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The Byrne Report

End of Innocence


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I was relaxing on the patio, drinking the morning coffee, reading the daily newspaper, contemplating an upcoming interview with a local peace activist. Three-year-old Miles jumped on my lap snarling, as lions and tigers and dragons are wont to do. Suddenly, he spied a photograph of two armed men dominating an Iraqi weeping over the body of his murdered brother.

Child-roar was sucked up by silence. I quickly turned the page. "No, Dad, show me that," said Miles, wide-eyed. I reluctantly flipped back to the front. "Who are those guys?" he asked.

"Soldiers," I replied.

"Why are they being mean to that man?" he inquired.

"Because . . . they want his gasoline."


Ten minutes later, Miles was playing inside the house. He burst into tears. Gathering him up, I asked what the matter was, but I knew.

"I am afraid of those soldiers," he explained.

"So am I," I whispered.

I cannot yet discuss with Miles how our comfortable lifestyle is subsidized by the pain of people like the bereaved man in the photo. I am not ready to tell him how our country ruthlessly invades, bombs, slaughters and steals. Or how we hide our collective shame behind vacuous slogans and official lies.

We have no television in our house. Miles has never witnessed the smiling brutality of the Fox News anchors or the psychopathic duck-walk of George W. Bush. Once he caught a glimpse of the obese, purple Barney in a restaurant, but I diverted him with food before the perseverating beast hypnotized him. Miles does not eat sugared cereal or own a plastic gun. He knows nothing of Chuck E. Cheese or the Sith.

But we cannot protect him from the bad and ugly forever, nor do we wish to do so. Especially since, barring a political earthquake, Miles may one day be issued a government gun and ordered to turn it upon Third World "terrorists"--Iraqis, perhaps, or Colombians, Filipinos, Mexicans or the barrio population of Los Angeles. The imagery and meaning that imprint his little brain now will be with him through life.

As a fan of evolutionary psychology, I observe that Mile's genetic operating system is versatile--10 million years of human evolution has provided an array of hunter-gatherer programs that allow for the enjoyment of violent acts and the cultural surrogates of such. But his DNA also carries instructions for the development of empathy, compassion and the value of fair play. After birth, it's all about uploading. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

The burning question presented to his mother and me is how much real violence--the actual imagery and reportage of violent oppression--must Miles witness to become an informed, peace-loving being? The ersatz but powerful violence of Hollywood, which just created a soul-wrenching terror-film out of the children's rhyme "Itsy Bitsy Spider," is almost worse than the real thing because it inoculates children against empathetic feeling. I want Miles to see the actual result of the havoc we are wreaking upon the world.

It was, in part, the images of napalmed Vietnamese children that inspired the American people to accept defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese people. The Pentagon learned that lesson all too well. It is easier to be complicit with injustice and state-sponsored terrorism when you do not have to stare into the milky eyes of the dead.

Later, I asked Elizabeth Stinson, director of the Peace and Justice Center in Santa Rosa, if she thinks that dosing the public with images of real violence might help turn it against our media-sanitized wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I feel that the information is there, but people choose not to see it," she sadly remarked. "People pretend that they are something they are not in order to feel safer. But, of course, the rest of the world knows that what we are doing is wrong."

She says that fear of violence is used by the government to justify violence, especially against people of color. The London bombings horrified white people, she remarks, but it was "just another Tuesday in Iraq."

For her part, the nonviolent activist who is also a licensed trauma therapist is leading one of the most effective antimilitarist programs in the country: High School and College Outreach Peace Education Project. HOPE's volunteer counselors have successfully separated more than 50 soldiers and recruits from military service contracts here and abroad. Hopefully, Miles will not need her services in 2020.

But soon enough, we will have to explain American militarism to him--perhaps graphically. As his innocence pales, we expect that the empathy he felt for an unknown Iraqi will flower. Most of all, I want to be able to look him in the eye when he asks what his parents are doing to resist.

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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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