When Compassion Reigns

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The picture of the little boy killed by one of the bombs in Boston has gone round the world and is particularly poignant. How could anyone have done such a thing to so innocent a child? This is a natural emotional response.

But is it a morally appropriate response, however natural it might be? I am not sure that it is; indeed, it could almost be, indirectly and unintentionally, of assistance or comfort to terrorists. For it suggests that the wrongness of terrorism is in some way linked to the quality of its victims, and that it is more heinous to kill some people at random than others. Indeed, sufficiently well-targeted, so as to kill only adults, for example, it might even be right. And that thought is precisely what terrorists want us to think.

Let us suppose that the bombs had, by chance, killed three people whose lives, on examination, turned out to have been less than exemplary, even reprehensible, such as those of willfully unemployed drug-addicts. After all, in so large a crowd it is likely that three such undesirables must have congregated at some time.

Would the killings then have been any the less reprehensible? Or suppose the little boy had been not 8, but a man of 38? On what grounds would the latter have been a lesser crime or a lesser tragedy? That the child had lived fewer years than the adult, and that therefore more years of life were lost in killing him? This is a very slippery slope. However evil is measured, it cannot by means of a straight-edged ruler.

Of course the photo of the boy was illustrative rather than propositional. If the boy had just won a competition rather than been killed, the same photograph might have been used. But the context in which it was used made it, by implication, some kind of argument, for behind the emotion it was intended to evoke there must have been an argument, albeit an inchoate one.

To capture this, let me give an instance in which children were, by contrast, properly used in moral argument. Victor Gollancz was an upper middle-class Anglo-Jewish publisher of predominantly left-wing books, who throughout the 1930s had consistently warned of the danger of Hitler. After the war was over, he went to Germany to report on the condition of the country. Difficult as it might be to recall, now that the country is in so flourishing a condition, Germany was then in complete ruins, the people hungry and malnourished, in rags, and living in holes in the ground. Gollancz had no reason to be particularly well-disposed towards the Germans – apart from anything else he had lived through the Blitz – but when people said to him, as many did, that the Germans, after all, deserved their misery and should be left to suffer it, he returned a simple question: ‘And the children?’

Whatever the collective responsibility of the German population (a matter for historical and moral debate, still not settled), the children could not have been implicated in it, and Gollancz’s question was not only a brave one to have asked in the circumstances, but evidence of real moral insight.

There was another thing about the little boy’s photograph in many newspapers that worried, and indeed almost irritated, me. He was shown holding up a poster that he had presumably drawn, which was about as genuine as a $3.49 bill. For the poster bore the words, ‘No more hurting people’ and ‘Peace.’ On either side of the word ‘Peace’ were hearts, and below it was the sign for nuclear disarmament.

The choice of this particular photo, I suppose, was to provoke an emotional response to the vast gulf between the boy’s innocence and the evil of the perpetrators. Not only was he a little boy, but he was a little boy who already, at the age of 8, had the best opinions, a humanitarian pacifist in fact! And so very young! What a tragedy!

I pass over the question as to whether the sentiments expressed on the poster could possibly have been the child’s own, whether they were spontaneous, whether they corresponded to any thought arising in his own mind, and whether in fact he had been the object of the most obvious ideological manipulation, this being the case whether or not one agrees with the rather simplistic views contained in the words. I can only say en passant that personally I detest the use of children in political demonstrations, whatever the cause, for example by means of little children sitting astride parents’ shoulders and holding up some slogan or other, as if the child’s innocence somehow guaranteed the innocence or worthiness of the cause in favour of which the demonstration is taking place: an example in the real world of the transferred epithet, from the child to the cause.

