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Searching for meaning in the deaths of innocents

Using cold logic to explain the killings of civilians is an attempt to deaden our emotions and detach us from inexplicable tragedy.

By Jake Meth

A girl holds a candle next to a photo of 3-year-old Ranan Yousef Arafat, who was killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, as Palestinians gathered in Bethlehem’s Manger Square to mourn the victims of Israeli military strikes and to call for an end to the escalation of violence, November 17, 2012.

When I was younger, I always hoped that my older self would have a great explanation for why innocent civilians kept getting killed in violent conflicts. But as Israel began another air campaign against the Gaza Strip last week, I suddenly realized that this explanation for which I had waited so long was nowhere to be found.

I was 15 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, when it seemed as if every other headline in the New York Times contained a double-digit number and the word “killed.” And there were pictures, too, ugly pictures of death. At roughly the same time, the Second Intifada was raging, with Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals filling the news. All of this violence in a far away part of the world was mixing together in my mind. I saw many pictures of dead people — maybe they were Iraqis, or Palestinians, or Israelis — and almost no pictures of dead Americans. As an impressionable teenager attempting to understand these disturbing and confusing images, I needed a comforting answer.

“They must have done something to deserve it,” I would tell myself. “That child shouldn’t have been in harm’s way in the first place. And what horrible parents he has, to leave him in danger like that!” The hardship of living as a refugee, the perils and occasional impossibility of traversing hostile borders, the potential for being captured by human traffickers — these were tangential considerations. I had to make sense of this unfamiliar world, where someone could become a casualty of war on the way to the grocery store. I was horrified by the deaths, but I didn’t know where to lay the blame. So I assigned it the easiest targets I could find: the dead themselves.

I had my doubts. As a disaffected, budding left-winger under George W. Bush, I was against the Iraq War. But I opposed it because our greedy president was out for oil, or to finish his daddy’s war, or because he was simply stupid — not because so many Iraqis and Americans were dying. I understood the Israeli conflict less, but older people would reassure me that Israel was doing what it had to do to protect itself. I was anxious for the day I would be satisfied by such a statement.

Last Thursday, a day after Israel initiated its military operation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a televised news conference that Israel “will continue to do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties.” But it clearly has not. On Sunday afternoon, an Israeli airstrike destroyed the home of Gaza’s Dalou family, killing 12 in the conflict’s deadliest attack. An Israeli military spokesperson described the strike as an accident, saying the real target had been a dangerous militant from the same neighborhood. As of noon Wednesday, the Hamas health ministry estimated that 140 Palestinians had been killed and over a thousand injured in the conflict, the majority of them non-combatants.

The first line of a Jerusalem Post story a day after the Dalou tragedy read: “Israel’s air strike on Sunday of the Dalu family is a public relations disaster.” Pouring such cold logic onto an inexplicable tragedy attempts to deaden our emotions, and detach us from the horrific images we see and indigestible casualty numbers we read. We are expected to accept these deaths as collateral damage in a larger Israeli effort to achieve security for its citizens. But for me, the image of the dead little boy being carried to his grave is no longer an abstraction; he looks far too much like the abandoned boys with dirty feet roaming the streets of downtown Cairo. I think of how my teenage self would react to this image, and I remember his doubt that he would ever find a sufficient explanation to something he found so inexplicable. I wonder if he knew, even then, that the answer would never come.

Jake Meth is a freelance journalist and copy editor at Egypt Independent, an English-language publication based in Cairo. His work has appeared in that publication, and he has also contributed to World Politics Review, The Times of India and BBC Radio.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Stephan

      Using the tragic death of the Dalou family assert that Israel has not tried to avoid civilian casualties is disingenuous. In fact, it has said by military people across the world that Israel does more than others to avoid civilian casualties. If you want examples of accidental civilian deaths look no further than Afghanistan, Iraq and Serbia. If you want examples of civilian deaths that are reckless without care look at Syria, Sudan, Egypt, and Chechnya for a start.

