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The never-ending Pietà

The New Yorker website has a photo of a Pakistani woman grieving over her murdered daughter, a worker in a polio vaccination clinic in a Karachi hospital.     It instantly reminded me of the terracotta statue of the grieving Madonna crafted by Niccolo dArca in the fifteenth century, located in the church of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna. The Piet, the compianto, never ends.


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Though I concede that it is wrong to murder anyone-the fact has also to be brought out that it is understandable that the taliban in tribal pakistan does not want to participate in a US promoted vaccine program. These are vaccines made by the same people who are dropping bombs on men, women and children in their tribal regions and by people who call the deaths of all women and children" collateral damage." If the US is willing to kill civilians and does so with impunity with bombs,then why not believe that they have no problem using medicine and the cover of bringing them health to bring them sterility or worse?If the wives and children are all rendered sterile or dead-that would end that war on terror for us.Why would a tribal pakistani trust western brought vaccines? And they are aware of the fact that under the pretext of vaccines ,the US obtained the whereabouts of Osama. So mixing war and medicine is something the US has already admitted to doing.Why would or should the vaccine program be trusted by tribal people who are simultaneously being killed by these "promoters of health"?They might be illiterate, they might have backward penal codes but that does not make them stupid-these tribal taliban people.

Well, of course, by this logic I guess we should expect that mothers will continue to grieve over their children, but surely one may be allowed to regret this harsh inevitability and not try to explain it away?

Precisely, and sooner of later there will be such an image of a tribal mothergrieving her child dead of polio. I think we're talking beyond politics here.

I'm not" explaining it away" but the issue of mixing warfare with medicine is one that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.It's highly unethical if not illigal and one of the understandable upshots of such an immoral policy is both increased polio victims and other causualties of war such as this womans daughter.Whether a tribal mother grieves a childs death to polio or a US drone strike or for being killed as a collaborator with those who are believed to be harming not helping people-they are all casualties of war.[and all victims of illigal violations of the laws of war too].YOU may be[conveniently] talking beyond politics but none of the victims in tribal pakistan are beyond politics.

A politics that has no sympathy for the grief of parents over murdered children is not worth much, and why you should come to the defense of killers, not--mind you--of perfidious Americans but of their own people, is beyond me. I didn't post the photo to make a political point.

As I understand it, the United Nations was operating the polio vaccination project throughout Pakistan (and other countries where it is still endemic). The CIA ran a fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign to gather intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. But did the Taliban not understand that these were two separate efforts? Did it truly believe the polio vaccine was really a clandestine effort to sterilize or harm Pakistani children? Or does the conflation of these separate vaccine operations suit the purposes of the Taliban? Confusing the issue allows the Taliban to sow political discontent toward Pakistani President Zadari, who has made the polio vaccination program a personal mission and who has difficulty controlling the Taliban in certain regions. It gives them an excuse to target activist Pakistani women. Whether the U.S. was morally justified in covering its recon efforts against Osama bin Laden with a fake vaccination operation is certainly worth looking at. Bur surely, Taliban's using it as an excuse to further terrorize a population already beset by violence, disease, and poverty--while claiming to protect that population--is heinous.

The politics I was referring to is the politics of our use of drones to kill people in tribal pakistan as well as under the guise of helping people via a vaccination program we spy on our enemies.The effect of this mingling of warfare with medicine is as it is being played out there;the people do not trust our intentions hence they will not cooperate with a vaccination program.Whether they are simply paranoid or whether we are indeed trying to render them sterile I can't say for certain. And neither can they. But I definitly understand why they want no part of our vaccination program as we can't be trusted to not be spies and as we are in fact killing them with bombs.If we can kill them with bombs, why would they not believe that we are not above rendering them sterile with vaccines or even killing them with vaccines?Perhaps just going there warning them that if they don't comply[with our vaccines swhich perhaps would render them sterile] they'll see their children die of polio was itself a threat we used against them and yet still they dared to resist. Of course they resist and when their children die of polio we say what you guys in above posts are saying"see-now you're going to see your children die of polio!"[that'll show you for daring to not submit to our "health care"].We don't sound very sympathetic to them when we proclaim like the above posts that they will see their children now die of polio -that'll show them!.I don't know that they have no sympathy for the grief of parents that they kill.We also kill and claim that we have sympathy for the parents of those we kill. Doesn't stop us from killing them whatever-our stated sympathies.If your enemy is bombing you and has used vaccine programs for warfare-why should you be trusted that -this time it's different?If you are bombing people on the one hand ,then come and claim you want to promote their health-again why are you credible?Yes killing "health care" workers is heinous indeed-so is droning pakistani villagers of men,women and children-whatever their affiliation. What is also heinous is what we have wrought by mixing war with medicine; we have poisoned[literally even,perhaps] the well of good will of the first- do -no harm- sacred medical profession. That is why it is illigal and unethical to mix war and health care.Once you do that you lose credibility and more people will suffer and die as a result of your illigal and unethical mingling of warfare with "health care".Perhaps that is the intent anyway.Eliminate tribal backward pakistanis-by whatever means necessary;drones, tainted vaccines,or when they resist tainted vaccines-polio itself. Either way the game is to eliminate tribal pakistanis and to not be held accountable for crimes committed against them.

