I was teaching at a high school on 9/11 when the news came on the TV in the lobby. I always put myself in other people’s place and when the towers fell, I felt the horror in my gut. We were watching the death of thousands, I knew, and we were watching it live.
Having been a facilitator for adult trauma survivors, I knew that Americans had just suffered a trauma. We would be in shock and denial, then we would be angry, then we would go through all the stages of grief-or not. We might get stuck in any one of them and never recover. “I hope we don’t do some fool cowboy thing like run out and bomb people,” I thought. Traumatized people often do very self-destructive things to avoid the necessary sadness they feel coming.
But what is the difference between bombing people, raining tons of crumbling cement onto their frail human bodies and what had just happened in New York? There is no difference. Bombing people is cruel, immoral and inhumane but we have somehow come to think it’s O.K.-and why? Just because we do it so often? Time to think again. In 1977 a protocol was added to the Geneva conventions outlawing civilian bombing. Many nations signed it; the U.S. did not.
Is killing people ever “humane?” Dr. Guillotin advocated a quick and painless death for capital cases during the French Revolution, although he personally opposed the death penalty. The guillotine was named after him and 40,000 French citizens “enjoyed” the fruits of his lobbying before the Reign of Terror was over.
Recently the world was outraged over the alleged beheading of two Americans by ISIS. But if they were beheaded, was that worse than the thousands of civilians who perished in Shock and Awe, as the bombing of Iraq was called, before the ground troops invaded? What is it like to be bombed?
Of course, if a bomb drops directly on you, you will not live to tell the tale, like the man who was painting his house when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and all that was left of him was a shadow on the wall, arm uplifted in a painting gesture. But many people survive the initial blast and they have stories to tell.
The city had no military targets to speak of, and it was known that it was packed with civilian refugees from the east. Here is an eye-witness account by Lothar, just nine years old, who survived.
It was February 13th, 1945. I lived with my mother and sisters in Dresden and was looking forward to celebrating my 10th birthday February l6th.
About 9:30 PM the alarm was given…we got up to hurry downstairs into our cellar which we used as an air raid shelter. My older sister and I carried my baby twin sisters…On the radio we heard with great horror the news: “Attention, a great air raid will come over our town!” This news I will never forget.
…we heard a horrible noise — the bombers…nonstop explosions…Our cellar was filled with fire and smoke…the lights went out and wounded people shouted dreadfully… we struggled to leave this cellar…
We did not recognize our street any more. Fire, only fire wherever we looked…On the streets there were burning vehicles and carts with refugees, people, horses, all of them screaming and shouting in fear of death.
Explosion after explosion…worse than the blackest nightmare.
…people were horribly burnt and injured…difficult to breathe. Dead and dying people were trampled upon…The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mothers hands…We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm.
…cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from….
…we never saw my two baby sisters again.
I stood by the entrance and waited until no flames were licking in…because of the sparks and the firestorm I couldn’t see anything at first… A witch’s cauldron waited for me out there. I tried to get rid of the sparks by patting them off my coat… Somebody behind me, “Take your coat off, it’s started to burn.”
Next to me a woman is screaming…I fall into a bomb crater…I am lying there on top of three women…I yell and shake them but they do not move anymore…I see a woman carrying a bundle…it is a baby…she runs and falls and the baby flies in an arc into the fire…
It’s hot. Hot. My hands are burning…People scream and fall to the ground and are burned to cinders…I call to a soldier, “Please! I don’t want to burn,” but he is too weak to help and disappears…the hollow cries for help which came from all directions were gruesome…dead, dead, dead everywhere, some completely black like charcoal…
Since 1996, we had traveled to Iraq numerous times, carrying medicines for children and families there, in open violation of the economic sanctions which directly targeted the most vulnerable people in Iraqi society — the poor, the elderly, and the children. I still feel haunted by children and their heartbroken mothers and fathers whom we met in Iraqi hospitals.
“I think I understand,” murmured my friend Martin Thomas, a nurse from the U.K., as he sat in a pediatric ward in a Baghdad hospital in 1997, trying to comprehend the horrifying reality. “It’s a death row for infants.” Nearly all of the children were condemned to death, some after many days of writhing in pain on bloodstained mats, without pain relievers. Some died quickly, wasted by water-borne diseases. As the fluids ran out of their bodies, they appeared like withered, spoiled fruits.
But in early March of 2003, rooms were filling quickly at the Al Fanar. The owner invited his family members and some of his neighbors and their children to move in, perhaps hoping that the U.S. wouldn’t attack a residence known to house internationals.
When the attacks began, Umm Miladah could often be seen uncontrollably shuddering from fear. Day and night, explosions would rattle the windows and cause the Al Fanar’s walls to shake. Ear-splitting blasts and sickening thuds would come from all directions, near and far, over the next two weeks. I would often hold Miladah, who was age 3, and Zainab, her baby sister of 1½ years, in my arms. That’s how I realized that they both had begun to grind their teeth, morning, noon and night. Several times, we witnessed 8-year-old Dima, the daughter of another hotel worker, gazing up in forlorn shame at her father from a pool of her own urine, having lost control of her bladder in the first days of “Shock and Awe.”
“Never before did I think that this would happen to my country,” she said. “And I feel very sad. And this sadness — I think, it will never go away.”
Ali, then aged 12, lost both his arms, both his parents and a younger brother when a US missile slammed into the family’s tiny farmhouse on the edge of Baghdad as the family slept, just over a week into the “shock and awe” bombing campaign.
“The Americans should have known we were just farmers in a normal house with sheep and cows outside and a long way from any military bases, but what can you do about it? I get angry sometimes, but I just get on with life.
“The invasion was wrong and it opened the door for all this violence and separation, but I don’t hate the Americans. “I hate what they have done, but I don’t hate the American people because you find good and bad people everywhere. Actually … George Bush: I hate him, but not the American people.”
The fear stands out most in my mind when conjuring the memory. I remember thinking: “Run, don’t die here. Run, don’t die here” over and over again. But physically? …the sensation was like being punched hard in the back of the head with a big fist while someone threw rocks in my face at the same time.
But everyone was left in pain. The moment of the blast felt like ice picks plunging in both ears at once. A second later, thick whitish smoke filled the cab, and inhaling it instantly formed a throbbing headache…
The troops went from house to house detaining younger men and then crowding a large number, mostly women and children, into a building… up to 110 members of the Samouni family were forced inside without running water or food…by dawn three men prepared to leave to go in search for missing family members and supplies.
As they left the door of the warehouse they were hit by a barrage.
“My husband went over to them to help, and then a shell or missile was fired onto the roof of the warehouse,” “When the missile stuck, I lay down with my daughter under me. Everything filled up with smoke and dust, and I heard screams and crying.
“After the smoke and dust cleared a bit, I looked around and saw twenty to thirty people who were dead, and about twenty who were wounded…my husband my father-in-law, whose brain was on the floor. She said she tended to her nine month old daughter, Jumana, whose thumb and two fingers had been cut off one hand.
…four traumatized children next to what ambulance crew took to be the corpses of their mothers…
Is this method of “defense” acceptable to you?
It is UNACCEPTABLE to me.