Language can only poorly approximate things that are bodily felt: “lovesick”, “bursting with happiness”, “heartbroken”. Good poetry makes a virtue of obliquity, but good poetry is hard to write.
The world has been awash in irreducible feelings this week, in the wake of the Tehrik-e-Taliban’s attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, in which 148 people died, 132 of them children.
This event bleached the potency right out of language. Social media tried hard to write its feelings down, but even beautiful expressions began to grate from overuse. My heart twisted the first time I read “The smallest coffins are the heaviest”, but countless iterations later it seemed cloying and sentimental, and set my teeth on edge. It felt like “collateral damage”-words recycled endlessly until they have lost all meaning. The word “martyred” was also widely and wrongly used. These children did not nobly sacrifice themselves. They were killed while they were in school, preparing for their futures.
Sentimentality, that counterfeit emotion, does not belong anywhere near this event. A pretty phrase is no shortcut through what we should be feeling. Repeating the story of what happened, to itself and to others, is how the mind gradually surfaces from the anaesthesia of shock to begin the painful process of acceptance. The attack in Peshawar, which seems to demand a thousand adjectives, in fact, just leaves us silent before the facts.
The facts are: the gunmen shot the kids individually, point blank, or executed them in a line like a firing squad. They reached beneath desks where kids were hiding and pulled them out to kill them. They fired indiscriminately. They asked who wanted to be spared, and shot the children who put up their hands. They shot teachers and torched them with gasoline, and made the kids watch. They shot children in the face, in the head, in the chest, in the back. Kids were blown up with explosives. Some survivors went home from hospital after receiving first aid, and others are still being treated for their wounds.
They, and their communities, have unthinkable psychological injuries. Children cradled their dying friends in their arms. Some played dead amid, or under, the corpses of their schoolmates, until it was all over. They blessed their dead teachers for trying to protect them, and attended the endless funerals of friends, classmates, schoolmates and staff.
In silence, we need to take stock, once again, of how and why we have accepted the diminishing of humanity to the point where murdering children is said to be justified by the murder of other children, whose murder is called collateral damage, which is justified in as many terms as it takes to obscure the faces of dead children. And after that silence, we need to raise our voices. If killing children is unconscionable, why do we continue to allow it?
We grieve with all our hearts for the children of Peshawar, who were deliberately sought out and killed, and for their communities. We should grieve just as hard for the children of Iraq or Syria or West Asia or any number of other conflict zones, instead of telling ourselves that the poor little mites were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but what do you do, that’s geopolitics. We should grieve for the children killed in communal riots all over India, those killed inside the bodies of women executed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and those killed by Boko Haram. We should grieve for the foetuses and babies we kill because they are girls.
Those are the children that die. There are also those children who are stricken by polio because their parents consider the vaccine to be anti-religious. Those who suffer lifelong sickness from malnutrition, those who are trafficked into the sex trade and slavery, those who are recruited into child armies and crime, those who are homeless and live by their wits, those who lose their parents to war, crime, religious fatwa, riots and poverty. They pass their trauma on to their children.
How many murdered children and traumatised adults will it take for citizens to stand up to religious fundamentalism, state and non-state violence, greed, and other dominance-seeking behaviour? Will the people of the world continue to allow powerful men, men who own nuclear codes, banking codes, social and religious codes, and weaponry, to keep killing children in the name of god and country and keep shrouding them in political jargon? Can the much-scorned peaceniks, mothers, secularists, activists, civilians and protesters say, loudly enough, that there is no god, country, justification or excuse worth killing children?
The world claims to be in unspeakable pain over the Peshawar school attack. But if the smallest coffins are the heaviest, why does the world seem so able, and so willing, to carry so many of them?