A little while ago, I listened to an interview with a journalist, Ben Taub, who wrote a story about doctors practicing in wartime Aleppo. One doctor told Taub the story of a family of children who were brought to him for treatment. One of the boys’ pelvis was missing. The boy lay quietly, looking around the room, Taub writes, and the doctor wiped several white blobs off his forehead. They were the brains of the boy’s sister, who had been killed in the blast that took his pelvis.
The doctor told Taub that, with injured children, you could tell if they would live by whether or not they were screaming. Those who scream usually make it; silent children had given up. The quiet boy with the missing pelvis died soon after he was brought in.
It’s easy to spend most of the day not thinking about violence in Syria. There’s work to do, friends to meet, meals to cook, time to spend. When a little box of text from a news app pops up on some screen and tells me that upwards of forty children are trapped in a burning building in Aleppo, I glance at it and quickly look away. A few minutes later, another box of text tells me that dozens have been confirmed dead. I keep looking away, but the digital world taps me on the shoulder yet again and whispers, wake up. People are suffering.
I might hear about it and cringe, maybe say to myself, that’s horrible, and try and go on with whatever I was doing. Empathy is unbearable. To empathize with victims of war crimes is to look around at my comfortable surroundings and see the extent of my insanity. How can I sanely go about life if I fathom that unspeakable suffering occurs as I sit and write this, seated on a cushion in a warm, peaceful room. Furthermore it’s unclear whether I am capable of empathizing with victims of war violence in any meaningful way — my life has been thus far absent of burning buildings and chemical warfare. The fear and guilt I experience when I attempt to conceive of violence is a tribute to an especially pathetic breed of ignorance.
Perhaps I could pay the digital tap on the shoulder forward and post something on social media. I could bring up the war in Syria at dinner with friends, and we might have a conversation about how it’s excruciating to watch from a distance, how we feel helpless. We might lean back in our seats and discuss the ways in which we, as taxpayers in Western countries that are involved in the war in Syria, are, however remotely, complicit in causing this violence because we failed to take action in our own countries. Then, of course, I’ll have another sip of a beer, someone will take a particularly scrumptious bite of pumpkin curry, someone will make light with an innocent joke, and we’ll all laugh and change the subject.
That I am able to look away or change the subject when it comes to violence shows that I suffer from the delusion that violence is far away. A happy ignorance pervades my waking mind; in this numb place, I believe I am wholly disconnected from tragedy. When I inch towards empathy, I glimpse the edge of this delusion. The war in Syria is not Syria’s problem. It is everyone’s problem. Fear, hatred and greed collude to create wars; to pretend as if those same shadows don’t loiter within my own heart and mind is to do a gross injustice to those who suffer on their account. Each impatient, irritated, entitled, or aggressive thought that traverses my emotional landscape is a flicker of something dark and vast — something that, when the conditions are right, turns humans into killers and victims.
The narrative arc of this article prompts me to end in some conclusive way. I need to say something here in the final paragraph that lets us exit this tab on our browser and change the subject. The logic I’ve pursued thus far points me to an easy rhetorical solution: I might prescribe that we humans in this century need to be kinder, more compassionate, and more receptive to the needs of others if we want to truly combat the kind of negativity that makes space for war. But to say that would, again, do a gross injustice to victims of violence in Syria, and elsewhere. Even if I treat the next stranger I pass on the road with the same love and respect I would give to my mother, children are still dying in Syria. It’s simply awful. And I would do well to keep that in mind.
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