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.

  • Keiki

    Sadly, many Iraqis at checkpoints were shot due to a misunderstanding. I was also confused by this, until I learned the reason: hand gestures vary from place to place. An authoritative American with an extended hand is directing another: “Wait.” In at least a few parts of Iraq, it’s only used as a greeting: “Hello. I’m ready for you.” The more emphatically our soldiers signalled, the more rapidly a nervous driver would approach. Checkpoints don’t have interpreters, and so, this lesson was a long time coming.

  • tim maguire

    Looking for a satisfying story line won’t get you very far. Those soldiers are the good guys. The fact that they killed and injured innocents in this tragedy doesn’t change that. The insurgents are the bad guys. The fact that they did not kill and injure these particular innocents doesn’t change that.

    We can realize the parents actions were the pivotal contribution to this tragedy without blaming them. Who knows why they drew the soldiers fire–soldiers don’t fire on most cars that approach a checkpoint; why did they stand out? ignorance? fear?–they’re dead so they can’t give us an explanation of their actions.

    We know innocents suffer in war and can accept that as part of the price to be paid (so long as it really does figure into our calculations) it still find our rationalizations cold comfort when presented with a particular tragedy, when the “collateral damage” is not just a number or even a name, but a person with a face, a history, and perhaps most disturbing of all, a future.

    Sometimes there just aren’t answers. At least not in this realm. But we still must face it because it’s a part of the reality we inhabit.

  • Barbara

    I don’t agree. I can justify turning my head away from a horrific accident. But even the shortfalls of my shallow mind is not enough justifiction for me to turn my head away from the reality of a war that is waged by our leaders, fought by our young people, and paid for by our tax dollars. I think to do so would be cowardly, irresponsible and arguably sinful.

  • kenneth

    That’s the trouble Tim, it doesn’t figure into our calculations. We’ve reduced a country to absolute ruin and set of a chain of actions which has led to many many hundreds of thousands of innocent people’s deaths, and for NO reason whatsoever. There is not today, and never was, ever, a credible threat to our nation’s survival or security coming out of Iraq. To the extent that Iraq ever posed a credible WMD threat, it is solely because we (and our European proxies), provided the money and technical expertise to help them develop it.

    Samar’s life, repeated endless times over, is the result of a nation indulging its collective lust for revenge. Whatever the right and wrong of her particular encounter, in the big picture, the deaths we caused are no more morally defensible than if we had killed them for sport in arenas.

    The implication from Sontag’s observations seems to be that war images are all just too complex to understand, and they’re unpleasant, so let’s just avert our eyes and leave the unpleasantness to those who know best. By doing so, you suppose that the moral culpability for the things done in our name will just sort of diffuse into the atmosphere of our corporate identity as a country and will never trace back to us as individuals, even though we all personally financed this war and gave at least our tacit consent. If the Christian view of afterlife is indeed correct, many of us are going to have VERY interesting intake interview on judgment day.

    Another point for Catholics to chew over: How do you suppose our society is ever going to show respect for the unborn when we’ve decided collectively that human life in the right circumstances, is a commodity worth less than sand?

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    No one is to blame. It is a matter of unfortunate circumstances. If her parents had died in a car crashed while the children survived, the same post events may have transpired. One has to accept God’s will in these tragedies and have as much compassion for the devastated survivors as possible. I wouldn’t call that sentimentality. I wish I could do something for that poor girl.