Sunday, September 05, 2004

Shared values of fragile humanity

Mary Riddell
Sunday September 5, 2004
The Observer

Even the living have dead eyes. Cradled in adults' arms, faces smeared with blood, the children of Beslan stare out. Their gaze is focused on a point beyond consolation and beyond childhood. Grown old before their time and burnt by memories no human being should endure, these are the lucky ones.
Today, parents still search hospital wards and mortuaries, hopeful and terrified of what they may find. Others bury those too slow, too scared, too small or too exhausted to escape their assassins' bullets. And westerners, watching the carnage of Number One School unfolding in the media, cannot believe what they are seeing.

It is not the death of innocence, for that myth crumbled long ago. Composers of fairy tales, and charity fund-raisers, have always used children to tell the most terrible stories. Though the purpose has mostly been kindly, the border between generosity and exploitation is frail. The faces of the young gaze out from famine posters or from campaigning adverts warning of abuse behind closed doors. Other children, less anonymous, remind us of the brutality of war.

Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old girl pictured running down the Trang Bang road, ablaze with napalm, summed up the enduring story of Vietnam. Little Ali, the boy with his limbs blown away, encapsulated Iraq. From Darfur to Baghdad, suffering children touch a universal pulse confirming our basic kindness. They touch our consciences but they also salve our fears. Kim and Ali supplied the happy endings craved by adult society.

We may care much too little that children fight wars, or go to prison, or starve, but the victims we do notice confirm that our human sensibilities are intact.

In the past, the lost children have belonged to other people. Not now. The images of Beslan have eroded barriers of distance and bonds of nationality and blood. These, the victims of basest cruelty and purest chance, could be our own sons and daughters. No boundaries remain when a flock of primary pupils who took new books and balloons for the first day of term can stagger, damaged and dying into the playground, if they ever emerged at all. Their parents, families whose politics and troubles we had never known much about, have held up, in their torment, a mirror to our deepest loves and wildest fears.

And yet, the unthinkable was perhaps inevitable. This is an age when war and terror constantly reinvent torturers and victims. Just as Abu Ghraib showed women as monsters, Russia's children illustrate the carelessness of depravity in the week when evil, the most overworked word of the 21st century, came to Beslan.

For all the repulsion, there is some small consolation, too. The vision of parents with their children cocooned in their arms is an emblem of a world of shared compassion and enduring values. But, suddenly, how fragile humanity looks.

The aim of every parent is to forge a world in which their children can find peace. The impact of this crime goes beyond horror for the murdered of Beslan, or pity for the living. We see, in the agony of strangers, the threat to all our tomorrows.

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