mentioned, then they mustn’t be mentioned independently of Taliban killings – your first priority is clearly not to mourn them but to protect your own politics and make sure you stay comfortable. This kind of selfishness and dehumanising thinking is at the backbone of all violence, no matter what shape it takes, and judging by your comments you’ve got it down. But you’re not alone in this. We all do it to people. It would be so much better if the knee-jerk reaction was ‘I do it too’, because at least then we’d be marginally closer to stopping it.

  8. Chrissy Steele says:

    Thank you once again, Rabbi Brant for being so bravely public about representing my heart in words. And thank you for contextualizing and humanizing the post by including the part about your wife’s reaction. (By the way, I loved her recent blog posting, also wonderfully honest.)

    I wept bitterly with the President over the lost innocent lives, but at the same time, I felt such grief that our nation doesn’t do everything in its power to stop the killing of all other innocent children.

    The bottom line is that it’s wrong that any innocent child or adult should be killed or suffer because of any kind of insanity, whether it’s that of a suffering, mentally-ill individual who can get his hands on insanely-available assault weapons, or whether it’s that of the collective insanity of nationalism, racism or religious fanaticism – any arrogant thinking that regards other individuals or groups as lesser than oneself or one’s group.

  9. mj says:

    Point well made. Thank you.

  10. Howard Ellman says:

    I’m with Hallie

  11. Melissa Mizel says:

    If there’s any good news, it’s that people are starting to make the connection between the costs and benefits of relying on violence and the instruments of violence. When Cerberus unloads its highly profitable gun-making business because its CEO has family in Newtown it’s much like Joe Keller’s discovery that his war-profiteering has killed his own child in Arthur Miller’s mid-century play All My Sons. The next clue we have to get is that in the force- and violence-dominated U.S. defense forces, we will not be seeing an end to the 40% assault rate on women troops.

    • umrayya says:

      in the force- and violence-dominated U.S. defense forces, we will not be seeing an end to the 40% assault rate on women troops.

      But force and violence is what so-called “defense” forces are all about. As one general has said, the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.

  12. Connie DePond says:

    And the United States supply of weapons to Israel kills Palestinian children.

  13. Clif Brown says:

    Rabbi Brant your connection is valid.

    Whatever people may think about differences between drone killings and schoolhouse massacres, there is no distinction between the dead innocent children.

    But consider the children from the perspective of the attacker in each case to see how the unacceptable is justified. Fantastic thinking is involved in both.

    To the madman in school with the AR-15, the innocence of the victims is necessary since the object is to create unspeakable horror in the service of an epic rage. Should the shooter survive, would he deny his agency in what happened? I doubt it, since these massacres are nothing if not attention getting, raising the shooter to a level of omnipotence over his victims, at least for half an hour or so. It isn’t about the identities of the children that die, it’s all about the one who kills them. To modify Shelley: Look upon my works, ye who have disrespected me, and despair! Suicide follows naturally because it denies justice for the almighty individual who, with the leave of nobody but himself, removes himself beyond reach. It’s the ultimate revenge on his imagined oppressors: suffer in your impotence to get me as you spend your lives dealing with what I’ve done.

    In the drone killings, we have a collective attacker, the nation, whose agents (the CIA) have almost as fantastic a world of justification for the killing of innocents as the madman just described. A profound difference is that drone killings don’t come from a party with no real social power, but from one with virtually absolute power – unlimited money and weapons that it can command from the taxes on millions. But instead of the individual attacking many, it is the many attacking one, but killing many anyway.

    And consider an attack from the sky on your people, your children, those you know in a way that the unseen judge cannot. The omnipotent judge who kills for reasons that are unknown, unannounced, applied without warning, the judge who hears no appeal – does this sound like a schoolhouse attack?

    Is the intended drone target guilty? Absolutely because we say so and the President agrees. Has the drone target been tried? No need for that. What is the crime for which the drone target is to die? Expressed or attributed hatred of the United States is sufficient, doing something the United States government doesn’t approve of is incriminating, having weapons at hand is decisive. What of others nearby? If grown men, they are automatically militants and suited for death. If they are near the target they are supporters of the target. If there are children, they should not be there. Killing by drone will not produce more antagonists for the US, killing of children will not result in unquenchable rage. Drone killings are a good thing that protects the homeland. On and on the fantasies run and at the top, the President, the tearful President who cannot bear the shooting of children, approves more drone strikes.

    So killing of innocents is acceptable at home and far away is acceptable. That isn’t to say it is felt to be a good thing, but if no action is taken to stop something then it is acceptable. How many decades have we been living with school shootings? How long will drone attacks go on?

    Fantasy is powerful.

  14. Ross says:

    An affirmative answer to the question “Does the killing of 160 children by U.S. drone attacks do injury to our society and our souls?,” was given by Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret in 1912.
    “When the Holy One, blessed be He, stated at the time of Creation, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” He thereby placed in man’s hands the power to create worlds as He had done. And if it be true, as our Sages affirm, that man affects even the higher spheres, then how much more must he affect this very earth itself. Certainly his own situation is shaped by his own hand. The effect of society upon him is but the harvest of those deeds previously sown by him in this world.”

    https://theshalomcenter.org/node/136


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