In the first of a pair of June 7 photos, a man clad in black guides a little boy—three years old, perhaps—out of a second story window. As the child’s tippy toes touch a narrow ledge, his little black tennis shoes and his little blue jeans and shirt sliding up over his chubby belly evoke the innate cuteness of a precious toddler. The second image shows the man in black anchoring his right leg and hand to the window opening while his opposite, open palm extends down in line with the cement face of the building. Below, just out of reach, the sweet little boy is still gazing and stretching toward the first man, while a rescuer wearing basic white body armor reaches up to grasp the child below his armpits.
All violent death is brutal, and I have no interest in claiming that one recent tragedy is worse than any other. There is no shortage of such human horrors to contemplate—Tehran (June 7), London (June 3), Kabul (May 31), and Manchester (May 22) provide an incomplete list. Aside from quantifying the number of deaths (Kabul had over 150), each event provokes a multiplicity of subjective narratives that reflect the way people perceive the tragedies.
For me the photo described above is compelling because the sight of a toddler being evacuated emphasizes the tragedy of violent death. In terror attacks, where all of the casualties are innocent bystanders, but also in deliberate conflicts in which non-combatants often suffer the most, children are among the innocent people whose miraculous existence is extinguished for almost no reason at all. When a child—who possesses no fault for being born at a random place and time—suffers violent circumstances from their environment, it also illuminates the level of arbitrariness in terror and brutality. Arbitrary violence is disturbing because we cannot immunize ourselves against it through our own actions. For those of us who feel rather safe, our own insecurity increases as we empathize with the individuals and families who find themselves in the circus of traumatic violence. Why does the little boy in Tehran have to be dangled from a window in order to escape potential murder while my son and I are casually selecting tasty snacks at our local health food store? What is the likelihood that something like this will happen to me some day?
Those photos are an emotional starting point from which to understand other disturbing facets of the ISIS terror attack which killed at least 17 people in Tehran. The political context is totally disgusting. The U.S. has historically undercut democracy in Iran and supported totalitarian government, though increasingly over the past two decades it has served Washington’s agenda to demonize Iran’s rigid, conservative policies. The reality that the Iranian nation-state has been growing more moderate doesn’t suit the Axis of Evil narrative. In fact, immediately after the moderate candidate was re-elected in the Iranian Presidential election on May 19, Donald Trump vilified Iran as he addressed leaders of Muslim-majority nations during his state visit to Saudi Arabia.
More recently, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar because that country supposedly backs Iran. Bizarrely, their break may have been at least partly due to a fake news story created in Qatar by Russian hackers. After that announcement from those four Middle Eastern nations, Trump seemed to take credit for encouraging their move, baffling the rest of the U.S. government which knows that Qatar is one of our military allies in the region. All of these dynamics together imply that the current administration is instigating conflict with Iran, which is consistent with its foreign policy agenda—if it has one—since it began in January. Needless to say, it is yet another political farce in which our allies (Saudi Arabia) are even worse than the enemy (Iran).
Let me take a step to the side before I return to another Trump tweet and to the sweet little boy being rescued in Tehran. The unsurprising big news during the president’s Saudi Arabia visit was a renewed and expanded arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a perennial human rights violator and ISIS supporter. A major arena in which the U.S. is supporting Saudi Arabia is Yemen, which has come to rival Syria as one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. Trump and his team have also ramped up activity in that country, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war. The botched Navy Seal raid on January 29 killed at least 10 Yemeni children. Another SEAL raid in Yemen on May 23 killed 1 child and wounded 5 others. So again, children and other innocent people are dying from horrific violence through deliberate conflict that is tangentially related to the politics of demonizing Iran.
Back to Tehran—where after the June 7 terror attack, President Trump expressed his regards but added that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” implying that Iran got what it deserved. It is a sick suggestion in response to violent death, and again this tragic element becomes more pronounced when one contemplates the image of a three-year-old among the chaos. Did that little boy sponsor terrorism because he was born at a certain longitude and latitude, or because of the chosen religion of his parents, or because of his citizenship or the color of the skin?
Sadly, though, the president’s comment is mainly untactful rather than untrue. It is both logical and historical that nations with violent records are susceptible to some amount of retribution. And for that reason we should not only be empathetic with the boy who escaped harm in Tehran—along with his fellow nationals who did not escape–but we are forced to be acutely aware that the arbitrary component of mass violence (as well as the historical one) makes us vulnerable. Understanding that terror can affect us as well (though it is statistically extremely unlikely) should in turn deepen our empathy for those abroad who suffer. When I see the sweet little Iranian boy being lifted down from the window, spiritually I see my own precious son in that traumatic situation, and I ache for peace, joy, and safety for him and for all of humanity which ought to be capable of surviving with less brutality.
Photo Credit: Omid Vahabzadeh/Fars News, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images // https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/07/world/middleeast/iran-tehran-attacks.html?_r=0