The excerpt below is from the first chapter of Disaster Gypsies by John Norris. The sentiment is very well put, and I believe should be shared. It’s also milling about in my head amongst a number of other things. Norris is a seasoned humanitarian aid specialist and political adviser who has worked for several organizations, both government and NGO, as well as for the United Nations. He has traveled extensively (an understatement, and not the sort of travel one books through Expedia) and, among many other things, has helped develop strategies for rebuilding conflict-ravaged countries. Basically he’s smart, he’s seen a lot of shit, and he’s worth listening to.
From Disaster Gypsies:
“For most of us, war is something that happens in distant places to people very different from ourselves. We see combat on the evening news, and give it only an appropriately sad shake of the head. For most of us, war feels fundamentally foreign. This is an illusion. The capacity for war is in people, not places.
On an intellectual level, it is easy to peel the onion and find the core causes of violence. They are rarely lofty or noble. The road to calamity is paved with the same greedy little slights and desires that are as familiar as everyday life. Violence comes through partisanship, and with stupid feuds that take on a life of their own. Fighting erupts over land and houses. Blood spills through the sheer stubbornness that makes mutual destruction more attractive than compromise. Countries do not wake up one day and decide that they should descend into war and ruin. Instead, conflict is the long slide of bad decision – the conclusion of turn after turn down blind alleys of division and recrimination.
Hatred is a tool. When economy stalls, you attack ethnic minorities and immigrants. If corruption in the presidential palace is exposed, you accuse political opponents of treason. If an election looks like it will be lost, you whip up hysteria over the language spoken in schools or about a piece of territory lost three hundred years ago.
I found it difficult to tell people that Rwanda had disturbed me most because it was not foreign at all. The understanding was repulsive: people everywhere would do similar things under similar circumstances. The slaughter was not tribal, ethnic, or African; it was human. That may sound simple or self-obvious, but everyone treats war as something that is outside of themselves – until they are in one.”
So Norris talks about the fundamental mistake of believing that war is something that happens in other countries, to other people…to people who are somehow different, somehow less ‘civilized’ (I think I prefer civilianized) than the western world. So what do you think? Is our country immune from civil war? It’s a question that bears repeating in a time when politicians have begun concentrating their efforts on cultivating our differences; playing openly upon decade and century-old fear and prejudice to divide a struggling nation in a high-stakes popularity contest (yes, it always was, but now we’ve shed the last vestiges of any dwindling credibility) with no regard whatsoever for facts, logic, or the lessons of history. We seem to have finally dropped even the pretense of rationality and informed thought. Of actual democracy. Our government, like so many others, is negotiated and auctioned off, four years at a time. It’s especially relevant in a time when we are rewarding and broadcasting unjustifiable ignorance and hypocrisy on networks so openly bias that it would be a bad SNL sketch – if it wasn’t so terrifyingly real. In this time of economic peril, the truth has been let go. It’s services are no longer required.
It’s food for thought in a nation that has come to specialize in ignoring civil war in other countries. Dismissing full-scale genocide in nations who don’t have anything we want because it (somehow) isn’t our problem. But make no mistake. We are not so different, ‘they’ and ‘us’. We are no less capable of hate and feud, vendetta and violence – no matter what we like to tell ourselves. Our rationalizations are many. The prejudices we harbor that allow us to ignore the slaughter of others – because it isn’t at our doorstep – are very dangerous. We should be paying more attention. What if the only real difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ comes down to money – the relative wealth our nation has enjoyed that gives us the luxury of a comfortable apathy. An apathy that extends to both our own social concerns and the concerns and crisis of others. There is no genocide or plea for help that cannot be forgotten over a good episode of Glee.
But now our money is evaporating with our middle class. People are getting angrier, and rightfully so. Politicians are absolutely giddy at the prospect of being able to harness our growing desperation to their own personal gain. So what happens when we cannot afford the televisions that can make us believe that our nation is well-dressed, quick-witted and omnipotent? What happens when our political and media organizations have finally amped up our hatred, fear and desperation enough that we are no longer satisfied to watch our politicians trade favors and openly sabotage progress in the name of their parties’ (and their own) self-righteousness? Or worse, when the facts-are-for-losers politicians decide their only road to power lies in rallying their troops to ‘take matters into their own hands.’
But don’t worry. It will never happen to us. We know better, and it’s not like our citizens have guns.
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