      In terms of alternatives you have not given any. Do you have a better idea for Israel to deal with Gaza under Hamas?

      It’s easy to pick nits and it more difficult to provide reasonable and effective solutions.

      Reply to Comment
      • Jake Meth

        Stephan, I’m sorry that you took this piece as an attempt to discredit Israel’s intentions in Gaza — it was not intended. I wanted to convey how hard it has been for me to find any explanation for the deaths I’m hearing about. Whether or not Israel was justified in this war is a question I didn’t attempt to tackle, but rather how I am supposed to think about the many civilian deaths it caused after the conflict has ended.

        Reply to Comment
        • Stephan

          Jake,

          When you say you are looking for explanations I am at a loss. While the deaths are indeed tragic, no doubt, it’s fairly clear to me that Hamas has done everything to put civilians in harms way because they know that Israel will think twice before attacking.

          In this scenario, Israel should take all necessary steps to try and avoid civilian casualties. However, the ultimate responsibility is on Hamas who put them in harms way in the first place.

          I mostly took issue with your statement that Israel clearly did not do everything to avoid civilian casualties. You can’t know and looking at the numbers does not prove anything.

          Reply to Comment
        • rsgengland

          It is impossible to avoid civilian deaths(collateral damage) in time of war . But if we do not mourn those that have been killed , both ours and our enemies , we will lose our humanity , and that which makes us special .
          The aim has to be to keep these deaths to a minimum , if they can not be avoided.
          At least we can be assured that Israel does not target civilians , as is the case in many theatres of war .

          Reply to Comment
    2. Just as thought experiment. Imagine you were a teenager in the 1930′s and you believed all the wrongs done to Germany by the Versailles treaty. You need a job, you still have some kind of freedom. It’s a slow process. What does it take to see what is going on?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Asa

      Jake,

      This was well-written and incredibly impassioned. It’s so confusing to know what to think, and various media portrayals serve only to stoke the fire, rather than to seek solutions.

      -Peahzy

      Reply to Comment
    4. Kim

      Excellent, heartfelt commentary. I remember eating dinner with my family while watching the evening news coverage of the Vietnam War. My mother turned to me and said “Those targets we are bombing are families just like us. A mother, a father and children eating dinner one minute and the next minute they’re all dead.” She needed to humanize it for me and it worked.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Do you know Benjamin Britten’s “War Requium,” with the standard liturgy interspersed with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who died in battle, aged 25, one week before World War I’s Armistice? In the Dies Irae Britten quotes some of Owen’s lines, where, after the big shelling guns are used, war won, that they should be “plucked from our souls.”

      The final, lasting enemy are those guns made part of us. Israel and Gaza have this common enemy, but don’t know it, mostly. Perhaps a way to think of the cease fire, as against those guns entering us, determining us. An enemy made from part of our selves.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Charles-Jerusalem

      Totally agree. During these last days, two rockets were sent to Jerusalem. I found myself absolutly helpless when I discovered that there was absolutly nowhere to hide in my appartment. When I heard the POUM that was far but very very clear, I thought immediatly about what they were going through in Gaza, but not only, in all the south of Israel. Suddenly, I was part of the statistics. This is what sad about it, civilians are just statistics until we will put a stop to it.

      Reply to Comment
    7. The Trespasser

      Jake,

      Did you already found the meaning in deaths of not innocent?

      I suppose you did not.

      And who exactly is innocent by your standards?

      You see, watching TV seldom answers serious questions.

      Read some good authors, kid.

      “War and World” by Tolstoy (mistakenly translated as “War and Peace”)
      Erich Maria Remarque – “All Quiet on the Western Front”
      Gabriel García Márquez – “One Hundred Years of Solitude” covers issues of innocence particularly well.
      James Joyce – “Ulicess”. Don’t read more than 10 pages per day tho.

      Reply to Comment

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