Civilization and compassion at the dawn of the twenty-first century

Civilization is on a mission from God to free the world from the evil of tyranny and bring democracy and human rights to all peoples of the planet. Presumably, there is human concern and compassion behind such a quest, more grand than any conceived in the long and glorious past of humanity. It is worth contemplating however, the shape in which this compassion appears. If the early signs in the twenty-first century are anything to go by, the coming decades look devastatingly ominous. Let us look at some examples.

Consider this. Four years ago, in October 2001, Western civilization thought nothing of starving over 7 million poor innocents (themselves victims of the Islamic fundamentalists) in Afghanistan in order to exact revenge for 9/11 (and for failed oil negotiations) on the Taliban. These people relied on food delivered by aid agencies who were ordered to suspend operations by Washington in order to put their delivery vehicles out of the line of fire and make the bombing possible. At the time, Noam Chomsky described what was beginning to happen as a “silent genocide”, for which the West and its democratic citizens were morally responsible. Fortunately the bombing campaign ended soon enough, food deliveries could be restored quickly and Western societies and their governments were relieved of a potentially colossal “embarrasment” (though the faithful corporate media would have ensured that nothing was heard about any genocide this side of the Suez). Fortunately, compassion did not come into question (except of course in the case of about 4000 civilian deaths, caused by US bombing).

In March 2003 the US, the UK and their string of credulous cronies launched the morally unconscionable and legally criminal invasion of Iraq on false pretexts, putting at the mercy of their dreadful “Shock and Awe” campaign the lives of millions of people who had already suffered for well over a decade the effect of the murderous UN sanctions which had led to the deaths of a million people, half of them children (according to UNICEF). This habit of civilization, whereby it employs starvation as a means of warfare has hardly ended in Iraq. BBC reports UN human rights investigator, Jean Ziegler, as having accused the US and British forces in Iraq of breaching international law by depriving civilians of food and water in besieged cities. “A drama is taking place in total silence in Iraq, where the coalition’s occupying forces are using hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population,” Ziegler told a news briefing in Geneva a few days ago.

Since the war on terrorism was launched by Washington, 49 months of the most hectic manhunt in history by the most powerful and wealthy state known to man have not yielded Osama Bin Laden (something that truly makes one wonder whether there was ever a clear intention to get him in the first place!). Meanwhile, taking both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns into account, somewhere between 110,000 and 130,000 people (we cannot know exactly how many since it appears, after Katrina, that Washington barely keeps track even of its own dead), who had nothing to do with terrorism have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been wounded or maimed for life and the everyday lives of 50 million people subjected to hardship and hoplessness. As has been said repeatedly by commentators across the political spectrum, this has led predictably to an exacerbation, rather than an alleviation, of terrorism.


Iraq had been named in Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in January, 2002. So had been Iran. Since the time when the first phase of the war on Iraq had been completed, Iran has repeatedly been brought up as Washington’s next target, once again on grounds as suspect as those on which the Iraq invasion was launched. After getting promising support from IAEA members, the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has recently been jetting around the world trying to convince global powers why an invasion of Iran is necessary to make the rogue state behave itself in nuclear matters.

The Western media has made the world forget that Iran suffered a massive earthquake in December, 2003. Over 25,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were rendered homeless. Six months later there was another major earthquake which led to the loss of almost a thousand human lives. None of this, however, has prevented the West from seriously contemplating “action” against Iran. Britain, France and Germany have all succumbed to Washington in applying pressure on a country that has suffered natural disasters so recently, other than having to bear the burden of economic sanctions led by the US.

In October 2005 it has been Pakistan’s turn to endure nature’s cruel fury. In the recent earthquake over 50,000 people have died and at least 2 million rendered homeless. There was an urgent request made to rich countries by President Musharraf for helicopters to deliver relief and supplies to Kashmir. The US could only spare eight from their obviously more important operations in Afghanistan. Britain could spare none. (Only some minibuses were sent!) Aid pledges made by both governments are embarrasingly insignificant and are exceeded by private collections which are already being sent.

