It’s not easy coming to terms with mass graves. A mass grave always denotes a tragedy of some sort. Be it war, genocide, epidemic, famine, earthquake or tsunami, it takes a disaster of epic proportions for us to dispense with the individual care our species routinely pays to its dead.

In Tuam there is a mass grave of babies. The pit in which they were disposed was a septic tank.

The normal response to such a departure from common decency is shock and horror. Followed by a call for justice. Who were these monsters who would fling dead infants into a shithole, a pit already clogged with the tiny bones of hundreds of dead babies? Let these demonic creatures be named and shamed and the sick philosophy which inspired them, be enjoined to perpetual silence.

A mass grave of babies. What ravening savages could visit such wanton destruction to common decency?

That is the difficulty here. This wasn’t an invasion. This wasn’t alien. This was the work of hundreds of ordinary women. This was the work of hundreds of women who were taught a thing no one should ever be taught. They were taught to not feel empathy. Difficult to do?

People are generally not cruel to people. In World War II, the Germans didn’t gas people, they killed untermensch. In Rwanda the Hutu did not massacre people, they killed cockroaches. Christians didn’t murder people, they burned heretics. Americans didn’t wipe out people or keep people as slaves. They civilised savages and owned livestock.

In Tuam and in an unknown number of other locations, ordinary women were taught that the children in their care were other, were less. The ordinary rules of empathy and decency need not apply. As each creature died, it could be disposed of without the ritual and reverence we would give the meanest murderer.

Ordinary women. Ordinary women taking babies from other ordinary women. Throwing dead babies into pits. Ordinary people being extraordinarily callous.

How far is the journey from normal empathic responses to a vulnerable baby, to dismissing it as a farm animal, or a demon or an insect? I do not like the term ‘evil’ as it has supernatural connotations, but if I had to use it, it would be to describe that journey.
Imagine looking after babies. Ordinary, noisy, smelly, snotty, perpetually hungry babies. Then imagine if you can, the kind of teaching that would be required to make you see those children as slightly less than human. Just ‘other’ enough that their cries of illness or hunger never quite reach you as the cries of a ‘normal’ baby would. Just ‘lesser’ enough that when it dies you could dump it into a septic tank and still sleep well that night.

Now we have a mass grave filled with the tiny bones of dead babies. And I am left wondering about all those ordinary women who filled it up with infant corpses. I am left pondering that all too short journey from common decency to throwing babies into a mass grave.

Empathy is a truly wonderful quality in our species, but it’s terrifying how easily empathy can be switched off and for the mass graves to appear.

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