I think it is really important to keep military/intelligence functions completely separate from relief/aid activities. That's what protects the Red Cross workers, Peace Corps Volunteers, etc, from harm. When I was in the Peace Corps, there was rule that a returned Volunteer couldn't join the military until several years after they completed their Peace Corps service, and there was an even longer period before one could obtain employment with an intelligence agency. This was so as not to undermine the mission of the Peace Corps or put volunteers in danger. That doctor who was a spy for the CIA did great harm to all of his colleagues.This in no way excuses the horrible actions of the Taliban, who have waged a relentless war of terror against women wherever they have a presence; and no one should try to claim that this evil act is the fault of anyone but the terrorists themselves.Thank you for posting this. I'll remember this poor girl and her family in my prayers.

The similarity in the 2 pictures is almost eerie. Since Niccolo did not (I hope) have a live model to work with, he must have been very observant. His work emphasizes the agony rather than the sorrow that I've usually seen in renderings. Wonder which came first for Mary.

Irene, I did not know about those rules for relief workers. Thanks for offering that info.I find Niccolo d'Arca's Mary more compelling and human than most others, especially when put beside the grieving Pakistani mother. I like to the the Blessed Virgin in heaven is not above outrage over the deaths of innocents whether they are killed by drones or religious nuts.

The actions of the taliban are horrible .Still when it comes to distrust of vaccine programs they are being rational.It is us in expecting them to trust us on vaccines while we have a concerted and stated policy of killing tribal pakistani taliban [and everyone in their wake is deemed acceptable collateral damage.]that are irrational in claiming they should allow us to inject all of them to keep them healthy.As is our expectation that they should ignore the fact we used vaccine policies as part of our nefarious plot-from their perspective- of murdering Osama.Our enemies-even the taliban can be wrong and morally reprehensible in one or many regards yet right or good in others. We have no problem acknowledging this when criminals commit atrocious crimes -yet when it comes to our enemies -it's a totalizing good and evil propaganda that we resort to.I don't know the truth of why they kill women;we are claiming it is to keep women from being educated. They claim that it is not about opposition to education but for collaborating with the enemy[those who drop bombs on them].I don't know the answer but I don't trust our propaganda machine to be accurate. Though it may be.I don't support executing collabortors as these taliban did to these duped aid workers.Those are heinous war crimes indeed.Did we only pick women to be aid workers ?So that if there were to be retaliation it would suit our propaganda that they were killed for being "activist" women?[See they're pure evil-lets go kill em all- or sterilize them-with vaccines if need be].I wonder. Unfortunately such executions of perceived collaborators is part of the horrors and heinous acts of war.A war that is in fact instigated by us with a policiy of committing war crimes on villagers with illigal and unethical drone strikes.Up there in tribal pakistan they feel under existential threat from us and their central government and years of drone strikes against them are valid reasons for believing we are out to anhiliate them.Therefore I do side with the taliban on their opposition to western imposed vaccine programs for the reasons stated above- coming from us they can't be trusted to be benign. That the pakistani president supports these vaccine programs is no comfort to these tribal people who are very well aware that the pakistani president gives a green light to drones strikes against them.if anything his support of vaccine programs is more evidence that they may be tainted to harm them[like drone strikes harm them].

Rose-Ellen, please stop defending these people. You say, "you don't know why they kill women". Or throw acid in school girls faces. Or bomb ice cream shops and music stores. These actions have nothing at all to do with American foreign policy. And there is plenty of information on the internet from Afghan and Pakistani Women's organizations (groups with no particular love for the US) that fully document the many atrocities that the Taliban commit against women and girls.

