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.
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.