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As adults, we seem to have a soft spot in our hearts for children. Their unguarded honesty and innocence brings out a protective streak in us we do not always willingly grant to our peers. I've seen the meanest of the mean miraculously transformed into huge teddy bears when kids are present.
This phenomenon appears to be as true for men as it is for women. Men are given the right to show tenderness to their children in a socially acceptable, non-judgmental way. But after a time, kids grow up to be men and women, and with it often goes sweetness and affection. For other adults, that compassion is often never expressed, and sometimes never even allowed.
But the question remains. Why does it take a tragedy against kids, not adults, for us to finally rouse ourselves from apathy and confront long-extant societal problems?
One can think of multiple instances where violence against children facilitates social action.
The 1931 German Expressionist classic M features a serial killer who preys exclusively on children. When the police cannot bring the perpetrator to justice, the organized crime underworld intervenes. A child killer is bad for business, and even the most hardened hoodlum has a fond regard for children, one conspicuously not granted to other adults. It appears that there is honor and morality among thieves, or at least some chinks in the armor.
Here’s another example. Robert Penn Warren’s political allegory, All the King’s Men, tells the story of candidate Willie Stark. Stark is an up and coming Deep South politico in the middle of the Depression. In the beginning, Stark’s successes at the ballot box are minimal, though he is disarmingly frank and genuine in his political sentiments. His breakthrough as a public servant arrives in the form of a tragedy, wherein young children die due to greed and gross negligence.
While Willie was Mason County Treasurer, he became embroiled in a controversy over the building contract for the new school. The head of the city council awarded the contract to the business partner of one of his relatives, no doubt receiving a healthy kickback for doing so. The political machine attempted to run this contract over Willie, but Willie insisted that the contract be awarded to the lowest bidder. The local big-shots responded by spreading the story that the lowest bidder would import black labor to construct the building, and, Mason County being redneck country, the people sided against Willie, who was trounced in the next election. Jack Burden covered all this in the Chronicle, which sided with Willie.
After he was beaten out of office, Willie worked on his father's farm, hit the law books at night, and eventually passed the state bar exam. He set up his own law practice. Then one day during a fire drill at the new school, a fire escape collapsed due to faulty construction and three students died. At the funeral, one of the bereaved fathers stood by Willie and cried aloud that he had been punished for voting against an honest man. After that, Willie was a local hero.
I’ve never been a fan of using children for cheap emotional appeals. The child who holds the sign proclaiming that God Hates Fags is just as offensive to me as the one that urges observers to keep abortion legal. Children do not yet have a fully formed social consciousness, though they likely will someday. When kids are props for activism or teary-eyed appeals for money, I find the effect distasteful and manipulative.
In the New Testament, children are used as an example of proper conduct and faith.
Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
One more example. We remember the four little girls who died in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. We may not remember the names of those who perished in sporadic, brutal lynchings over the course of decades. And in that spirit, the names on a monument of those who perished in war are usually abstractions to us. Had it been children holding a rifle and put into harm's way, I think we would remember these sacrifices more.
Many, though not all of us, are parents. Why this extra level of sympathy for the departed? Do we visualize what it would be like to lose one of our own children? For those who are not parents themselves, it might even be said that children give us reason to entertain vulnerability and maybe even be a little vulnerable ourselves. Regardless of precise reason, I suspect the answer has more to do with us and far less to do with them.
The crazed, sometimes disingenuous environment which we inhabit makes it very easy to lose sight of the things that are important. Recall, if you can, who we once were before the pressure of the adult world changed us. We ought not to become childish and irresponsible, but to merely remember that the simplest truths are those we neglect the most.