Posted April 18th 2013 at 12:25 pm by
in First Person Policy

On Killing Children

Author Justice Castañeda is a graduate student in the MIT Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning.

A NATO airstrike killed ten children in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, April 6th, according to the Los Angeles Times and other sources.

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Today in a seminar at a great institution, I will be part of a group of 30 students who will discuss, critique, and analyze two texts. The professor and another author wrote one of the texts, and his colleague at this same institution wrote the other. We will discuss the theoretical components of the text, the validity of the arguments presented, and the role they fit in shaping our collective understanding and daily navigation of our own lives.

Some of us will analyze the nuanced ways that racism persists at the micro level in 21st century Chicago. Some will question the application of organizational theory to interpersonal relationships between members of different ethnic groups. A few might lend insight into how Latinos – despite the overt racism and antagonism faced – are still doing better in terms of academic outcomes than African American populations in Chicago. Others will analyze housing employment policies, and the tiered nature of the labor market affecting the four neighborhoods presented in the text. Still others will debate the importance of labor unions and the protection of rights for city and municipal workers. We will talk about immigration, and iterations of immigrant populations. We will introduce concepts of shifting power dynamics based on historical relationships with institutional structures, exclusion, and mobility.

We will cite the authors and texts from previous discussions had in the same room, as part of the same class. We will bring in arguments of authors ranging from early Greek philosophers to contemporary political actors, sociologists, and intellectuals. We will contrast these arguments with pop-culture references, and anecdotal stories of how each of the neighborhoods analyzed reminds us of a place we lived, a meal that we ate, and a conversation we had with a stranger on a bus. And we will debate the omission of the role of gender and the nature power dynamics, skewing authors’ research in favor of, or to the detriment of, different groups represented in our texts. We will discuss at length the role and importance of the “informal vs. formal” economies in post-industrial Chicago.

Some of us will propose policy changes in immigration; some will advocate for bi/tri-lingual immersion programs in elementary education; others will cynically dismiss our capacity at this point to mitigate such richly embedded feelings, concentrated over generations of discourse and dining halls; and the others will be silent.

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And all of it will be a sham.

It will be a sham because even as we will be meeting, the United States – and by extension each and every American – is currently engaged in the most brutal and dishonorable acts in other parts of the globe, and at home: the killing and terrorizing of children.

Last week – a week prior to the horrific, disgusting acts of violence at the Boston Marathon – our  country engaged in the approval, planning, and execution of the murder of 10 children in Afghanistan, 10 of the reported 185 children killed by U.S. drone strikes since 2004.

In any religion I am a heathen for the things I have done in my life. At the moments when the most was demanded of me, I have failed and faltered on numerous levels, and repeatedly. The folks in this seminar gave me a chance to see their work. Many here have spent their life’s work trying to make some sense out of life through scholarship, and their open willingness to share this has inspired me. In many ways my question is about my love for them and my appreciation of their work.

And, to be certain, this is definitely not about war.

It is not about U.S. involvement in the political and economic systems of sovereign states.

It is not about Democrats.

It is not about Republicans.

It is not about the President, or the Police.

It is not about the Military.

It is not about formal economies,

It is not about informal economies.

It is not about politics.

And it is not about ideology; outside of an ideological stance of moral conviction about the horror of murdering children.

It is not even about the use of unmanned surveillance aircraft in domestic policing, or in war.

We can debate those things into the twilight of our lives.

This is about killing children.

It is about our moral standing in the work we do, in the relationships we have and the days that we spend on this earth.

It is about our inability, as educators, to look the youth in the eye and expect them to uphold any type of moral or ethical code; to expect them to follow or take seriously the laws of a State that has an open policy sanctioning the murder of children.

It is about our inability as community workers and policy analysts to take seriously policy recommendations and plans for implementation, when in our heart of hearts we know that our head of state is killing children.

It is about the shame of our friends and families, parents, struggling to impose any type of moral authority over their children, when they are silent as our country kills children abroad.

It is about the pain I feel for all the children who did not die in last week’s bombings, but who will live their lives with their last memories of their brethren – their playground classmates – being of their dead and scattered bodies strewn out after being bombed by our people.

