Time erases almost everything, from heartbreak to war. If you need to get over something, to let it go so you can once more live in blissful happiness, then all you need to do is give it time. Days, weeks, months, and years wear out of the marks of loss, pain, and death. When he left me, everyone told me that in time I would forgive him and forget him; the pain would fade as if it never happened. I denied it. I actively refused. Because if I forget the pain, let the memories fade, then what have I learned? The one thing concentration camp survivors wanted was to tell their stories, to ensure that the names of their loved ones who died in those manmade hells were not forgotten and, even more so, to make sure that such a thing never happened again. But it did. Not even a day went by before humanity forgot, or decided to turn a blind eye, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Soviet gulags, and Chinese re-education camps. The argument was that these were different because the Soviet and Chinese government weren’t seeking to eradicate an ethnic, racial, or religious community. Perhaps there is truth to this argument, but human suffering is human suffering, no? Does the end goal make starvation, torture, and the systemic destruction of a person’s humanity feel different? Maybe, in any case, we had had enough of war.
So, there was the partition of India in which the mass migration of Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus to India led to disappearance of thousands and we did nothing. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge attempted to implement a form of agrarian socialism with catastrophic results; an estimated two million people died from torture, mass executions, forced labor, and malnutrition. Then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, killing as they went, and we did nothing. China’s ill-fated economic policies combined with political persecution resulted in tens of millions of deaths. We tried in Somalia, but quickly threw in the towel when “our” casualties became too numerous (nineteen Americans). Around five hundred thousand to one million people were massacred in Rwanda while the internationally community debated over what to do; the response was to let them kill each other. Bosnia and Herzegovina…Darfur…the West Bank…Syria…
How has “never again” turned into “again and again”? For, again and again, we commit the same atrocities as those who came before us, those who we pretend to be better than. Again, and again, and again, we pretend that these atrocities are not our business; we turn a blind eye to human suffering, to systematic government-led exterminations of civilian populations, to the limitation and oppression of human rights, to drawing a tight circle around “us” to keep out “them”. The ever present and ever looming threat of “them”; they who do not look like me, who do not speak like me, who do not believe like me, who do not think like me, who are, therefore, less than me. And because of this, because they are different, their suffering is unimportant, irrelevant. I cry when the West bleeds, but turn my back when the East is tortured. So many binaries, black and white dichotomies…white/black, Christian/Muslim, Democrat/Republican, conservative/liberal, intolerant/tolerant, West/East, male/female, right/wrong, human/sub-human… The world is so much easier to comprehend when there are only two of everything. We prefer small menus with limited options, for a variety of choices overwhelm us, confuse us, force us to choose that same and comfortable menu item we regularly order. Reality is not simple. Life is not black and white. These sayings are common, yet we still ignore them. We refuse to acknowledge that most people are shades of brown, a mixture of black and white, and that there are more than two genders, more than two religions, more than two ways of thinking and looking at the world. There are Republicans who believe in global warming and equality and Democrats who are against abortion and promote neoliberal economic policies that demonstrably increase inequality. There are conservative atheists and liberal Christians. This idea of “us” as a homogeneous totality and “them” as another homogeneous totality is a fantasy, it is not real and has never been real.
A stranger’s suffering on the other side of the world is as valid as our suffering. A terrorist attack in France is not more horrific than one in Turkey; it is only our belief that the French, because they belong to the “Western world” (whatever that even means, since as many threats to democratic ideals have arisen in the West as in any other part of the world) are like us that makes leads to the outpouring of grief in social media. The French are not any more like us or unlike us than Syrians, Libyans, or Turks. Just as many wars have been launched to eradicate other religions by Christians, perhaps more, as by Muslims. Both sides of the metaphorical aisle are mirror images of each other. We all bleed red and we all want our loved ones to be safe. It is easier to be afraid, to choose to see “them” as an inherent danger to “us”, to choose to believe that there is such a thing as “us”. But there just isn’t, unless that collective is referring to the whole of humanity, to homo sapiens as a species. We see Muslims as terrorists, but have you ever stopped to think what they think of us? We who sit here binge watching series on Netflix, stuffing our faces with junk food, having melodramatic meltdowns because we spent the semester partying or shopping or binging instead of studying, while they, just a few hours away on a flight, are hungry, cold, and being carpet bombed by us or our allies. Americans are the terrorists of the developing world. They are here because we were there first. And, guess what, they are not all terrorists and we hold a greater share of the blame for their suffering than they do for the acts of a few radicals who believed a certain political discourse much the same way we fell for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Trump. We, collectively, elect government officials that choose to indiscriminately persecute them, to invade their countries and topple their governments and then abandon them to pick up the pieces. They just want to live and they have as much a right to that as we do, perhaps more. After all, they were here first. Civilization was born in the Middle East and we owe all human history to that part of the world, including some of the most innovative philosophies and inventions.
Human history spans thousands of years and a lot of those years, most of them, include violence. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, a myriad number of religions, all promised the end to such mindless violence. It never came. Christians killed Muslims and Jews. Muslins killed Christians and Jews. Jews killed Christians and Muslims. An endless cycle of violence. A lot of people around the world have never known peace. Never known what we live every day in the so-called West; wake up, have breakfast, go to work/class, come home, have dinner, watch TV or read a book, go to sleep. Perhaps argue with a friend or family member. Debate passionately about our political differences. But mostly, it is rinse and repeat. Fear for us is being robbed or, perhaps, caught in the crossfire of some drug-related dispute. Or, if you’re a minority, being mistreated and unfairly persecuted by police or sexually harassed or raped. But, even then, it is not the all-consuming fear of bombs raining down from the sky.
Honestly, most of us believe that bad things will never happen to us and that is peace. We do not know what it is to be afraid. We claim to be terrified of terrorists, but we still go about our daily lives. We have running water, electricity, internet, our loved ones are more likely than not safe. You are probably sitting comfortably at home, or uncomfortably in the office, reading this. If you were born in Europe or North American then it is very likely that all you have known is this: your life has been defined by peace. And the violence committed in our streets pales in comparison to the levelling of Aleppo, to government forces knocking down the doors of people like you and me (doctors, teachers, service workers, mothers…) and shooting them where they stand, sit, or lie without so much as a second’s hesitation. You have not woken up knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this day you and everyone you loved will die because of something far beyond your control, something you had nothing to do with, or because of something you believe. You do not walk the streets afraid of every shadow or cower in your home because you spoke out against someone in power. And because of this, because it is so hard for us to imagine what it is like to be born in a war zone, to grow up in a war zone, to die in a war zone, then it is hard for us to relate to people from the Middle East. Hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes. It is easier to scroll past the news article, switch the TV channel, turn off the radio. Easier to pretend none of it is happening. It does not even cross our minds because it has nothing to do with us…until it does. Until a car bomb goes off in a neighbourhood we once walked and we once more invade their countries, justifiably of course, to destroy them. Never once pausing to think of how maybe they’re mad because when they were dying and crying out for help, we turned off the news.
Amnesia is seductive. The human mind is not a computer hard drive; we do not remember absolutely everything that happened to us ever. Quite the opposite; we forget most of our lives. So, it is easy to forget the lessons of the past. Easy to forget the original cause of a war. Easy to forget that when we do nothing, we pay the price. Remembering hurts. When we remember we dredge up past mistakes, moments when we humiliated ourselves, moments when we were betrayed, moments when we disappointed someone we love. When we study history we are forced to confront the collective memory of humanity and all the times that others who had the power to stop someone’s suffering chose not to, chose to walk away. We can decide to ignore reality, but it does not make it any less real.