A finger in the dyke will no longer do

There are people who are naturally hard to talk to, because the defining event in their lives is something so enormous, so horrifying that it’s difficult to strike up any kind of conversation. Such is the case with the survivors of genocide, carpet bombing, anthropophagous plane crashes in the Andes, systemized rape and mutilation. We collapse under the sheer weight of our tied tongues.

What can you say to a woman from the Congo whose eyes have seen more than eyes should see; whose body has undergone worse than a body can take?  I’ll tell you what: you point to the spicy lamb casserole and say, “this is really good, did you make it yourself?” and when she smiles graciously and says “yes”, you tell her how fortunate we are with the weather this week, it means that this friendly, multi-cultural event can take place out of doors this year, a far more congenial atmosphere, non? Then you flee (because flight is the only word for it), smiling as gently as you can, knowing that almost all other subjects are unbearable … what do you talk about to the one who once had children, had a husband, had a home, had a family, had a job, had her womanhood and now has none of the above?

And that’s only the victims. Talking to the perpetrators is, if anything, harder still. I met an ex-Khmer Rouge commander once in the late ‘80s, on a bus in Germany. The health insurance had paid him a pair of glasses and he was reading Newsweek. Under his own regime, just owning such a pair would have been a death sentence (only intellectual scum wear glasses) and the magazine would have been torched immediately. He thought that one day he would be able to go home and his country would thank him. Didn’t I think they’d done a fine job in many ways? They’d cleaned out a den of thieves; they’d cured the state of corruption and decadence. They had restored the simple virtues of hard work and rural solidarity. Wasn’t that good? Didn’t that deserve some recognition? I said yes, of course, and it would surely get exactly the recognition it deserved. He smiled. Fanatics, even reformed ones, have a simple mindset that doesn’t do irony. He said more Europeans should be like me. I said they are, believe me, they are. He thanked me for my kindness, but must have noticed that I changed my seat after we stopped for coffee.

A salutary disaster

Isn’t this why we all love a nice, clean, natural disaster? All of us can feel a thrilling and healthy horror at the devastation, followed by an outpouring of goodwill towards those surviving the landslide, the earthquake or the hurricane. And for the many that have lost loved ones and entire neighbourhoods, we can at least offer genuine commiseration: t’was an exploding mountain that did it, a shift in the earth’s crust, a squirrel rolling a nut at the top of the snowed up valley, a movement of the sea-bed, a mighty wind. Our sympathy is open-handed and warm, not tinged with that skin-crawling sense of guilt by association, of guilt by very humanity: the complicity of being one of us, yes, but also one of them. I am the torturer and the tortured, the rapist and the abused, the line of corpses and the strutting butcher. I am a founder member of both clubs, including the one that disowns everything I believe in.

And that’s why we all reacted so badly when Pakistan was flooded once again. We felt it was somehow their own fault for selling nuclear secrets to dodgy states, doing shady deals with extremists or for not condemning them enough. And anyhow, we insisted to ourselves, a government that has enough money to buy a dozen F16s at several million a pop could look after its own people. So we all passed by on the other side, we all looked the other way. The same people who had emptied their piggy banks for Haiti suddenly had donor fatigue for this nominally democratic Muslim nation, where such extraordinary wealth lines the pockets of such a tiny minority and never, ever seems to trickle down. “God helps those who help themselves”, we said under our breath, “and I guess the same goes for Allah”.

What lies below?

What a relief that the Chilean mining disaster came along: nothing complex there. A Christian nation, where good, old-fashioned capitalist exploitation leads to a good, old-fashioned minimal safety-threshold-type industrial accident of classic proportions. The stuff of legends: real men doing real men’s work stuck at the bottom of a very, very, very (we were all stunned by that), very, very deep hole. We remembered “Big Bad John” and hoped that it would all end as well or as heroically. Now that it has indeed, nobody would want to deprive any of those brave and patient men of even a lumen of the limelight they have so rightly earned. May they fully enjoy their hugs with politicos, messages from Bobby Carlton, trips to Greece, their iPod touches, their serious book deals and their state of the art sunglasses. We’ll even let the stripper through with a wink. After all, miners aren’t minors and we’re not prudish.

So a lot of us were just starting to feel good about ourselves again (humanity’s not such a bad club after all; look what we achieved in Chile) when along comes the crushing train-load of documented death by mismanagement, dereliction of duty and, literally, overkill that is revealed by the Wikileaks disclosures of the hecatomb that was apparently the “real” Gulf War II … and the bile is rising again in my throat and I’d like to find a quiet toilet where I can vomit, preferably one that doesn’t have a mirror. For I have met the enemy and he is me, and there are some people I just can’t face today.

Edwin Drood

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