By our collective pain for the youth in Boston and all over the world who are constantly being reminded that there is nothing sacred on this earth.

And finally it is about the mockery the collective subscription of the murdering of children as an acceptable foreign policy makes of the work we all engage in, day in and day out, here in this seminar, in this university, and in academia writ large.

As scholars, and as people, when we enter a conversation or dialogue, there has to be the proverbial “table” that we agree to come together at. In my mind, a fundamental tenet in any conversation starts with my assuring you that no matter what happens, no matter what the content of the conversation contains, that I can say with full certainty that so long as I have food your children will eat, and so long as I am safe your children will be safe, and so long as I am alive I will not harm your children.

We can go forward in conversation knowing that I will not hurt your children. And, if I am enlightened to the fact that my actions – be them ignorant (consumption) or overt – are in fact harming your children, I will take it upon myself at that moment, where ever it may be, to stop and advocate for the safety of your children.

If we cannot enter every conversation with at least this assurance, I am not sure what else we have to talk about, with anyone. Why would someone listen to us if we cannot guarantee that we will not harm their children? No species, no civilization, no culture holds anything in higher regard than the safety of their children.

If we cannot first say that we will not, under any circumstances, tolerate hurting, intimidating, brutalizing, or otherwise harming children, then I would suggest that we have lost our way.

So, in this seminar, what I would ask our Professor – a man who I first read while in the military 11 years ago, and whose work inspires all of us, even if only learning its critique – and my colleagues, is simply:

What is the role (or utility) of the intellectual in an era of perpetual war and fear?

May the scholar-warrior not sit silent.

My heart and soul is with the families and loved ones of all children today.


5 responses to “On Killing Children”

  1. Juan Constain says:

    Touching story, Justice. No one should ever get used to news about the killing of innocent children, whether in war or in “peace”.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Heartfelt essay. Thank you.

  3. Balakrishnan Rajagopal says:

    Very well put. But there’s no reason to draw the boundary around the question of children alone – there is no universal moral, legal or philosophical reason for privileging one group over another. There is a dire need to bring the question of moral boundaries and moral/legal responsibilities into intellectual circles today but this has be based on a theory of global ethics and global responsibility. Nothing more powerful has been said on the responsibility of intellectuals since Noam Chomsky’s famous essay in 1967.

  4. Dayna Cunningham says:


    Reflecting on your post in light of the last few days, I began thinking about the world I want to see. In that world we understand that all life is precious, even the lives of those who have done wicked things. When the cops apprehend a suspect, a teenager, alleged to have done unspeakable things, they pause to acknowledge the suffering of the victims and their families. Then, they acknowledge the grief of the teen suspect’s parents, for they have lost two sons — one of whom is dead (it does not matter, btw, that said parents have not shown the capacity for empathy toward the victims: in the world i want to see, it is not a zero-sum game) . They then go so far as to express compassion for the suspect now in custody. Not absolution, but compassion.

    I know that right now, after a week of grief and fear and rage, this is too much to ask. But i believe that this is what ultimately is needed in order to become a society that makes, and lives by, a pledge never to harm children.

  5. Anna Gross says:

    How did we come to live in a world in which it is impossible to think of an act of love so great that it might paralyze an entire region? In which it is fear, and hate, and a scared, misguided child that keep us locked in our homes? In any form, violence is the absence of love. We have all perpetrated it and we have all suffered from it. I believe there is a tremendous amount of pain within us and among us, but I do not believe in evil people. If we do not have compassion, if we do not try to understand how we have come to this point as a society, then we are lost. Let us move away from profiling the perpetrators of these tragic crimes as though each subsequent detail might provide us greater assurance that they are not human, not American, not like us. Though we will all breathe more easily when this is over, where does it really end? What does overwhelming, triumphant love look like?

  6. […] the beginning of April, before the explosions at the Marathon, a heated email exchange started in my department at MIT about the killing of children being perpetrated by US military and the CIA. An in-person conversation was scheduled for April 17, […]