Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Just A Thought: What are we comfortable with?

There are currently about 25 armed conflicts actively occurring around the world. That is a lot. In light of the abundance of warfare that continues to plague humanity, an organization should be founded to peacefully resolve such disputes. This association could contain representatives from each country. It could provide a mediation process to arbitrate between warring factions. It could command a military peacekeeping force. We could give it a name that reflects its harmonization of global interests, like “United Nations.”

Independently of cultural or religious association, certain values seem to pervade global society. Basic principles like the concept that mass killing is morally abhorrent, or at least not a preferable state of affairs, are omnipresent across all nation-states. If these few universal moral intuitions are present in all people, why are they not honored? Though many groups are quick to justify killing, no present society is founded on the principle that an ideal world involves armed conflict. Yet for some reason – maybe boredom–opposed parties around the world continue to wage war.

This armchair speculation was stimulated by a visit with some friends to a German concentration camp in December. As far as thrill value and photo opportunities for the jetsetter go, Sachsenhausen internment camp did not score high. A natural monument or amusement park is more recommendable for travelers seeking those qualities. What the camp did provide was an opportunity for somber reflection on human nature and political conflict. The bleak reality that accompanies the loss of innocence from coming face-to-face with the darkest chapter in our history provides ample fodder for reflection on why human disasters persist.

Some 65 years ago, when the horror that was the Holocaust was revealed to the world, people promised themselves “never again.” Some 30 years later, a Cambodian dictator killed 1.7 million civilians. Another 17 years later, a campaign began in former Yugoslavia that would leave 100,000 dead. Two years after that, a similar movement in Rwanda claimed 800,000 lives. In the wake of each horrific genocide in the 20th century, the world bore witness and solemnly promised itself “never again.” And then, under the watchful gaze of those who fervently pledged their commitment to combating such injustice, it happened again.

Why are we, as a world, so slow and hesitant to act when we see injustice? Why do we not demand more of our polities, our global institutions and our leaders? Though many are quick to condemn what they see as wrong, few are ever outraged enough to demand a change in the status quo.

All the ethnic cleansings the world has been forced to suffer were met with cries of “never again.” In a year or so, when the conflict in Sudan has actually ended and the Janjaweed appetite for extermination has been satiated, the world will once more gasp in horror and proclaim “never again.” And then, most likely, genocide will happen again. The characteristic bellicose nature that seems so essential a human element will rear its head in another localized theater, due to the inexhaustible enthusiasm for destruction and suffering that seems to plague societies.

When we witness the minutia of these situations–the appalling details that get lost in the statistical overview–and step back to adopt a holistic perspective, we find ourselves wondering how it is that these conflicts happened. How is our universal consciousness so pessimistic and jaded that we aren’t outraged? Why don’t we demand more of our world?

It is troubling that the same organizations capable of acting against such travesties actively excuse themselves for not doing so. Maybe it is not in our interest to prevent war in the world. In an effort not to see ourselves as aggressors with no mandate to act, we avoid involving ourselves in local conflicts. Maybe we don’t believe that we have the power to cure societies of their tendency to become embroiled in armed struggles. These justifications are simply apologies: the United Nations refrains from classifying the war in Sudan as genocide because to do so would make action imperative. And so the pattern repeats itself, and the world stands by in a discussion of moral obligations and definitions while crimes against humanity are perpetrated.

Would the world let the Holocaust happen again? Our intuitions scream no, that we as people would recognize and prevent such evils from occurring again. But the evidence suggests the contrary. As long as conflicts do not impact the nations capable of intervening, the global community seems content to allow suffering to perpetuate. Though this is a pessimistic simplification of a much more complex issue, the point is that complacency is a dangerous position to adopt. Maybe we should be more outraged. Maybe our indignation would lead us to demand more of our leaders. Maybe.

Gee, this was depressing. Cheer Nikola up at nikm@stanford.edu.

  • stanfdude

    I think it’s just really easy to view the world through the lens of western civilization where peace seems easily attainable. Most of the areas that have genocide presently occurring have such vastly different value systems and societal structure that it is impossible to change in an instant and I do think the United Nations is trying but it’s just a problem that you cannot change overnight. The people in these countries want to kill each other and there’s really not a huge amount the United Nations can do to stop that.