Fri, Apr. 11, 2003
Leonard Pitts/Commentary: Syndicated Columnist, Miami Herald

A ruined boy brings redemption

If the war is not over, the end at least seems visible. The tyrant's likenesses are coming down, the people are dancing in the streets and kissing U.S. Marines.

And perhaps in this moment, it is in poor taste to remember the ruined boy.

Indeed, some might think the mention of him dampens the festive air. But if you know the ruined boy, you know there is not a whole lot of choice. You know that he is hard to shake, that he invades conscience and consciousness, and that even at a time like this, he comes and goes as he pleases.

The ruined boy was injured in a missile attack in Baghdad. Several days ago, visitors went to see him in the hospital and he asked them a question -- timidly, according to one reporter. ``Can you help get my arms back?''

It seems the arms he came into the world with were lost in the attack. Also lost: his father, his brother, his five months-pregnant mother and seven other members of his family. I've seen no definitive word on whose missile did the damage, but that's beside the point.

What is important is that 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas once aspired to be a doctor, but now doesn't think he can be because he has no hands.

''Do you think the doctors can get me another pair of hands?'' he asked.

His plight has received relatively little attention in American media, but it has gotten big play in Europe.

So, even as American forces took possession of Baghdad, even as Saddam Hussein's regime crumbled, some people were contacting international aid organizations to donate money and others were offering to supply him with prosthetic limbs. Doctors caution that they won't be able to fit him for the artificial arms until his burns have had a chance to heal.

I'm not here to rehash the justification or lack thereof for U.S. intervention in Iraq. The issue feels academic now, and even if it isn't, there will be plenty of time to deal with it later.

No, I just have a simple observation:

There is always an Ali.

Always some individual plucked from the anonymity of misery into the glare of media attention. Always some face emerging from the catastrophe that has maimed hundreds of people, burned away thousands of lives. Always some man or woman, some girl or ruined boy, made famous by the act of suffering.

And our response is always the same, too. We focus through him, concentrate through her, all our sorrow, all our guilt, all our sense of helplessness and irresolution. We touch him, we reach out to her, because we cannot touch or reach the others.

There is always an Ali, yes, but the larger fact is, there are always many like him. The only difference is, we'll never see their faces, never know their names, never hear their stories told on CNN.

So Ali becomes the surrogate, the stand-in, the vehicle of redemption. If we can just help him, maybe it will make up for all the ones we couldn't help. If we can just send him some money, provide him prosthetic arms, maybe it will in some small way balance the fact that life is not fair and innocence no guarantor of safety.

War has a way of making us small, a way of thundering overhead, as indifferent to our fears as the electrical storms that used to drive us into our parents' beds. Except, of course, that there is no bed big enough to hide from this.

But there is an Ali, always an Ali. We can no more give him back his real arms than we can stop the storm raging overhead. But we can give him the best arms modern medicine can provide, we can pray for him and provide for him, make it up to him as best we are able.

And maybe that is, in its way, a blessing, because it gives us something to do, some way of talking back to the storm.

People around the world open their wallets for Ali. They seek to save a ruined boy.

I tend to think he is saving us as well.