Our Own Child Soldiers

What if we look at the life of gang members through the experience of child soldiers in Africa? Is the experience of children manipulated and dragged into war in Uganda all that different from the one of teenagers recruited by gangs in our own cities? Are the fears and the fight for survival and the sense of power that comes with carrying a weapon of a child soldier in Somalia different from the ones of our teenagers patrolling the neighborhoods of our cities with a gun under their shirt?

These questions spun in my mind a few days ago while witnessing the first encounter on Rutgers University's campus in Newark between Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone and author of A Long Way Gone, and DaShaun "Jiwe" Morris, author of War of the Bloods in My Veins, a compelling memoir about his life as a gang leader.

In a room filled to capacity by students and faculty, Ishmael and Jiwe compared notes about their lives. How, still children, in an environment surrounded by violence they were recruited by armed groups. How that at the time seemed the best choice if one was to survive. How they both embraced violence fully, moving around at ease in the space of death. How serendipitous circumstances snapped them out from the war they were in. How they regained their humanity through a long and painful process. How they are now focusing their efforts on helping youngsters to abandon violence. Ishmael and Jiwe; two worlds, two wars, but a similar pattern.

And yet there is a difference. It was Ishmael who pointed it out delivering to the audience an inconvenient truth. Which is that in the United States we sympathize and show compassion and are ready to forgive child soldiers like Ishmael, who committed deadly deeds in a faraway land, but are not conceiving the possibility of compassion for the likes of Jiwe here at home. To the contrary, we have a tendency to reward political leaders who embrace a zero-tolerance policy, despite the evidence that such policies cost the tax payer lots of money in exchange for questionable results. We define and classify what others do and who they are without being willing to really understand.

The audience gasped and looked anew at a reality to which it was blind. Captivated by the testimony of Ishmael and Jiwe, we felt -- at least for a moment -- the urge to bring empathy back home and to practice compassion. Empathy and compassion not only as good feelings, but also as an attitude of citizenship; and as an heuristic method for an in-depth understanding of the other and his or her human condition.

The event at Rutgers University revealed itself as a moment of catharsis and transformation. It transcended reality allowing us for a moment to experience how peace feels. It was not only an event. It was an experience.

Ishamel and Jiwe shared brutal realities. They shared harsh truths. And yet, we did not contest their statements. We welcomed their words and we assimilated them. We let down the defenses of our hearts. We let the melodic cry of a rapper to pray for him, in a moment of pure and high poetry, to sink deep into our souls. And when from the audience we asked questions and offered comments, our voices trembled, our eyes were watery and we expressed a deep desire to understand, to engage, and maybe to embrace. Even if just for a moment, we experienced and expressed that we do not need more security but rather reconciliation.

Our cities will become more and more the war theater of today's post-modern conflicts. Our cities, in fact, are the places where the contradictions and the frictions of an interdependent and urban world will increasingly discharge. And I wonder: don't we need to conceive an alternative paradigm, one that shifts from a narrow definition of security to a larger framework of peace-building, if we are to live in more inclusive, equal and non-violent societies?