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Women and Children!

This piece, written in a moment of disgust with the entire human species, is self-explanatory. It was never submitted for publication; I honestly didn’t know who to send it to.

16 January 1998

Last week’s massacre in Chiapas, Mexico of dozens of people by a paramilitary strike-force involved in the Zapatista uprising has once again brought into our living rooms, accompanied by jaded shock, ignorant analysis, and color photographs, the man-made horrors that plague our world. We get the initial reports, rushed to us in a frenzy to be the first on-the-air, with contradictory eye-witness accounts, blustery and ignorant official positions, and the inevitable (but inaccurate) body counts. We get periodic updates, each contradicting its predecessor and claiming to be “the truth”. We get long-winded speculations on motivations and responsibility and a running scorecard on who is helped and hurt in the political aftermath, as if it was all some kind of game, another edition of Monday Night War. And, as with so many reports of such inhumanity, we are led to heights of indignation and despair by the revelation, in hushed and horrified tones, that some of the victims were women and children. They killed women and children! The bastards! Women and children!

The implication is clear: women and children are worth mourning and condemnation, worth outrage, worth horror and despair. Grown men are expendable. We may infer that, had they spared the women and children, this would be simply another unfortunate incident in a burgeoning civil-war; instead, because they included women and children in their slaughter, it was a massacre, a moral outrage to sicken our humanitarian hearts.

Why do we accept this with such passivity? How has the notion that men — and only men — are acceptable casualties of war and catastrophe passed unchallenged into the nineties. How do we so finely tune our outrage to the status of the victim? How do we indulge this patriarchal double-standard, this belief that men, alone, must deserve their fate even as we strive to root out all other forms of stereotype and bias, strive at times to the point of absurdity?

Where is the outrage from the feminist guardians of gender neutrality, those who condemn the term “chairman” as a vestige of male dominance and see the modest efforts toward separating male and female army recruits until they adapt to military discipline as the end of equality. Are women thus to be singled out, stereotyped as helpless and innocent and therefore in need of and deserving special protection by a beneficent (male) society? Or is it merely the officially-sanctioned “feminine-equals-nurturing/masculine-equals-predatory” myth, the notion of women as some advanced form of the human species with innate value beyond their lowly male brethren?

Or where is the outrage from the religious and humanist guardians of the sanctity of life, to whom a murderer is no less precious than a saint? Must a man have sinned to be worthy of their salvation? Or are they merely too busy defending those condemned by law to notice those condemned by man?

Perhaps it is only the fate of the children which brings such a sense of helpless rage. “Women and children” is, after all, a phrase which trips easily off the tongue, a remnant of the age of chivalry, and may simply be the cliche of choice, a cultural shorthand for making the connection between deed and emotion where children are concerned. Women and men may be equally capable of guilt, equally capable of self-defense, but children are innocents, helpless before a world run by and for adults. We are all supposed to protect our children because they cannot protect themselves.

But this is a myopic view, a particularly modern view, formed through the lens of a high standard of living and a particularly stable political climate. It is an ancient and unfortunate fact of civil-strife that it frequently drags in the innocent and the helpless, sometimes as victims but often as participants. In war zones from the stone age to the space age, from Vietnam to the West Bank, from Somalia to Peru — and to South Central Los Angeles — children are and have been armed and dangerous. When your enemy points a gun at your head how much does it matter whether he volunteered or was brainwashed, whether his fervor is the result of ideology or faith or ignorance or fear, whether he is a responsible adult or an unrestrained child?

Or perhaps in this case they were innocents, both unarmed and uninvolved. Perhaps this was an evil unmitigated by practical reality. Perhaps these women and children were helpless victims. But, in the face of machine-guns, how much more helpless is an unarmed child than an unarmed dirt-farmer, or an unarmed cobbler, or an unarmed unemployed father desperate for any opportunity to feed his family?

The problem is not that we have assigned a special moral status, a humanity, to ‘the innocent’ but that we have allowed ourselves to strip that humanity unthinkingly from ‘the guilty’. In this case the exclusion is based on ancient gender roles and modern myths of youthful innocence but how is that different than excluding by religion, or by ethnicity, or by political affiliation, or by association with one or another economic class or street gang? Isn’t it exactly that kind of thinking, that classification of entire populations as “other than human”, which allows such terrible acts in the first place? Someone who wouldn’t dream of slaughtering innocent human beings can kill “criminals” or “revolutionaries” or “enemy personnel” — or “enemy sympathizers” — without guilt. Pick your target. Declare a war. Classify the enemy. Let the games begin.

As long as they are not women and children. That, after all, would be a crime.

© Copyright 1998, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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