I ask that the discussion return to the point of the thread which was not political but religious and human and esthetic. I had no idea when I made the connection between the two images of who the grieving mother was, what side she might have been on, who might have killed her child or why. If I had seen the same image of a grieving mother in Newtown or in Rio or in Jerusalem or anywhere else, the same association would have come to mind and I would have offered it, along with my association of this woman with the grieving Madonna, for whatever comments people might have cared to make.

I stand by my statements.yes they hold backward mores toward women-as we too once did and even with out enlightened mores many heinous crimes are committed against women and children right here.These murders were not about their backward mores about women but about retaliation for collaborating with policies that they believe are harming them[sterilization or worse]. I also believe that they are a traumatized people-tramatized by their poverty and years of wars of invasions and occupations and illiteracy.And for years of drone strikes by us. Good that women there want to reform their culture. Doing it by collaborating with people who are killing them with drone strikes-is, however a rational reason to expect retaliation.I notice we don't get the names and faces of women and children killed in drone strikes.That is white washed with the phrase collatteral damage.The atrocious deaths of these women are likewise collatteral damage.[the result of our wars against them which made them distrust our vaccine program].I did not see the above article as being apolitical as no mention was made of their belief that the polio vaccines are tainted and designed to harm them which is why they oppose them and why they retaliated against the aid workers who were pushing them.Instead it was presented as part of their backwardness and their war against women.That is dishonest and therefore false propaganda.The pieta picture could have been presented as a legitimate critique of war crimes and of our policy of mingling health care with war- but it was not presented as anything other then a rationale for continuing our policy of killing the taliban for being backward[anti-science] and anti-women.That is dishonest war mongering propaganda-the way I see it.

Ms. Caminer: You wrote: "The pieta picture could have been presented as a legitimate critique of war crimes and of our policy of mingling health care with war- but it was not presented as anything other then a rationale for continuing our policy of killing the taliban for being backward[anti-science] and anti-women.That is dishonest war mongering propaganda-the way I see it."You're seeing what isn't there. Show me in my initial post where I said or did anything that offers "a rationale for continuing our policy of killing the taliban for being backward[anti-science] and anti-women.." I made no mention of the Taliban, much less did I identify them as the killers of the woman's daughter; I said nothing about their views on polio vaccines nor about anyone's backwardness or war against women. If the child killed had been a son, the same simple purpose of my thread would have stood: the universality and perennial character of grief, illustrated in the two remarkably similar images. That's it. That's all. You're attributing to me motives and implications that are your own fantastic creations.P.S., probably added in vain, since you think I'm lying about the point of my initial post: I still haven't read the New Yorker piece which this photo accompanied.

Your comment about Fr. Komonchaks motivation in posting the picture of the grieving mother in Pakistan is not fair. Yet, I do not think that your comments are off-topic or irrelevant. The picture lends itself to a political discussion, because it is representing a tragic result of a political situation. Had the picture been of a mother of one of the murdered children in Newtown CT a discussion of gun control laws and ways of dealing with mentally ill people would have ensued.The short article in the New Yorker (available online) from which the picture was taken makes some of the points that you have made. Perhaps, it would be better if in your comments you had taken it down a notch.

I meant to direct my comment to rose-ellen caminer.

The image of pain. I agree with Mark about the eerie resemblance between the two images. It calls to mind the expression: "the mask of agony". I have to wonder whether the journalist asked for the woman's permission before posting it, for her pain to be thus exposed to the entire world.

Agree that it's amazing how similar the two faces are. I don't think they're masks. I think they are true images of what a real face of a real parent looks like when a child is destroyed. An older part of the brain takes over, older even than the mammalian brain, perhaps as old as the reptilian brain, and the howl that comes out is much older than language.

