Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Of Children & Innocence

As I was telling a friend last night, I have a tendency to treat my thesis -- especially the footnotes -- as a means to think things through, not necessarily to assert something I really believe or, for that matter, to prove a point being footnoted. (My advisors tend to have a whole drawer filled with red pens, to mark out such 'self-indulgences' and scold me for not 'keeping to the point'. Blah blah blah.) For instance, yesterday I found myself doing a lot of thinking about the recent events in Beslan, specifically what is it about kids getting killed that makes us, most of us anyway, shudder and wring our hands while wondering aloud 'what is the world coming to'?

The most common answers I've received are (a) children are, in general, defenseless; (b) they are less culpable in whatever causes people to kill in the first place; (c) they are generally the fill-ins for a more culpable target that can defend itself; and (d) children are, one can but hope, the only means of changing the situation that causes people to kill. For instance, there is a school of thought -- thought at its most visceral of levels, anyway -- that one is and ought to be more horrified by the children of Beslan dying than, say, the adult Russians killed during the Moscow theatre siege in 2002. Why? Because the children had no means of escape or defense? Perhaps -- although the fact that most of the Russians killed during the siege were killed during the siege itself by Russian soldiers suggests this may not be the case at all. So, maybe not. Perhaps, though, it is because the Russians in the theatre are representative of a Russian electorate that voted for Vladimir Putin, and thus, in the eyes of the Chechen separatists, are reasonable targets. The children, having not voted, are not as cupable by that reasoning, and are but cowardly substitutes. I might be willing to entertain this notion more readily if I were not comfortable with its most obvious implication: that adults of a country deemed oppressive are, in a sense, open game. It is not a mighty leap, it seems, to say that because Al Qaeda, for example, is against America foreign and domestic policy, its liberties, etc., Americans themselves, as long as they are adults, can, in a certain morbid thought experiment, be regarded as legitimate targets.

Alternatively, one might argue that children are not legitimate targets because they are the hope of the future. Killing the world's children is the same was killing the world's future. I'll resist the urge to get philosophical on this point, dabbling in all things existential, because I don't think the point is a philosophical one. It is, rather, a cynical -- though perhaps realistically so -- view of the contemporary world. And just not contemporary in the sense of the twenty-first century; but rather, in the sense of the present in general. The future holds an allure that the present cannot match and that, so one might pray, the past can but point.

Such is the myth of a child's innocence. I don't use 'myth' negatively here. Some myths are true, in the sense that they inform many of the spoken and unspoken assumptions we have about the most fundamental things of life. The notion that you are innocent until proven guilty, for instance, is a myth that (in my mind, legitimately) governs the functioning of our judicial system. A myth need not be true in in the ontological sense, though. If, for example, I have killed my wife, I'm guilty of having killed her even without a judicial system. What our judicial system does is provide a legal category to place the act of killing one's wife along with its official consequences. The myth of a child's innocence seems a bit similar.

A child is innocent, in the sense of having no conscious culpability. But, ontologically, children can be very guilty. A child who bites another child during a playground dispute may not have the proper right-wrong parameters to know that he ought not do that -- though even that is doubtful -- but he by all means is guilty of actually having bitten the kid. To a Palestinean Arab, an Israeli child born in Gaza and the West Bank is probably not regarded as guilty of having consciously chosen to settle there; but she is definitely guilty of actually being there at all. In the sense of the term, guilt can be passed from one generation to another. Maybe there is something to be said for a secular version of original sin.

Remember, though, I'm not arguing this particular point. Not yet anyway. I'm not sure. I'm exploring.

What I'm concerned about, and this is something I throw out for any and all to judge as wanting, is the extent to which the myth of a child's innocence actually perpetuates human suffering. In its assumption of a certain of age of culpability, at which a child is no longer innocent, or less innocent than before, is it possible that we devalue human life itself? In our being more horrified by a three-year-old hostage with a slit throat than we are by a thirty-year-old refugee with a bullet in his head, are we in effect exchanging ethical equality with moral sentimentality? In so doing, are we not saying that because the latter is less innocent than the former, his death is somehow less of a tragedy -- not morally equivalent? If so, what is the calculus to determine our proper response to acts of human suffering? Moreover, if we are without one, when left to our own emotional devices, to what extent do we provide their very sanction?