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Not long after America initiated the Iraq war, I saw an article in the Sunday NY Times about an Iraqi family who had been decimated by a kind of intimate military debacle. At the outbreak of the earliest fighting they had left their home in central Baghdad for an uncle’s home on the outskirts. Then the uncle’s home had been bombed out, so the entire extended family decided to return to the home in central Baghdad. They squeezed into several cars for the return trip to what was now, unknown to the family, a restricted zone rife with small arms fire between American and Iraqi troops. Signs were posted within a few blocks of their home restricting the area, but the signs were in English and therefore unintelligible to the Iraqi family. When the three cars entered the restricted area, American troops began yelling at them and waving their weapons. Confused and frightened, the drivers tried to speed through the chaos to their home. American troops, believing them to be insurgents, opened fire, killing the driver and front seat passengers in each vehicle, in one moment wiping out all the male members—fathers, uncles, sons—of an entire family.

There was a photo of the gun-shot cars with doors hanging open and an American trooper looking at them, arms in hand, looking like a tragically lost child, completely dismayed at what he had done.

The slumping shame of that soldier echoed my own, my sense of horror and helplessness, of horrible responsibility. As an American citizen, I had not found the way to divert this juggernaut of war. Protests, letter writing, calling upon our representatives to be representative of our better, not our lower, instincts—nothing had worked. No one I knew had endorsed this war, and yet here we all were, in as deep need of terrible forgiveness as that soldier.

A short while later I saw an exhibit at the Mexican Museum of retablos and religious ex-voto images. A popular subject was repeated again and again, that of Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners. As a docent explained to me the significance of the arch of blossoms representing grace, life, renewal, the blossoming of the human spirit, which rose above the child the Madonna was gently supporting, I saw the image I needed.

A juvenile nation, in desperate need of a higher wisdom, deeply in need of guidance and aching for forgiveness. I painted this piece as a prayer and a protest. The symbol of our county’s glory, the statue of Liberty, is represented as a faltering juvenile, unable to hold up the righteous flame, the tablet she cannot support bearing not the date of American independence, but the date, March 19, 2003, that America invaded Iraq. The rays of the child’s crown pierce the sight, voice and wisdom of the Madonna, yet they draw neither blood nor pain. She is unperturbed, able to hold up the staggering Liberty with clear vision and a firm but gentle grip. This is the refuge, the vision, the strength and forgiveness I pray for—something divine and deeply feminine to guide this madness to a better place.

— Susan “Montana” Murdoch


Nuestra Señora del
Refugio de Pecadores/

Our Lady Refuge of Sinners
2003 oil on canvas 24 x 20 in)