A Failed Voyeur to War

This is a silly story about a sad story.

In January of 2005, American troops opened fire on a car that turned out to be carrying an Iraqi family. Both parents were killed outright, the sons was badly injured. Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros snapped an image of the daughter standing in the blood spatter. Half-blanketed by darkness, she is reduced to pairs of tiny feet and hands, and a wide-open, screaming mouth.

The New York Times has tracked the girl down. In “Face That Screamed War’s Pain Looks Back, 6 Hard Years Later.” Tim Arango gives us her name, Samar Hassan, and fills in her missing years.

Now a striking 12-year-old, Samar lives on the outskirts of Mosul in a two-story house with four other families, mostly relatives.

The household is a cramped bustle of activity as women cook and clean and children scramble about. Samar’s older sister, Intisar, and her husband, an unemployed former police officer, care for her. Two of his sons are policemen, and their salaries support the extended family.

The pains of war have been visited on thousands of Iraqis, but even here Samar’s story stands apart. Three years after her parents were killed, her brother Rakan died when an insurgent attack badly damaged the house where she lives now. Rakan had been seriously wounded in the shooting that killed their parents, and he was sent to Boston for treatment after Mr. Hondros’s photos were published. An American aid worker, Marla Ruzicka, who helped arrange for Rakan’s treatment, was herself later killed in a car bomb in Baghdad.

Intisar’s husband, Nathir Bashir Ali, suspects his house was bombed by insurgents as retribution for sending Rakan to the United States. “When Rakan came back from America, everyone thought I was a spy,” he said.

Samar left school last year because she was too shy and not doing well, Mr. Ali said, although Samar said she would like to return and hoped to be a doctor when she grew up. She leaves the house only on infrequent family excursions and has two friends who visit to play with dolls and chat. She spends her days cleaning, listening to music on her purple MP3 player and watching episodes of her favorite television show, the Turkish soap opera “Forbidden Love,” about lovers named Mohanad and Samar.

“I am Samar,” she said, wearing a long red dress and sitting on the couch next to Mr. Ali.

Two of her siblings, also in the car when their parents were killed, sat nearby.
“I’ve taken them many times to the hospital, where they get pills” for emotional problems, Mr. Ali said. “All of them take pills.”

There’s something especially horrible in hearing about an adolescent who is, on the one hand, normal enough to over-identify with a soap opera character, but is too damaged, on the other, to attend school, or to go without medication.

But even as I write that, I mistrust my reactions. In I Married a Communist, Philip Roth has a character rail against sentimentality: “People give up and want to fake their feelings.. They want to have feelings right away, and so ‘shocked’ and ‘moved’ are the easiest. The stupidest.” The truth is, from the moment I began reading the article, I began taking sides. My first impulse was to defend the troops who shot Samar’s parents and brother: “Oh, come on,’ I said, to some imaginary antagonist. “Those guys had no idea who they were shooting at. The family must have run through a checkpoint.”

My next move was to find some vindication in the news that insurgents had targeted Samar’s family — and very deliberate. “Aha! See? They’re the real bad guys. Told you.”

This could well be normal. Yesterday, in weighing the pros and cons of releasing bin Laden’s post-mortem photos, I cited “Looking at War,” in which Susan Sontag argues that graphic images of war gain their meaning from the political context in which the events depicted took place. They’re never photos of something that just happened; they’re photos of something that someone did to someone else. Ultimately, who a viewer is, and whose side he takes, shapes what he sees. Seeing an awful picture, or even learning the sad backstory behind that picture (or the forestory that followed it), is not going to convert too many people to the cause of pacifism.

She writes: “The destructiveness of waging war — short of total destruction, which is not war, but suicide — is not in itself an argument against waging war, unless one thinks (as few people do) that violence is never justified…” In other words, war is hell — now what?

Maybe some people have deep enough minds for this kind of moral bottom-lining. Not me. That’s why I think I’ll turn the page and get back to writing film reviews and charming anecdotes.

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