Comment: Casting the first stone in silence

Writers on the War
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The Independent Culture
A STREET, a neighbourhood. Residents of the upper floors - some very high up, in skyscrapers - see from their windows, balconies and terraces that down below, in the street, an individual is preparing to throttle a child.

Suddenly they see he is not alone: several individuals are about to strangle or slit the throats of other children, perhaps their own. Passers-by hurry on and look the other way. It is not the first time that such crimes have occurred in this street.

The residents of the upper floors have two options: one is to turn away from their windows and terraces and refuse to witness the imminent massacre. If you are not a witness, you don't see, you don't know, and you can't do anything about what you don't know; not even describe it later.

The other is to try to stop the killing. They know that words will not help, nor shouts, nor threats. The residents above are, however, cowards and footdraggers. They don't think of running downstairs to the street to confront the assassins, to grip the arms that are brandishing knives. They are afraid of being attacked themselves, so going down is out of the question, a hand-to-hand fight to save the children is ruled out. There is another motive: the skyskcrapers are so high that it would take too long to reach the street. Possibly by the time they made it all the children would have already been killed.

So, through cowardice and the pressure of events, and because they can't stay looking out with arms folded or go back inside and close the windows, the richest of the upper-storey residents decide to throw big stones at the assassins below.

They just want to strike the weapons from their hands, but from such a height some stones fall upon passers-by who have nothing to do with the slaughter, although they applaud it, and no one tries to prevent it.

One faction of the residents above, who haven't worried very much about the slaughter of the children (they didn't protest in horror), now start shouting to heaven and vehemently protesting against what their neighbours are doing.

They demand: stop throwing stones. Can't you see you're killing passers- by? Anyway, those people down there are settling accounts with their own children, and we shouldn't interfere with family disputes: every family solves its old quarrels in its own way, and its no business of ours.

What is going on meanwhile? The assassins, seeing it raining stones, decide to hurry up. The killing gets quicker, they want to finish quickly, before some projectile hits them and leaves the task incomplete. So the stonethrowers aren't achieving much, they don't save lives, but cost others, and the most critical opponents condemn more insistently: See what's happening? the children are dying quicker than before, and by getting angry at the murderers you are only egging them on. That's true, but if we let them get on with it, won't the result be the same, except that they will kill more calmly, without disturbing anyone?

Meanwhile, in the street all you can see are dead children. Sick of covering themselves with gore, the assassins deported the rest and destroyed their schools, their playgrounds, their kindergartens, they want no more children around. The inhabitants of the upper floors continue to throw stones. What they wanted to prevent has taken place. Why? What for?

The voluble and the pedantic are free with their opinion and their accusations: because you are arrogant and bloodthirsty, because you can't accept failure and are blinded by your impotence.

It might seem like that, respond some stonethrowers, But these aren't the only reasons. The killing has occurred, that's true, we did not prevent it from above.

Perhaps there is hardly anyone left to save from death, and we must now devote our efforts to caring for the survivors. But if we stop now, it will be as if nothing had happened in the street. Nothing can be done about an accomplished fact.

However, it can have consequences. It can enjoy impunity or be punished. We think what took place should be punished. Not just to satisfy a spirit of justice, but to prevent it being repeated. Those who end up in prison or deposed or dead will not do the same thing again. And those like them will think twice or three times before launching upon their own butcheries. Some stories never admit a happy ending. In those cases, you have to make sure that at least they have an ending. An insincere pact or a bad agreement can only guarantee that they continue.

This article is from a series produced by the International Parliament of Writers