Of course you're right, there was no mention by you of the Taliban and of you favoring our policy of killing them with drones.I based what I said on your referencing that the murdered woman worked in a "polio vaccine clinic." That has been the narrative used in the mainstream media concerning the killings of these workers. The salient point was ommitted-that the polio clinic is thought to contain tainted vaccines designed to harm the tribal pakistani recipients[by rendering them sterile as part of a plan to eradicate them all].That little word "tainted" or believed- to -be- tainted when omitted in the narrative -however brief the sentence is -changes the whole dynamics of how we perceive people who resort to killing people in retaliation for administering polio vaccines.One furthers a view of them as irational-inhuman almost.[war propaganda] The other does not.People who would kill vaccine workers because they believe the vaccines workers are administering harmful drugs to them speaks of the effects of our wars against them.It is not as if the taliban are killing people because all else being equal they just don't believe medicine can keep their children from being sick[anti-science]and anyone who does deserves to die or all else being equal simply because they are anti women.Though that is the main stream media's narrative and by omitting the relevant facts yourself that narrative gets promoted as true.Killing people who they believe are administering tainted vaccines ,speaks to the reality of being a tribal pakistani in a war torn area where the stated US and pakistani government policy has been to kill with drones as many taliban people as they can.Anyone else killed is considered acceptable collateral damage by the killers[US military and pakistani central government].Add to that the salient but also omitted fact that vaccine programs have indeed already been used to further our war plans and the taliban knows that-also needs to be taken into account when we're being told of their willingness to target vaccine workers in what they perceive is a war against them that include the use of tainted harmful vaccines.Thanks, Helen,as you point out -nothing happens in a vacuum.When a massacre of children occurs -we reach for a proper [human] narrative to explain such evil. My point is the Taliban -as equally human though they may be backwards morally and perhaps paranoid they are not irrational and-deserve the same honest attempt at a wholly human explanation.That is not a justification for murder any more then examining the role of our gun culture or psychotropic drugs used on young people or proper treatment for the mentally ill-is a condoning of the massacre of children.And we are very careful when dealing with massacres and other atrocious crimes committed here to attempt a wholistic analysis of even the most heinous acts. My point was we are so quick to have a knee jerk reaction towards our enemies.The omission of the reason they give for killing workers plays into this black and white good vs evil perspective that has allowed the attacks against pakistani villages to continue for all these years.That is why I labeled it war propaganda.The pieta shows the evil of war, war crimes [committed by the taliban who killed the workers] and of the evil of mixing medicine and warfare.That your sentence omitted the salient point that from the killers[taliban] persepctive these were not benign polio vaccines clincs but clinics where harm was being administered to the people is why I jumped all over you,Fr. Komonchak.It smacks of what the main stream pro war media does all the time.

Come off it, rose-ellen. You're accusing JAK of being pro-war just because he sees a similarity between a Pakistani woman and Mary the Mother of Jesus. You're turning your hypothetical thought ('maybe JAK is noting the similarity because he is anti-Pakistan and pro-war') into a purported fact ('JAK is pro-war'). Sheesh.

To repeat, Ms. Caminer: The thread was not initiated by "the main stream pro war media," but by me and because I was struck by the similarity between two images. Nothing more. You have imported, quite beyond reason, a whole set of other considerations. This is something you are passionate about, but you should not require everyone else in the universe to play roles in your play, much less attribute to them motives that never darkened their minds or soured their hearts.

rose-ellen caminerI think you have made your point and, as I pointed out, it would have been much better if your had taken it down a notch.

Gerelyn: I think you are exactly correct. Of the even more atavistic statue of Mary Magdalene carved by Niccolo, as she rushes in horror towards the dead body of Jesus laid upon the ground, it was said that it was "a scream in stone." As the photo of the twentieth-century mother grieving over the death of her child shows, there is something archetypical in the madonna's agony.

Joe, your objection to Rose's amplifying the subject is ok as you are making a different point. At the same time Rose may be more relevant and necessary than you for making a more important point. While your intention is worthy hers is perhaps more so. While the Contributor initiates the thread, other posters can and should enlarge the subject when greater or equally important stakes are in play. It is not that she is totally off the subject. I will bring this to the other thread also.

Colm Toibin's new novel, "Mary", is about Mary's grief. I gather it's far from theologically sound, but it does, apparently, present a view of her as deeply anguished and angry. For many people this is a apparently a revelation. She's not presented as that simple, simpering girl in the spotless blue and outfit. After Sandy Hook it surprised me that none of the religious lamentations that I read ever mentioned that Mary herself might understand the grief of the parents whose innocent children had been murdered and she might help them to cope. That tells me that Toibin's book is necessary in spite of its faults.

Then don't label "a polio clinic" that which more accurately should have been called a disputed polio clinic.Taking at face value the government/ media line that this was a polio clinic as oppossed to what the taliban claims is a sterilization clinic[and all that follows from that belief of theirs] is promoting or at least ignorantly repeating the war against tribal pakistanis' government line.Perhaps because you see them in the same light as our prowar government sees them-as an evil backward enemy hence nothing they say or believe need concern us ethically-you are indiffent to their claims and cannot understand why I would take the claims of these backward enemy seriously. That is part of the one sided narrative that results from war which I believe you have succumbed to by disregarding their claim that the polio clinic was not just a polio clinic.And by treating my insistence that their belief that these polio clinics were not just polio clincs as a pesky minor off point side bar. Using the term polio clinic and omitting that it is from their stand point a disputed polio clinic is like labeling something a glass of kool aid and omitting that it is a glass of cool aid coming from the hands of jim jones,say.[though that's not a good analogy really as thanks to jim jones' kool aid-the word kool aid itself has come to mean spiked- with- poison.]If we had a less compliant media-maybe the term "polio clinic" would and should come to be a euphymism for a sterilization program against people we want to is archetypal - the madona's's archetypical of all profound suffering and you picked a real appropriate real life image of the carved pieta.

