According to the NYTimes, last Friday

“A NATO airstrike targeting Taliban fighters Friday accidentally killed seven civilians, including three children, in the southern province of Helmand, one of the most insecure regions in the country, Afghan officials said.”

Sadly, despite searching for over an hour, I could find no record or mention even of these seven human beings’ names.

The New York Times article assures us that they were killed “by accident.”  In other words, they are “collateral damage” and as such it would be inappropriate or even unreasonable for us to feel outrage at the news of their deaths, like blaming a driver for the deaths of all the bugs that splatter against her windshield: “yes, the deaths of those bugs was regrettable and I certainly didn’t intend to kill them, but, what could I do?  They were in the way and there was no way I could avoid them and still get where I needed to go. What do you want me to do, not drive?” Much less should we mourn them–we shouldn’t cry over them, or ask ‘why,’ or spend time remembering the particulars of their existence–what their favorite color was or what joke always made them laugh or what pet peeve was most ridiculous.

In an earlier post on Judith Butler’s interrogation of “the role of public mourning in the production of national identity,” Bridget writes:

“Bulter’s analysis challenges me as a theologian because she presses beyond the dangers of repressing mourning — and they are real — to the dangers of public mourning, of ritualized public lament.  In the obituary, our culture’s preeminent form of public mourning, Butler warns that we are presented with neat lives — lives made respectable, tidy, mournable.  But what of the lives that cannot be rendered so neatly mournable, who cannot be pressed into the mold of Normal American Lives — what of those killed in our military efforts abroad, whose lives exceed the boundaries of the obituary genre?”

As Bridget asks, “How can lives which cannot be rendered “recognizably mournable” still be recognized as human?”  Or, to put it another way, if you want to know whom a given community or society considers to be human, look at whom they mourn.  For example, in the United States until very recently, an African-American or Mexican-American person who was lynched by a white mob was not mourned in public.  Such a death didn’t really “count” as the death of a human being; in fact, such deaths were often not even counted as deaths at all–it has only been through the painstaking work of historians that we have even begun to have a public record of how many persons of color were lynched in this country during the 19th and 20th centuries.  It is almost as though there is an inverse relationship between mournability and disposability.  This is certainly why as Army General Tommy Franks said, when it comes to Iraqi and Afghans, “we don’t do body counts.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect the U.S. government or mainstream news media (yes, I’m looking at all three of you) to mourn these deaths.  After all, while we certainly remember, in the sense that they have names and obituaries and eventually monuments, U.S. servicewomen and men killed in action, we don’t really mourn them, at least not publicly.  We are not allowed to see their American-flag draped caskets returning home, for example.  It is almost as though their deaths too, though not assigned the non-humanity of “collateral damage,” are increasingly accepted as inevitable, like car crash fatalities.  But what about the church?

I don’t have any concrete prescriptions to offer, but it seems to me as though Christians should not only remember the “victims of history,” who are often those whom history forgets, but also that we should mourn them.  The church should do body counts.  When we do, we will be a church in which all bodies count.

I couldn’t find a picture of the homes these people lived in, but I wanted to at least provide a map of their home province so that they could become more real to us, more concrete.

The photo below is not of these particular children, but it is a photo of children from their province.  I imagine that the boys pictured below could have been playmates of the children who were recently killed. 

10 thoughts

  1. Katie,
    Thanks for a moving post…I appreciate and share your desire to mourn and find ways to stop and recognize that in fact human persons have died. I hate the term “collateral damage” it is designed simply to render the victims non-persons, non-entities in the equation….The one caveat I would add -is how do we find a way to do that while still respecting those closest to the dead. It is frustrating to not be able to find their names, but I still want to make sure that such information is not released publicly without the consent of the families involved. How do we find a way to mourn and respect the dignity of the dead – with the reality that that dignity was respected in life?

    1. excellent point. I had never considered that before. I have never lost a loved one to violence before so I have no real understanding of what that would be like or how the public-ness of my loved one’s death could be hurtful/invasive, so thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. As to your question, I am honestly not sure…do you have any ideas? I would love to hear more about what you have to say on this point…

      1. Hi, Meghan and Katie —

        I wonder whether this question isn’t ultimately just a sharper way of putting the original concern: I’m inclined to say that any real act of mourning the dead necessarily must be an act in solidarity with those who most deeply mourn their loss. Otherwise, the ‘obituaries’ of the Afghan or Iraqi victims of military violence become one more nation-building rhetorical obituary, which does not open a place for authentic mourning, but serves the function of self-exculpation — See? We’re good, liberal Americans! Not like those bad ones!

        So to ask how we can mourn unmournable lives requires of us a deep interrogation of an entire social structure: why is it that we can’t ask the mothers and fathers and spouses and siblings and friends of those who are dead whether they want or do not want public US attention on the specificity of the lives of their loved ones? What changes would be necessary for it to become to have these conversations? What kind of sacrifices would we be called to make in order to have the resources to mourn with those who mourn, in a solidaristic and not exploitive fashion?

        I actually think these are the very reasons this is a cutting and meaningful question, rather than a question only about public emotions… which might in the end be more about painting an image of ourselves as caring than actually standing with anyone. The possibility that the families of the dead might very well say, “Get away from me — I want nothing to do with you — how dare you presume to come here at all?” makes this a task that demands something real of us, and therefore demands the attention of the Church.

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