Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
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Ordinary monsters

By Hani Shukrallah

Hani ShukrallahThe 20-something soldier first notices the huddled father and child fleetingly, his attention as yet focused on the source of intermittent rifle fire from a handful of Palestinian security men. And as fleetingly, an impression registers in the soldier's mind, almost subliminally at first; he has seen the look of terror on their faces: the child's panic, baffled and uncomprehending -- for, like all children, he is yet unresigned to the monstrous cruelty of which human beings are capable. He is afraid of being hurt, afraid of his father being hurt and knowing how inadequate he is in providing help, afraid most of all, perhaps, of finding himself alone in the midst of the madness, bereft of his father's protection. A single thought dominates the father's fear: he wants his little boy safely home, unhurt.

The impression grows gradually in the young soldier's mind. He takes other brief glances at the two, recognising the desperate desire underlying their terror, of seeing this over, of somehow coming out of it all safe and unhurt -- each in his own mind, wishing the two of them home, seeing them with his mind's eye surrounded by family members, recounting their encounter with danger -- in the past tense.

It's fun playing god, however. And as if that singular horror was not enough, we know from eye-witness testimony that it was not just one 20-something soldier who was playing, but a whole bunch of them -- a regular turkey-shoot, insistently targeting an unarmed father and his little boy. So insistent that even the ambulance-man who tried to come to their help is shot dead.

Which of the two did each of the young soldiers decide to aim at first, one wonders; the father -- to see, however briefly, helplessness and utter terror seize the little boy in their grip? Or the son, for the satisfaction of registering, however momentarily, the man's unbearable grief, his loss and shame at having failed in the prime task of a parent, to protect his child? In short bursts, the automatic rifles unload bloodshed. Twelve-year-old Mohamed Jamal Al-Dorra lay dead; a new batch of nameless monsters had been born.

It couldn't have happened that way, some will no doubt protest. It's crossfire, unintended and unpremeditated, they will assert. Some, despite all the evidence, will even hold on to the farcical official Israeli claim that the fire that injured the father and killed the son came from the Palestinian side. Not, mind you, that Israel's much-boasted military machine is supposed to be incapable of hurting Palestinian children. Not even the most zealous Israeli propagandist can make such a claim, however much he banks on the good will of Israel's many powerful friends in the world media. Israel's killing of children should not be so graphically illustrated, however. The victims should remain, as much as possible, faceless numbers. They're Arabs, after all, faceless numbers almost by definition.

It may not have happened exactly that way. But it damn well could have. A few short weeks ago, a number of Israeli soldiers were disciplined for brutally beating three Palestinian workers as they were trying to pass through an Israeli border checkpoint. The beatings were totally unprovoked. The soldiers concluded their brutal extravaganza by forcing the Palestinian workers to lie on the ground -- all at gunpoint, naturally -- and taking snapshots of each other pressing their boots on the prone Palestinian workers' faces. It couldn't have happened that way? Well, it did. This story at least was fully acknowledged by the Israeli authorities.

What does it take to transform a human being into a monster -- not a freak, the Son of Sam or Jack the Ripper, but an ordinary everyday monster, with family and friends, someone who enjoys jazz, perhaps, fusses over how he takes his coffee and likes to go dancing on a weekend?

But then, what does it take to occupy a family's home and land, consign its members to destitution and humiliation in a refugee camp, and feel not a twinge of guilt that maybe something in all of this is wrong? What does it take to bulldoze homes, enjoy the pool and the sprinkler-sodden yard of your settlement house, while the people whose land this used to be just a very short while ago go thirsty? What does it take to break children's arms, to humiliate, abuse, dispossess and constantly beat into the ground a whole people for over 50 years? It takes as much as it took for a young soldier to aim at a frightened child and, unmoved by his terror, even thrilled by it, to pull the trigger.

Monsters, ordinary or extraordinary, are not short on rationalisation or self-justification: 'Given the chance, they'd do the same to us; they want to throw us into the sea; we've suffered the horrors of the holocaust; this is our historic land...'

None of this provides an explanation, however, because what it really takes is a relationship of oppression, the arrogance of unchecked power and the profound, dehumanising contempt in which the oppressor holds those he oppresses. It is this that ultimately defines and creates humanity's ordinary monsters. And, strangely, the monsters are not beyond redemption: they can be humanised, paradoxically, not by the submission of the oppressed but by the growing strength of their resistance. Look at the US's African Americans, South Africa's blacks, Vietnam. Look at Palestine, in a few years' time.

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