December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Some propose that this minor feastday should be observed with a focus on unborn infants who die as a result of abortion. This year, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting, some reflected that the feast had come early this year. But both these interpretations focus too narrowly on the youth of the Holy Innocents, and not enough on what’s actually going on in the story:
The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
. . .
When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
The magi — visiting foreign nationals — were supposed to provide Herod with good intelligence that he intended to use for a surgical strike that would eliminate only the child that was a threat to him. But they turned out to be unreliable: having gotten wind of his plan, they declined to cooperate and left the country without checking back in with him first.
Lacking their report, he decided to go in anyway. How many people was he willing to kill in order to make sure he got his actual target? Every male in the city that was roughly the right age.
The story horrifies us emotionally because the victims were young children, toddlers, babies. But it should horrify us morally, intellectually, ethically, because of the callous calculation that it was worth killing every person who might be the intended target in order to ensure the target’s death.
This is the definition of human collateral damage: people who happen to get killed while you’re trying to kill somebody else.
This is a particular kind of collateral damage, though: the kind that results from dragnets that are set to round up everybody who might possibly be the person you’re looking for.
There are many resonances in this story, and many ways to read it. But in these days when the US is fighting declared and undeclared wars on foreign soil, bombing groups of males that are of the right age to be the intended targets; in these days when young men in US cities are hurt or killed by vigilantes because they “look like” criminals or gang members; in these days, I think it behooves us to reflect on the Holy Innocents as collateral damage in Herod’s pre-emptive strike against a threat to the security of the homeland.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.
Holy Innocents, pray for us.