“I have been grievously hurt and somebody has to pay.” I can’t remember where I first heard those words, or something close to them, but they have recently been ricochetting around inside my head. I offer no opinion on the statement because I have not, and hope I never will be in the shoes of the person who said it. I have, however met people who have been.
Several years ago, on assignment making photographs of the aftermath of internecine violence in the middle belt of Nigeria, I went to the city of Jos, the capital of Plateau state. On my second day there I sat down to speak with a gentleman who had a wide scar that stretched from just behind his hairline above his left eye, across his closely shaven head and down to the nape of the right side of his neck. He told me his story in a matter of fact way because he felt that his behaviour was unremarkable, entirely normal. He woke up one morning to the sound of a commotion in his neighborhood. The word reached them that violence was spreading across the city. He left home thinking that he could go to work as usual but as he was getting into his car, he felt excruciating pain of a machete blow to his head from behind. He collapsed and from the twilight zone on the edge of unconsciousness he felt a cold dampness envelop him and he smelled the acrid fumes of petrol. A barely audible voice said, “Let’s not burn him here, it is too near the house.” Mercifully, he blacked out as he was being dragged down the road by his assailants to a more convenient spot to set him ablaze. He regained consciousness several hours later in a hospital bed, having been rescued by a security patrol that had luckily come by before the match was lit. At his bedside, were his distraught relatives praying for signs of life from him. The first thing that he heard was the familiar voice of his cousin, saying “Thank God! Don’t worry, we know the people who did this and we will get them.” His reply, as he struggled to re-orientate himself as he awoke was, “No, we are not going to get anyone because I also know who did this to me and I know that they have nothing against me.” The word that morning from across town, had been that some of ‘their people’ had been killed by some of ‘his people’. To his assailants, he was just a numeral to balance the perverse math equation that so many of us irrationally call justice. As he awoke however, his instincts were different. He felt that getting them back would only provide righteous justification, in the mind of another one of theirs, to get another one of his.
‘An eye for an eye and … ’ This concept is found in Hammurabi’s codes written to govern society in Mesopotamia in the 18th century BC. The stated aim of the written codes was to make the punishment proportional to the offense, so that ‘the strong might not injure the weak’. Only one eye for one eye was, at the time, a restraint on the powerful who could demand a life in recompense for the loss of an eye.
Over the centuries, it has come to be interpreted as justification for revenge and it is used as a minimum requirement to equalize atrocities. This is of course complicated by some hegemonic cultures assigning a hierarchy to the value of eyes; one blue eye may be worth ten brown ones. The United States, for example, enshrined in its original constitution differing fractions of humanity to differing ethnicities and genders, not to mention dehumanized underclasses all over the world like the Osu in Nigeria or untouchables in India. However not everyone sees the world in this way.
On the seventh of October 2023, Hamas fighters stormed the ramparts of fort Israel with missiles and men; ruthlessly taking lives, hostages and the aura of Israeli invincibility with them. The innocents died, young revelers at a concert, elderly couples enjoying their peaceful autumn years at home. Hamas ripped a gash in the hearts, individual victims and the psyche of the nation. Israel snapped into a defensive crouch and reached back to its tried and tested formula extracting eyes for each eye. From the top of the government came threats to inflict damage on Gaza that would, ’echo through generations’. Then the masters of double speak, Israeli and American officials including Defense and State Secretaries Lloyd Austin and Anthony Blinken insisted that all efforts would be made to avoid civilian casualties, even as we saw newsreels of the relentless bombardment of urban centers in Gaza. Not everyone sees the world this way. What friends of Israel should be telling them now, in the hour of their greatest pain, is that for the sake of their grandchildren, the last thing that they should want is for the sound of their bombs to echo through generations.
The innovative Israeli entrepreneur Maoz Inon was born on a Kibbutz in the Negev Desert. He spoke to his parents Bilha and Yakov on the phone shortly before they were murdered in the attack. His tearful voice, in an interview on the BBC represents the heart rending sentiment that runs contrary to the government stand. “I am not crying for my parents.” he said “I am crying for those who are going to lose their lives in this war. We must stop the war. War is not the answer and I beg all the listeners to do everything in your power to put pressure on everyone that is relevant to stop the war immediately … revenge will just lead to more suffering and more casualties. Even though it was the most terrible day in Israel since the foundation of the country, I’m afraid that the casualties can be much bigger. I’m afraid for the soldiers and civilians on both sides from Gaza and Israel that is why I cry to the world, stop the war, please just stop the war.”
At this historical inflection point, President Joe Biden looked visibly shaken as he announced America’s unflinching support for Israel and their right to protect themselves but he could not take the road less travelled. He spoke about never thinking that he would see confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children. Later the White House offered the clarification that he had in fact not seen pictures but was relying on comments made by Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson. In this perverted era of misinformation warfare, two things are clear to me. Firstly, if we are going to prosecute this war with an exchange of gory atrocities, both sides have more than enough ammunition to keep them hating each other for ever, and secondly this attack was horrific, it does not need any embellishment. I also have a question, how did it succeed?
I watched a press briefing by the Israeli Ambassador to Nigeria. He was preparing the journalists he was addressing for the “unavoidable loss of life” that was looming as his country prepared to fight a “necessary and justified war”. He framed it as a battle between good and evil, civilization and barbarism. Terror groups he said had no reason for what they do except hate. “Where is your moral compass” he asked, “if you can support mass bombing?” He asked this question even as bombs were raining down on civilian apartment buildings in Gaza. I agree with him about terror but ask that as he calibrates his sanctimonious moral compass, he broadens its coordinates that show Boko Haram and Hamas to include the Stern Gang, The Irgun and The Haganah. Noi Katzman, a citizen of the country that the ambassador represents, had just buried his brother Chaim who was killed in the Hamas attack. He was interviewed by CNN about his family’s pain at the loss of their brother. As the interview was ending, he said that he had one more thing to say, “The most important thing for me and also my brother, is that his death will not be used as a justification for killing innocent people.”
MAKE PEACE NOT WAR
The brilliant first nation’s Canadian musician, Buffy St Marie wrote this poem in the 1960’s. Her recording of it, which was banned in the United States, is just as poignant today as it was so many years ago.
The Universal Soldier
He’s five foot-two and he’s six foot-four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He’s all of 31 and he’s only 17
Been a soldier for a thousand years
He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain
A Buddhist, and a Baptist, and a Jew
And he knows he shouldn’t kill
And he knows he always will
Kill you for me, my friend, and me for you
And he’s fighting for Canada
He’s fighting for France
He’s fighting for the USA
And he’s fighting for the Russians
And he’s fighting for Japan
And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way
And he’s fighting for Democracy
He’s fighting for the Reds
He says it’s for the peace of all
He’s the one who must decide
Who’s to live and who’s to die
And he never sees the writing on the wall
But without him
How would Hitler have condemned him at Labau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He’s the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war
And without him all this killing can’t go on
He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from here and there and there and YOU and ME
And brothers can’t you see?
This is not the way to put the end to war