Yesterday afternoon I took my daughter out to a museum. She ran up and down the stairs more than she looked at the art, but she was quite impressed with some old tapestries of the Virgin and Child - "Mommy! Wearing crown! Baby!" After the museum, we played in the snow, making shapes with our footprints and marveling at the texture and temperature. Then we sat in a coffee shop for quite a while with a cup of hot chocolate and extra whipped cream. She was suspicious at first, but after she fed about a dozen spoonfuls to me she decided that maybe she would try it for herself. And boy was she glad that she did! Hot chocolate a winner, as she sat on my lap for half an hour taking sips, dipping with the spoon, making a terrible mess. A nearly perfect day.
After I finally put her to bed, covered her with a blanket and kissed her good night, I came downstairs where my wife was watching TV. CNN. The Anderson Cooper show about the tsunami and its horrific impact on children. The camera panned over rows and rows of tiny little bodies. It showed desperate, screaming mothers and fathers searching through the rubble. I remember a thin, twisted little arm poking out from under a blanket. I remember a camera held half a beat too long on an abandoned teddy bear. We cried and cried. The sheer horror of those children, those families. Just too much. Cooper said that CNN had already received dozens of emails protesting about those images, complaining that they didn't want to see those dead children. I understood, just as I understood Cooper's uncharacteristically halting explanation that this was what was happening and that people needed to see it. I wasn't paying much attention, to be honest. Those images, the rows of tiny bodies, the teddy bear, swam before my eyes, and we couldn't stop crying.
A few years ago, before the arguments over the war got started, I spent quite a lot of time researching the sanctions on Iraq. I saw similar images then. Children dying in hospitals without adequate medicine or supplies. Horrible pictures of stunted children, children dying under the toll of sanctions. Those dead children were real, no matter how much Saddam manipulated them for his own purposes, no matter how much they became a political football, no matter how much the Iraq hawks sneered at and ridiculed those concerned with the humanitarian impact of the sanctions (and they did, even if that's down the memory hole now). I remember morbid arguments over the real death toll, the real amount of excess child mortality, and I remember rebelling: who cares? A hundred thousand, fifty thousand, a million dead children - did it really matter? The images from Asia last night superimposed themselves over my memories of those images from Iraq... rows and rows of dead children, a tiny arm, an abandoned teddy bear.
A few years ago, before the current Israeli-Palestinian war broke out, I got in a taxi in the Palestinian refugee camp at Dheishah, outside of Bethlehem. A few minutes after I got in, the taxi stopped and picked up a father and his daughter. She was about six, I'd say. Her arm was horribly scalded from fingers to well above her elbow - she had grabbed a pan of hot oil off the stove. Her dad had her wrapped in a blanket; she hardly cried at all, she was pretty clearly in shock. No ambulances serviced the camp at the time: getting to the hospital required taking a taxi down to Bethlehem as a starting point, and I don't know where they would have to go from there. Dheishah wasn't under full curfew at the time, but there were checkpoints and road-blocks everywhere. I'll never forget the father's stoicism, his grim recognition of the situation and his loving tenderness with his traumatized daughter. I wish I could say that I helped in some way, beyond whispering reassuringly to the little girl and assuring the driver that of course he should take care of her first and not worry about me.
I don't really know why I'm recounting all of this. The horrors of Asia this week, the literally inconceivable human tragedy, are so hard to reconcile with our own lives. We all have these experiences, these templates which help us impose meaning on the world, to make sense of it to ourselves. Our different reference points - whether it's watching the towers go down on 9/11 or watching Iraqi children die in a hospital, whether it's watching police dig out the remains of Israeli teenagers from the ruins of a bombed out pizza parlor or watching Palestinian children surveying the ruins of their bulldozered home - explain a lot about our different political instincts, and a lot about the visceral, intense disagreements over Iraq and the war on terror and so much else. I wish that in the new year, and in the days to come, that everyone could try a little harder to see the world through the eyes of others. I want to believe that we all want to save those children, even if we disagree intensely over the best way to do so. I want to believe this, and I hope that others share that wish, and that this can offer some common ground as we argue and act in the world.
My prayers for all of those families. It isn't over - the affected areas will be at intense risk of disease and further death and suffering in the days to come, and action now can really help. Please donate what you can to the relief agencies struggling to help; I gave to Save the Children.