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Mourning the Children, Here and There

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How many children have died -- are dying every day -- because the United States bombs several Middle East countries with drones? How many children died at the hands of U.S. military firepower in Iraq?

I raise these disturbing questions to provoke some reflection on the horrible massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Not to degrade the events there last Friday; far from it. Everyone, I hope, is traumatized by the unspeakable carnage there. As the father of a child and a longtime gun control advocate, I find the massacre to be deeply disturbing, and I do hope it moves our reluctant president to stand up to the NRA bullies.

But Obama has shown no such reluctance to pursue practices that result repeatedly in the killing of innocent children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and possibly elsewhere. One such instance was the killing of 21 children in Yemen in 2009, an "incident" stirring no mourning rituals in America.

The carnage in Iraq was colossal. Our best estimates of mortality in Iraq have 800,000 or so dead from the war, and many tens of thousands of those were children. (At least we have some estimates for Iraq; there are no credible estimates for the loss of life in Afghanistan.) That was Bush's war, of course, but one honored by Obama when U.S. troops were withdrawn a year ago without a word about the Iraqi's sacrifice, the dead and wounded, the five million displaced, the hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. Not a word.

And why would he say anything? The American people have shown an almost complete indifference to the carnage over there. No 24/7 television coverage and anchors flying in for on-the-spot empathy, no national conversation about violence, no therapeutic advice for parents, no hugs and assurances from priests and ministers and rabbis, no piles of bouquets. For the most part, there isn't even an acknowledgment that it happened.

How can the American people be so enraged and sympathetic towards the Newtown massacre and so oblivious or callous about the much greater scale of child mortality -- death by U.S. violence -- in these venues where the U.S. government chose to intervene?

Civilian casualties in war always challenge our most fundamental notions of our own self-worth. We did not invade Afghanistan and Iraq to kill the innocent. The drones are supposed to kill bad guys, not children (about 170 according to one study). So the reflexive response is to deny the reality of these deaths.

I was involved with one of the mortality studies of the Iraq War, and when the results were published, the blowback was stunning -- otherwise sensible people simply would not acknowledge that large numbers of war-related fatalities were occurring. I finally came to understand this in the context of "Just World Theory," a well-established set of observations that explain how most people, believing the world to be orderly and "just," cannot cope with the terrible outcomes of war.

This is especially so when we, Americans, are the proximate cause of the misery. We pay much more attention to the death toll in Syria, for example, than we did in Iraq or do in Afghanistan.

The Newtown killer can also be isolated from what we take to be commonplace American values. While mass shootings are increasing in frequency, they are viewed as aberrations, which of course they are, almost always committed by someone who is mentally ill. (Ordinary gun violence is not aberrant, however, with thousands dying each year in accidents and one-on-one murders.) This may upset our view of the world as a just place, but a massacre is not obviously a consequence of conscious policy decisions, like going to war.

(The more we regard gun violence as a collective responsibility -- because we've allowed the NRA to run roughshod over public preferences and common sense -- the more these massacres will present a troubling moral and psychological challenge. For now, we see it as deviance, and hence something that can be obsessively sentimentalized.)

Some day I hope this country, through some radical act of self-realization, has the capacity to mourn and take responsibility for organized violence, whether committed in a small village in Connecticut, where grieving parents will never recover from their loss, or in a small village in Afghanistan, where grieving parents will never recover from their loss.

John Tirman is the executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies and author, most recently, of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars.