At 10:30 PM I got onto an almost deserted subway in Brooklyn. It was a cold, wintry evening -- with the wind chill factor it was 7 degrees. As is usually the case at this hour on a weekday, I was the only white person in the car.
Sitting opposite me was a young woman who looked as if she had just put in an 18-hour, minimum-wage day. She held a baby in the crook of her right arm. I say “a” baby as opposed to “her” baby for a reason. There seemed to be no connection between the woman and the bundle she was carrying. One almost felt that it could have been someone else's baby. Who knows, perhaps, it was.
The woman did not have a purse. Totally missing was the usual baby paraphernalia. Where was the stroller? The toys? Where was the telltale bag stuffed with diapers or milk? The juice bottle jammed into a coat pocket? The bag of chips ready to be ripped open at a desperate tantrum-moment?
The baby, wrapped as infants are in this frigid weather, was a shapeless bundle. Her face poking out of her snowsuit wasn't cute. I wondered why. Then I realized the reason: the tiny face, lips closed around a yellow pacifier, was absent all expression. The baby was not sleeping. Nor was she curiously shifting her gaze about. Yet she didn't look tired; her tiny eyelids were not sinking down, seeking sleep. She didn't wiggle her fingers. She didn't fret inside a snowsuit that now must be quite hot.
Those eyes -- they were wide open, but fixed. The infant stolidly, silently stared off into space. It was one of the saddest looks I've encountered in millions of miles worth of sad looks on the New York City subway system.
The woman and I were sitting directly across from one another. We shared a brief, life-is-tough kind of look. I smiled. She shyly smiled back. Then quite listlessly she started to bounce the baby. It was a mechanical action. Neither mother nor child seemed to be having fun. The baby was unresponsive. She did not make one gurgling sound. She did not squirm with delight.
Almost immediately the Mom gave up the effort, which, for some inexplicable reason, I thought might have been for my benefit. The Mom slumped back into stillness. Again the baby was in the crook of her arm. Again the docile child was staring off into space.
At one point, the woman turned to another woman, who was five seats away in the corner of the subway car. This woman wearily rested her head against the wall besides her. This woman was without a child in tow, but obviously had many at home. Huffing and puffing, looking as if a heart attack was one breath away, she had dragged onto the train four giant boxes. Each one was the size of one of those mini-fridges you find in upscale motel rooms. Colorful graphics adorned the boxes, but from my distance it was impossible to see what particular toy she had blown her paltry earnings on.
This woman smiled ruefully. She said in a low voice, "Thank goodness, Christmas only comes once a year."
Then the train pulled into Manhattan and a hoard of middle-class, whites poured onto the train. They too looked tired. But you knew from their confidant strides and the understated fine tailoring that could only come from a place like Brooks Brothers that they were going home to warm, comfortable apartments.
Suddenly I understood the woman and the baby opposite me. She stood up and called out in a loud, but tired voice, “Ladies and gentleman, sorry to bother you -- me and my baby are hungry. Please help. Any amount, a nickel, a dime.” I gave her a dollar and she continued down the aisle.
I arrived at my apartment and began the daily battle wrenching the mail out of a mail slot jammed with catalogs advertising worthless garbage. This time there were two: One from a jewelry company. By what fluke did they find me? Since when did I buy jewelry - a pair of earrings at a street fair maybe five years ago?
So here I am the recipient of a catalog in which are advertised such delights as a diamond bracelet for $19,850. Yikes! Twenty thousand dollars! How do I wrap my mind around the concept of such obscene luxury when I have just left behind a woman and her baby struggling to survive?
Next there's a catalogue offering an “enchanting” pre-decorated Christmas tree. Pre-decorated?
Help. Though not a Christian, I do like certain aspects of Christmas; in particular the feast my partner and I have with our godchildren and several friends. I like buying a Poinsettia plant or decorating the living room with some fresh, red tulips. I take pleasure in arranging Xmas cards from friends I have not heard from for months. I enjoy the nostalgic snowy landscapes and the 1950's romanticism, yet, at the same time, right behind the cozy images is my awareness of the cries and moans rising from the carnage in Iraq.