Let us instead try another thought experiment, if that is not too grandiose a term for what I propose. Let us suppose that the child had attended not a liberal Massachusetts school, but rather was home-schooled by reactionary, Christian fundamentalist parents, and had held up a poster he had drawn denouncing abortion as murder and declaring the theory of evolution to be the devil’s doctrine; or worse still, that he had been the parents of red-necked white supremacists, and had held up a poster festooned with swastikas and insults to all people other than white (and Nordics at that)? Would it have made the slightest difference to the evil of the terrorist’s – or terrorists’ – act if such a child had been killed instead of the one who was killed?

If the answer is Yes, terrorists will draw comfort, for again it suggests that the wrongness of the deaths they cause is dependent upon whom they kill, which is to say that they could kill the right people; if the answer is No, then why is that particular photograph used?

The sentimental use, or abuse, of children is far from confined to such situations. It so happened that on the day on which the photograph of the boy appeared on the front pages of newspapers, I bought second-hand a book by a man called Michael Foot, really because it was in excellent condition and cost only $2. (It is odd how price affects my reading matter.) Michael Foot was the scion of an upper-middle class English family who became the unsuccessful left-wing leader of the Labour Party. He was an intelligent and decent man, though in my view naïve and misguided; unlike most of the politicians of today he was also cultivated, being a literary scholar of considerable erudition. In 1957 he had published a scholarly study of a year in Swift’s life, called The Pen and the Sword; after his death, his large collection of books by or about Swift was sold. I intended to buy a few of the items that I could (barely) afford from the bookseller’s catalogue, but the whole collection was suddenly bought by an American university library. The whole collection was worth more than the total wealth of all but a tiny minority of his own countrymen, but Mr Foot devoted his life to bringing about the economic conditions to ensure that no one would ever again be able to assemble such a collection. In this, such is the power of human rationalization, he would have seen nothing contradictory or destructive of culture.

The book of his that I bought was published in 1999 (incidentally by Victor Gollancz’s firm), and was called Dr Strangelove, I Presume. It was a book arguing for total nuclear disarmament, a cause long dear to Foot’s heart, or mind, or some combination of the two.

In it, he quotes H G Wells, who in 1914 published a book, The World Set Free, in which Wells’ foresaw, with horror, the development of nuclear weapons. Wells’ foresight was astonishing: for example he foresaw the development of tank warfare, he foresaw bacteriological warfare, he foresaw aerial warfare, including the bombardment of civilian populations, before anyone else. Allied to this foresight was his very considerable literary ability, so that for once the word genius is not an exaggeration.

But he was not quite the pacifist that Foot insinuates that he was. In 1943 he published a short book, Crux Ansata, strongly advocating the bombing of Rome, partly out of vengeance, notwithstanding the destruction it would wreak on mankind’s cultural inheritance. All are not pacifist who foresee war.

Let us leave this aside, however. What caught my attention in Foot’s book was the following, the first words of the author’s preface:

   Every day when I tried to complete this book with a

   proper review of the latest evidence, I was interrupted

   by new discoveries. One of the most moving and

   instructive was the letter printed opposite…

The letter printed opposite was an open letter from Naveena, a 12 year-old schoolgirl in India to the Indian Prime Minister. It starts ‘I am writing on behalf of all children.’ I personally do not find this moving, but grandiose, self-important, arrogant and presumptuous, in the manner of youth of a certain kind. It irritates me rather than moves me. Naveena goes on to lecture, or hector, the Prime Minister: ‘I don’t think bombs protect anybody. You don’t get power by possessing arsenals.’

These statements are highly disputable and a 12 year-old can hardly be blamed for not appreciating the complexity of the world. But Naveena is no little boy crying out that the emperor is naked; she reveals nothing and speaks and writes in clichés that have been uttered hundreds of millions of times, daily and for years.

What is significant is that a man like Foot – who had spent a lifetime studying and appreciating Swift, of all people! – should have claimed to be moved by Naveena’s shallow claptrap (for which her youth was, admittedly, an excuse). I suspect that he was not so much moved by Naveena, as moved by the goodness of his own payment of attention to Naveena, and anxious to demonstrate it to the world. And therein lies a sickness – metaphorically speaking – of our time.