The slaughter of 20 elementary school children in Connecticut has shaken me to the core. As an American who has been horrified by Washington’s foreign policy over the past 11 years, I must admit to having imbibed a steady diet of death and destruction, but there is nevertheless something special about a tragedy that strikes close to home. I was born and raised in a mostly Catholic factory town in New Jersey, probably a place not unlike Newtown. I remember vividly my first day of kindergarten. My daughter is a teacher in an elementary school, and my grandson, a little boy full of curiosity and life, is now five and is in kindergarten in a small town in Virginia. He went off on his school bus wearing a Santa Claus hat on the day of the Newtown massacre. It shocks me to think that but for the accident of being in the wrong place at the wrong time he might have returned home dead, shot by some maniac who coolly reloaded while executing a classroom full of cowering children.
Inevitably, many of my friends in the antiwar movement have taken Newtown as a metaphor for what the United States is doing all around the world. I understand that, but when the unspeakable happens in a village in Connecticut it has an immediacy for me that Gaza does not. The pictures of the children, teachers, and parents filing out of that school in shock and fear inadvertently conjure up so many memories of small-town life in America that I cannot replicate it by thinking of other horrors. The thought that those little boys and girls had their lives snuffed out for absolutely nothing, that they will not grow and learn about the world, that they will not have children of their own and grow old surrounded by family and loved ones leaves me completely empty.
And even if I know that I cannot fully transfer what I am feeling to the thousands of victims of the cult of American Exceptionalism overseas, I think I do understand how their suffering is not unrelated to what took place in Connecticut. I always opposed George W. Bush’s wars on realist grounds, i.e., that they were based on faulty intelligence, they were disproportionate, and they could not possibly succeed. But I turned passionately antiwar over the death of a child when I saw the front-page newspaper photo of the body of poor little Ali Hussein being dragged out of the rubble of his home in Baghdad back in April 2008, the victim of an errant American bomb. People wrote to the paper complaining that the picture would hurt the war effort, some suggesting that the photo had been staged. I asked myself, “What kind of monsters have we become?” More recently, I was shattered when I looked at the photo of BBC reporter Jihad Masharawi holding his dead 11-month-old son Omar, the grief evident on his face, another innocent victim of Israel’s latest White House–enabled outrage against Gaza.
Who is to blame for the horror? Well, maybe we all are in that we are not marching in the streets in protest, but those in power are surely more culpable than the rest of us. America’s precipitate ethical decline might have started when Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, declared the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children were “worth it” and no one in the mainstream media demanded her resignation. Or it might have been the growing jingoism in the wake of 9/11. Our country’s worship of the military has advanced in lockstep with our evolution into a national-security state in which the dead are trivialized by the euphemism “collateral damage.” The American way of death produces triumphalist war managers such as Gen. David Petraeus who themselves have never experienced combat up close and personal, and it ignores the suffering of the poor bastards who have to try to survive underneath our drones or who face miscarriages and birth defects from our left-behind depleted uranium. Our soldiers in Afghanistan, brought up on a diet of shoot-first, now consider “children with potential hostile intent” acceptable targets. All sensible people worldwide should demand that America’s insistence on the intrinsic righteousness of its rather tattered cause, however that is defined, has got to stop. It’s time to fold up the huge flags at football games and return to the Founders’ view of the military, that it was a necessary evil and nothing to be proud of. Soldiers and Marines do not exist for hurricane relief and to collect Toys for Tots at Christmas. They are trained to kill people, and they are very good at it.
And then there is popular music that exalts violence and the revoltingly graphic videogames in which teens can kill hundreds of enemies using a joystick. Battle by way of a video screen has created a mindset in which eliminating whole categories of adversaries for entertainment has inevitably reduced any moral restraint over the act of killing. The unemployed teenagers put aside their games and naturally morph into assassins in uniform sitting in air-conditioned rooms in Nevada who can spot and kill a suspected bad guy half a world away. The Air Force armchair warriors are now even demanding medals for their service when they should instead be ashamed of what they do, if not fearful of eventually going to prison for war crimes.
In today’s America, the government manages much of the violence. CIA torturers walk free even when an exhaustive report finally reveals that what they did destroyed the lives of many of those on the receiving end while accomplishing nothing but tarnishing the name of the United States. And then there were the renditions, turning suspects over to the torturers in other countries to carry out the heinous act by proxy. Rule of law? Just ask Khaled al-Masri, who was detained by the CIA then tortured and sodomized. When he sought redress through the U.S. courts, he was blocked through the invocation of the state-secrets privilege, an instrument that has been used many more times under President Obama than during the terms in office of George W. Bush, who was generally accused of being unsympathetic to constitutional rights.
And so, Mr. Obama, this has all got to stop. You can do it and the people will support you, as most are tired of the continuous warfare and all the killing. Declare the war on terror over. You can even say that we won if that would help you politically. You do not have to provide lethal aid to Syrian rebels and you do not have to attack Iran. No one in America will be safer if you do so. Bring everybody home. A growing number of your fellow citizens are beginning to understand that America’s increasingly institutionalized viciousness overseas is spilling over and taking root here in the U.S. The devil walks among us. If you can’t see it, you are blind to the reality and maybe it is time to change your advisers, replacing the yes-men and women dedicated to getting you and other Democrats reelected with ordinary people who still possess a moral compass and common sense. It’s not just a question of gun control, which will undoubtedly be the tune that you will play, but rather of what kind of nation we have become in the past 11 years. Twenty children have died in Connecticut, but you have used drones to kill 176 children in Pakistan and Yemen. The U.N. reports that an average of 4.8 Afghan children are killed or injured every day in a war that you should have ended four years ago. Twenty-eight children died in Gaza alone last month in the latest paroxysm of hatred engineered by Israel with the acquiescence of your administration. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, far from expressing regrets, said they “deserved it.” Do you think the Afghan, Pakistani, and Yemeni kids also deserve it? Most of those dead children are invisible, since there is nothing in the U.S. media commemorating their names and their aspirations, still less about their grieving families, but, perhaps unlike the poor innocents killed in Connecticut, their blood is undeniably on our hands. A nation that is constantly at war will inevitably produce a people that is at war with itself, hardly a consoling message as we approach Christmas.