I feel split in half by the opposing realities of this moment. I think of Kassem Mohammed Ahmed. This name would not ring a bell with many Americans but he was one of the witnesses of yet another Iraq War horror: According to a dispatch by Dahr Jamail, during the assault on Fallujah US soldiers drove tanks over living, breathing Iraqis. “I watched them roll over wounded people in the street with tanks -- many times,” said Kassem. (1)
Oh, I hear my critics, Come, come! You know that's just dirty lies. It's Arab propaganda spreading ka-ka about the occupation. No US soldier would ever do such a horrific deed. Where's the verification? Did CNN report it? Besides, it's in bad taste to talk of such things right now. This is the Holiday Season.
I wish I did not believe Kassem, but I do. I do because of what happened to James Fayid. He was the 37-year-old, paralyzed, wheel chair-bound Palestinian who, according to a Human Rights report, was buried alive by an Israeli bulldozer. (2) His mother, aunt and two sisters begged the Israeli soldiers to give them time to get James out of the building, but their pleading was ignored. James was smashed down under the rubble of his house in Jenin in 2002.
I believe Kassem because of what happened to Rachel Corrie on March 16, 2003, when she was attempting to stop the demolition of homes in the Rafah refugee camp. Two Israeli soldiers ran over Rachel, mashing and mangling her body under a giant Caterpillar bulldozer. The soldiers later claimed they had not "seen" Rachel, though, in fact, shortly before the murder they had been yelling at her to get out of the way. (3)
I believe Kassem and other witnesses of this latest US atrocity in the streets of Fallujah because of the terrible sadism perpetrated by US soldiers that we keep getting glimpses of at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq. Even the Washington Post is getting nervous about the extensive evidence of abuse - threatened executions, actual shootings, physical assault- of detainees at many prisons in Iraq besides Abu Ghraib. (4)
I hear the holiday revelers, but why dwell on such ugliness now? Can't you give it a rest? Right now as our cities, department stores, malls, apartments, homes and TV are flooded with saccharine images and soothing talk of “Peace” and “Love” is exactly the time when I don't want to sink into, even temporary, holiday amnesia.
We all know that in war humanity is capable of perpetuating war crimes. I don't want the atrocities on my “side” to be papered over by sugarcoated angels and bedecked halls. Even as I hug my Godsons, drink wine and overindulge in chocolate it's important to remember the woman begging on the subway, to think of Kassem -- and to remember the US War against Panama in 1989.
Why Panama now? Why bring up a war that happened 15 years ago? Sometimes, at a distance we can recognize and acknowledge some atrocity that closer in time, say during the assault on Fallujah, our minds and hearts reject. We just can't assimilate the gory realities of today.
Significantly, the Invasion of Panama provides some photographic evidence that makes eminently believable Kassem's claims about what just happened in Fallujah.
Trot down to your local library and check out Panama Deception*. (5) It's an extraordinary, award-winning 1993 video. It shows devastating pictures of the horrific war almost everybody but the Panamanians have forgotten. Among other terrible images are cars run over by US tanks -- cars containing unarmed civilians. In the film we see the human occupants of the cars completely flattened and the cars themselves pancake flat, just like junked cars on the way to the steel re-cycling factory.
One Panamanian said, “I saw them run over a car in which a wounded man was waving his arms.” (6) The Panamanian also heard the little 10-year-old girl who watched this act of gross sadism -- screaming and screaming and screaming. Later investigations also confirmed this and other similar crimes.
Who is going to investigate what happened in Fallujah? Who is going to call the US soldiers to account?
Like everyone else in the holiday season I yearn for peace on earth and holiday coziness. Simultaneously I'm riveted by the atrocities of the age. I grieve over not only the war crimes in Iraq --and Afghanistan and Colombia (and all the other places of US-sponsored suffering around the globe), but also over the atrocity of the terrible poverty and suffering that now eats at the very fabric of the American Republic.
How do we live, how do we find meaning, what choices do we make, whether it's during the holiday season or our daily jobs, as our tax dollars become bloodier and bloodier?
It's a question I will ask over and over in 2005.
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at: email@example.com.
* Panama Deception is available at some
public libraries. It can also be bought from the Empowerment Project,
(1) Jamail, Dahr, “Dispatches
From Iraq: ‘Unusual’ Weapons Used in Fallujah,” Dissident Voice,
November 29, 2004.
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by Mina Hamilton