Meanwhile, just yesterday (October 17), The Independent reported that Tony Blair has ordered a new generation of nuclear weapons to replace the existing Trident fleet at a cost of billions of pounds. Blair had also made a peace-making visit to India and Pakistan a few years back (just before the two countries had engaged in the Kargil conflict in Kashmir) and returned after selling over a billion pounds of weapons to both sides (an old empire tradition, welcomed by ruling elites in the poor countries, and good for the world economy).

Did compassion guide the deals?

Finally, take the case of Darfurs in Sudan, where the ruling Islamic fundamentalists have been busy overseeing a genocide in which upto half a million black African farmers and their families might have already been killed over the past two years in order to clear their farming land for drilling oil and setting up pipelines. British, Chinese, Indian and Japanese oil companies are already in the fray. US companies want their share of the booty, though a law passed under Clinton (remember he ordered the bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in 1998) prohibits trade with Sudan. This situation is changing since Condoleeza Rice took over the office of Secretary of State this year and  US oil companies are beginning to do business in Sudan. So, even if Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell (under pressure from Christian and African-American groups in the US) had designated what has been happening in Darfurs as a “genocide”, no military intevention has been forthcoming from the Western powers (just like in Rwanda) to stop it. Compassion somehow always gives way to oil pressure!

As their leaders scrape the depleted barrels of their humanity, citizens of democratic societies in the West urgently need to ask themselves why they tolerate such open hypocrisies from their elected representatives. At present it is mostly the inhabitants of poor countries who pay the price for these mass-deceits. But the time is hardly far when citizens of Western democracies will be footing increasing portions of the bill too. In fact, this is already happening, if one takes into reckoning the growing burden of war taxes, lives lost to war and terrorism, the pressure of immigrants from regions of the world impacted by war, poverty and tyranny, a rapid erosion of democratic rights (in the form, among other things, of anti-terror legislation and the muzzled media, not to speak of the various forms of thought control exercised on and within the academy) and, not the least important, the corrosion of the moral sense which, two world wars notwithstanding, has thus far sustained these societies in the past.

It is a matter of unspeakable astonishment that when so much stands to be lost in the West, most people are numbly going about their daily business, not paying much heed to the happenings of the world. The alternative to a serious internal reckoning by the West is the mounting nihilism and narcissism of consumer society which, in a world as interconnected as ours (in which, for instance, the availability of products ranging from lipsticks to Jaguars relies on an on-going supply of cheap oil and resources from other countries) is not merely solipsistic thoughtlessness about the sufferings that billions go through in order for the posh and privileged to go on with their indulgent ways. It is ultimately a recipe for catastrophe. This is no time for compassion fatigue. Even vaguely enlightened self-interest should suggest large-scale collective action to re-democratize the democracies.

Nobel-prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore had written in 1916, in the midst of World War I: “the West must not make herself a curse to the world by using her power for her own selfish needs.” However, he also wrote that “in the so-called free countries the majority of the people are not free, they are driven by the minority to a goal which is not even known to them.” By the time he was on his death-bed in 1940, in the midst of World War II, more evidence had appeared of the declining human condition in the West. Tagore then wrote that “the failure of humanity in the West to preserve the worth of their civilization and the dignity of man which they had taken centuries to build up, weighs like a nightmare on my mind.” The holocaust in Germany and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fours years after Tagore’s death, made the nightmare visible to the world.

If the US instigates an invasion of Iran – either by using a staged attack on Israel as a trigger or by blaming Iran for its self-created mounting mess in Iraq or by simply aiming to stall its nuclear programme, and all, in the end, only to regain control over Iran’s oilfields that the 1979 revolution took away – then all bets are off. Whether the world stands or falls after that is anyone’s guess.

Of one thing one can be sure. They who claim the guardianship of civilization today are its worst traitors and can know nothing about compassion. For that they have to achieve the impossible feat of humbling themselves to the level of those two school-teachers in Muzaffarabad, Kashmir who, when the earth below them was trembling with rage ten days ago, stood in the way of a falling wall and sacrificed their lives to save the many children who would otherwise all be dead today.

Aseem Shrivastava is a free-lance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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