MICHAEL ELIAS SHAMMAS
My heart dropped; my world collapsed. Barely discernible beyond the swirling dust and debris, a doll-sized child lay sprawled on the charred ground. She held a bloodstained Mickey Mouse toy in one of her delicate hands, looking at first glance as if she were asleep, as if her mother – who lay motionless just a few feet away – had comforted her before the longest sleep of all. The knob in my throat tightened. I thought: “Who will bring the dead justice?” The answer came fast, too easily: No one.
I sighed. The girl’s father fell to the ground, clutching what remained of his daughter—just a distended pulp of flesh and bone – and weeping. His tears pocketed the dust like little bombs, erupting particles of sand into the air, dissipating the puddle of blood. His expression at that moment – lines gone, face blank in stark recognition of his loss – could not have been more peaceful. Yet then he stood, slowly and wearily, and gazed at the camera before swearing an appalling oath to avenge his loved ones even if it meant “wiping out the enemy,” even if it meant tearing holes through their lives as large as the ones the Israeli bombs had torn through his.
I turned away from the television and gazed at the floor. “This is why these conflicts will never end,” I whispered, thinking of the man’s horrifying words. At the moment I knew nothing to be truer than this thought, nor crueler. I looked out the living room window and took in the scene: cars, bicycles, basketballs, dogs, a barbecue, a couple holding hands and walking, all highlighted by a brilliant American sun. I thought: “There are such different realities in this small world of ours. Such needless tragedies.”
In a much lesser way than the family above, my immediate family members were also casualties of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. I remember my mother’s tears and my father’s anxiety as they watched their childhood villages in Lebanon transform into war zones. I remember the cognitive dissonance that came from both empathizing with Israel in its battle against Hezbollah and despairing of the deaths of Lebanese and Israeli civilians. I remember arguing fervently with a Hezbollah supporter, wondering whether he would be willing to destroy his own country in the macabre hope that he could destroy another.
Throughout my life, this pattern repeated itself after every bombing or assassination. I am sorry to say that, as a result, I often felt embarrassed at school and ashamed of my heritage. Why couldn’t they stop fighting? Was something inherently wrong with the Lebanese? During my summers in Lebanon I would sometimes stare at the surroundings – the glistening Mediterranean and the Roman ruins and the Crusader forts dotting the hilltops and the mosques standing next to the churches. I would see the faces of children who – Druze or Sunni, Shi’a or Christian – were undeniably beautiful. At such moments, my questions would grow more perplexing. What could motivate one to destroy such beauty?
My heritage posed the above question, and it has repeatedly provided the answer: passion. A month ago, minutes into a dinner gathering of my parents and their Lebanese friends, the topic turned (as usual) to politics. Soon a peaceful conversation between perfectly rational people escalated into a shouting match over who was right in the Syrian conflict. The fifteen-year civil war my parents escaped was brought up, blame tossed about, and I felt a sense of dismay as – gazing at a pulsing vein on my father’s forehead – I realized the inevitable: There will, very probably, be another war. We Lebanese care too much about our differences for anything else. Worse, our passion blinds us to reason.
Hotheaded passion killed so many Lebanese and Israelis in 2006, and hotheaded passion will continue to kill. This does not have to be the case. My best friends are Jewish. A favourite professor is Muslim. I myself am Eastern Orthodox Christian. We get along extremely well, and I often wonder how to transport this peace to the Middle East. Because the passion is here to stay, because the bitterness is so strong, I believe international law is the only answer; by delegitimizing murder, it can act as a dam against the terrible flow of hatred. My life’s task as a lawyer will be to plug the many holes in this dam.
There was a time when I thought that if only others could see that little girl sprawled on the ground, Mickey Mouse in hand, the fighting would stop. But I know better now. The worst elements of human nature are universal, and these elements yield a passion that is strong enough even to kill little girls. This passion gains legitimacy from five-word slogans and shiny uniforms and dogmatic ideologies. This legitimacy can be undermined by new norms, and these norms can be perpetuated through a stronger system of international law. There is a gap between what international law does and what international law can do. The misery in the Middle East is a large part of what triggered my interest in law, of what inspired me to take my first international law course in high school and to study international relations, and I hope it will help show me ways to close this gap. The lives of so many people depend on its closure.
Two things stand out about this essay. The first, and probably most intriguing part of the essay, comes right at the beginning, though not in the way you’d expect. The vivid descriptions present in the first paragraph convince the reader that Michael Shammas is drawing from his own experience to present this scene to you, but the second paragraph reveals the camera acting as a proxy, with the scene he’s describing actually taking place far away, leaving him totally removed from the gory action he describes. This turns the usual expectation of personal statements on their head – the scene is not personal, Shammas is not confronting these horrors directly. He’s instead observing them from the comfort of this own room. It’s a risky move, because it can easily come off as inauthentic and cheap, but in my opinion Shammas manages to walk the fine line between art and the artificial.
A strong use of language helps that achievement. The image of “the little girl sprawled on the ground, Mickey Mouse in hand” evokes feeling; Shammas isn’t an eyewitness, but these realities are dear and close to him all the same. In another technique, Shammas intersperses concise, terse sentences throughout the essay. The dense punch from lines like, “This does not have to be the case,” further conveys a sense of feeling.
The second thing that stands out is that, after the opening, Shammas manages to logically justify his desire to enter into international law in a manner that comes off as both reasonable and justified. By interweaving his personal experience into the rest of the essay, Shammas turns from the subversion in the first two paragraphs to an honest opening of his life to the reader, detailing the ways that the conflicts in the Middle East have affected him, even though those ways aren’t as visceral as the first experience he described. Shammas intimately ties his own life to the area he wishes to study, inviting the reader to believe his claim of wanting to end “[t]he misery in the Middle East,” and providing reasons that can resonate with the reader, since like him, very few law school admission officers have ever actually been exposed to the horrors of war directly.
Shammas takes on a thorny issue with a score of potential pitfalls. Yet he manages, by dint of critical thinking and analysis, to illustrate his rigor of thought. He does that while connecting the topic to his personal motivation to study international law, and to do his part in seeking solutions.