During and since the four-day siege of Westgate, I have been thinking about discourses of violence, and about the forgetting-ness that such violence requires. One of the gunmen shooting people at the mall stopped to explain why they were killing even women and children. He said, “You did not spare our women and children. Why should we spare yours?”
The gunman went on to kill women and children, and men. Setting aside for the moment the possessively gendered implications of ‘your’ and ‘our’ women and children, I find it strange that this man who was about to kill many people and injure many others, who had come prepared to kill many people and injure many others, should say what he did.
Even without quibbling that the large numbers of men also killed and injured were no less innocent than the ‘women and children,’ he in any case killed, and even conceding that ‘women and children’ are the generalized figures of non-combatants and so allegedly ‘protected’ under some understandings of ‘combat,’ even supposing that the man who was about to kill and injure many women and children wished to provide an exculpatory justification for his imminent actions, even so. This mention of ‘women and children,’ is disingenuous at a minimum, and malevolent in the un-knowing it covertly demands for its coherence. This discourse of ‘even women and children’ is nevertheless very familiar and perhaps more strange because of it.
It’s the simple truth that ‘women and children’ are not ever spared, have never been spared. Perhaps there was once an imaginary time when conflicts took place far away from ‘ordinary lives,’ a time when only men were directly killed and injured in war because armies of men were fighting armies of other men on a distant battlefield. Perhaps. Even neglecting to notice that ‘far away’ from one perspective is inevitably proximity from another, it is clear that if there were such a time, that time was long ago, not real, and not here, not now.
Even in such a hypothetical time, one would have to leave unremarked the trail of destruction advancing or retreating or simply bivouacking armies or any sizable group of frenziedly dogmatic, bloodthirsty and armed young men always create. One would have to leave unremarked the inevitable gendered and sexual violence such armies and groups carry with them, and would have to persist in this not-noticing despite Cynthia Enloe’s, amongst many others’, meticulous efforts to bring attention to these patterns, despite the testimony of generations of survivors and witnesses and researchers and commissions and libraries’ worth of reports; despite widespread knowing and easy knowability.
We know, because it is easily knowable, that even if the deaths and injuries from war are far away, those who die or are injured are always beloved of and necessary to some women and children and men, somewhere. We know, because it is easily knowable, that even in such an imaginary ‘then,’ and ‘far away’ women and children and men would always suffer in loss and grief in their homes and lives. We know, because it is easily knowable, that even in such an imaginary time and place, such women and children and men would always predictably have to engage in the labour of mourning. They would be doing so under conditions of an equally predictable and knowable intensification of vulnerability and precarity in their lives. They would not have been ‘spared.’
We also know from our current lived experience that this is not ‘then,’ nor ‘far away,’ nor imaginary.
In the new normal of contemporary times, warfare or the more benign-sounding ‘conflict’ often consists of bombs dropped on wedding parties, flames which engulf schoolyards full of children, office towers destroyed with their full complement of workers, mines left in grazing grounds to rip apart young shepherds and goatherders, the demolitition of apartment blocks with their families of occupants inside them, the burning down of houses of worship full of refuge-seekers, the laying waste of entire villages, the razing of communities. When the rubble stops moving, the survivors emerge to search for pieces of their lives and mourn their losses. Even women and children. Even men.
Yet, ‘women and children’ continues to circulate discursively as the outer limit of the unacceptable amidst generalised atrocity. It seems that killing even women and children crosses some invisible line of prohibition, although women and children are inevitably killed. This prohibition, if it exists, exists in order to allow transgression, to allow more killing. It might work something like this:
To kill women and children is very bad. Women and children should not be killed unless and until women and children are killed. If women and children are killed then more women and children can be killed. If women and children are killed then more women and children should be killed. If women and children are killed then more women and children must be killed.
If the supposed outrage attending ‘even women and children’ had any truth-value or ethical weight in the way in which it pretends, it would work to prevent instead instead of permitting the retaliatory violence of killing even more women and children. As it stands, because women and children are always killed, more women and children will continue to be killed. This means that the killing will always continue. The killing of women and children and men and women and children and men and women and children and men will continue.
Wambui Mwangi, A Lamentation of Mourners