I assume that in this expression "mask" means that the particular features of the individual lose prominence and yield to the universal face of agony.

Hi, Claire:Imho, the expressions on the faces should not be called masks. Nothing is hidden. Nothing is concealed. Nothing is protected. Nothing is disguised. Definition of mask from the great WordNet:NounS: (n) mask (a covering to disguise or conceal the face)S: (n) mask (activity that tries to conceal something) "no mask could conceal his ignorance"; "they moved in under a mask of friendship"S: (n) masquerade, masquerade party, masque, mask (a party of guests wearing costumes and masks)S: (n) mask (a protective covering worn over the face)VerbS: (v) dissemble, cloak, mask (hide under a false appearance) "He masked his disappointment"S: (v) mask (put a mask on or cover with a mask) "Mask the children for Halloween"S: (v) disguise, mask (make unrecognizable) "The herb masks the garlic taste"; "We disguised our faces before robbing the bank"S: (v) mask (cover with a sauce) "mask the meat"S: (v) mask, block out (shield from light)

Thank you, JAK, for counterposing the images. Striking, anguished beyond measure, primal, I feel bereft of sufficient words. Gerelyn captures much at 12/29 4:39 PM.In light of Sandy Hook, yesterday's feast of Slaughter of the Innocents, how appropriate to ponder Mary's experience.If I may, the images have a resonance of what might have been for me last month when my son went into cardiac arrest on the street while jogging. By the grace of some people seeing him, a fire station down the street, six minutes of rotating CPR by a rescue crew, two defibrillator shocks, and a hospital nearby, he survived. But fewer than 5% do. Deo gratias. The pain of what was averted is in those Pieta faces.

Gerelyn: I think that the phrase "mask of agony" does not mean that the agony is being concealed but that a face utterly expresses the agony. It's used, for example, of people whose face is contorted by the agony they're suffering or displays the suffering in which they died. I note that your list of meanings for "mask" does not include their function, in many cultures, not to conceal but to reveal, as, say, in rituals or in plays. Think also of the theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy--the latter, of course, involving an agon, whence "agony".

Carolyn, I'm so glad he survived the frightening ordeal. Thanks be to God! --------Joseph, you're right. (I love masks, making masks, reading about masks, wearing masks, talking about masks, etc., etc. I love commedia dell'arte masks, etc., etc. The importance of masks cannot be overstated.) I hope you will click the link to the great WordNet and see what's really there in the definition. What I copied and pasted here did not include the many additional links within the definition to hypernyms, hyponyms, etc.

A father's Pieta? A brother's?Reading of Adam Lanza's father reclaiming the body of his son -- even if estranged or with whatever painful history that may never be known -- seems as tragic in another way...Picturing him attempting to have a funeral service (with minister/priest? who said... what???) and either having him buried or cremated... with the other brother looking on and knowing how despised/pitied Adam is... that would be as likewise challenging to capture... and I ache for him and the brother also....

David, I have regularly prayed for the remainder of the Lanza family since this happened. I can't imagine anything worse than the senseless killing of a child ... unless it's your own child who's done the killing.

Though I concede that it is wrong to murder anyone . . . Nice that you concede that much Rose.After all the blathering (from all political sides), this sort of tragedy is sadly just one more reason why we should get our troops out of the area asap. We certainly will not solve the deep social/moral problems of Afghanistan or Pakistan and frankly, as Rose's post suggests, we have enough of our own moral/social problems we should be tending.

As for the Lanza family, Jean is correct that prayer is important. In addition to the withering blow the murderer inflicted on the families whose children he slaughtered, he also did terrific damage to his own family. Can you imagine being a cousin of that maniac, or living/working in that area with that now-dreaded last name? If (for example) you sold cars for a living and your boss knew someone who lost a child that day at Lanzas hand, well you might as well change your name, find another job, and probably move to another town.


About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.