Other afflictions

May 20, 2020

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Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

AMID the pandemic, there are frequent reminders that SARS-CoV-2 is far from the only virus we need to worry about. Beyond the cholera and malaria and various other biological phenomena that routinely scythe through substantial segments of humanity in various parts of the world, there are the psychological epidemics that frequently take their toll.

One such affliction left its scars last week in Kabul’s Dasht-i-Barchi hospital, where three gunmen, by all accounts, specifically targeted the maternity ward.

Appallingly, it is not exactly uncommon for military or paramilitary forces and terrorist groups — the distinctions between the three categories are often blurred — to attack hospitals. Nor is it unusual for combatants to not spare women or children during their deadly operations. Even 20th-century history is replete with instances of bayoneted infants, from World War II to Vietnam and beyond.

Yet, to seek out and focus exclusively on slaughtering new or expectant mothers and their newborn or unborn offspring transcends even the worst known precedents. The mass murderers may have been driven by some perverse logic related to the fact that the Kabul locality they targeted is dominated by Hazaras, or that Dashte-i-Barchi’s maternity ward is supported by an international entity, Médecins Sans Frontières, but there is no way of rationalising this level of crimes against humanity. The identity of the perpetrators remains unclear, with the usual suspects distancing themselves from this particular atrocity (while proudly claiming credit for others). The monumental tragedy nonetheless bodes ill for Afghanistan, particularly in view of the nation’s prospects for regaining its sovereignty in the foreseeable future.

The virus of hate will be with us long after the pandemic.

A commentary I encountered last week in The New York Times, meanwhile, made me think again about designating this level of hatred as unprecedented. It mentioned the lynching in 1918 in Lowndes County, Georgia, of an expectant young mother, Mary Turner. She was “hung by her ankles as her body was burned and as she cried out. After her clothes burned off, a white man cut her baby from her abdomen as onlookers watched the baby fall to the ground. A white man crushed its form under his boot.”

The author of the article, Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy, was trying to contextualise the murder in Satilla Shores, Georgia late in February of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American who, while out on a regular jog, was accosted by a pair of lethally armed father-and-son vigilantes. The first shot rang out within seconds of the encounter, and very shortly afterwards Ahmaud lay dead on the street.

Apparently, the police who turned up at the crime scene were inclined to arrest Greg McMichael and his son Travis, but the district attorney, who had worked alongside the senior McMichael during his long years as a law-enforcement officer of dubious repute, turned down the request. She recused herself from the case a few days later, but her successor was similarly inclined; it later turned out that the latter’s son had collaborated with the senior McMichael in trying to nail Arbery as a shoplifter some years earlier. The third prosecutor eventually authorised arrests after a video of the incident turned up on social media, released by a lawyer who apparently assumed it would help to exonerate the perpetrators. This was more than two months after what Arbery’s parents — and many others — have described as a modern-day lynching.

The video was shot by a neighbour of the McMichaels, who seemed to believe he was doing them a favour, and it was viewed by prosecutors and the police long before it became public. To no effect, which appears to be the American norm. More than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it is far from uncommon for perpetrators — provided they are white, or employees of the government’s law enforcement agencies — accused of killing people of colour to go scot-free, regardless of the circumstances.

The US cannot, of course, by any means be singled out as the only country where such atrocities regularly occur and too frequently go unpunished. Pakistan is certainly no stranger to all manner of targeted killings, among them the appalling recent instance of two teenage girls being shot dead by relatives in Waziristan after a year-old video emerged of them in the company of a young man.

The horrors keep piling up, and the virus of hate in its various manifestations will be with us long after the novel coronavirus is but a distant memory.

Perhaps the most heart-rending recent instance of the repercussions of this disease comes from the hospital in Kabul, where Zainab gave birth to a boy after seven years of fertility failures. The parents named the newborn Omid, or Hope. Just four hours after giving birth, Zainab heard gunshots while she was in the washroom. By the time she rushed back, Hope lay dead in his crib.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2020