Most people I know remember the school visit of an elderly, and usually elegant, senior citizen with a slight accent. Sometimes showing a tattooed number on a forearm, they shared their direct experience as survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps.The quiet dignity and enduring resilience stunned us into silence and stayed with us for the rest of our lives. We grew up in the shadow of the holocaust. We assumed that what was right and wrong had been settled. That in democracies at least, there could be no war. It felt like there was a shared responsibility for a common good and a mantra of Never Again. That the operationalization of evil at an industrial scale could no longer happen.
In my working life I have seen conflict and catastrophe the world over. Every life is precious and valuable. No warlord has ever invented a cause that would warrant a single human loss. Warlords never have anything to offer anyone.
The industrial scale of the war in Ukraine and the ferocity of attacks on civilians is a betrayal of the Never Again ethos. The bombing of maternity hospitals, theatres, bread queues, civilian homes. The outflux of 3 million refugees, half of them children. The horrific stories about traffickers waiting to abduct those who are unaccompanied. This war was unleashed upon a world already reeling from a pandemic. Who could be so cruel?
Today CNN reported on the story of Svetlana. A weeping, elderly babushka nursing a shattered forearm in a Mykolaiv hospital. She had witnessed her husband and lifelong companion killed and their home destroyed in a rocket attack . I just stared at the screen trying to imagine what she would do or where she would go now ? I thought about the the way many elderly couples love and know each other from a lifetime of mutual endevor and shared struggle. How entwined they must be at the roots. Who could take away a love like that? Who is involved in the chain of decision making that led to the rocket piercing their humble home? Can we ever bring them to account? Can we give Svetlana justice? If we don’t I am worried that these atrocities may become less outrageous in our collective memory. Evil will become easy and casual.
Industrial scale killing dehumanizes. We need to bring it back to the level of the individual and cherish their memories, their sorrows and struggles, the love and lessons learned over the course of a life. We need to remember their names.
In a split second Svetlana’s life was turned upside down, most probably by a fully grown man in full body armor, cowering at distance. An army that does not have the honour or courage to fight toe to toe with equals under the norms of the Geneva Convention. An army that bombs maternity wards and pensioner’s houses from afar. Soldiers whose only moral recourse should be to lay down their weapons and go home and tell their communities what they saw and what they did and to dedicate their lives to paying back. This is all an aberration. We should never stop being shocked at the depravity and scale of the crimes committed.
This war followed two decades of global fragmentation and of rolling back that post-holocaust clarity. Polarisation and culture wars, rising inequality and poorly managed de-industrialisation. The war on terror, stalled progress on human rights, climate, public health and poverty and delayed transition in Eastern Europe. All of this ruptured our shared sense of right and wrong. We became more willing to give public space to the charlatan politician or the crooked oligarch. To allow lies or tolerate the annexing of sovereign territory. Our politics dispersed to the extreme fringes whose only interest is to showboat and fight each other. Extremists are incapable of building a consensus to improve our world.
I have seen casual evil so many times in conflict zones. One memory haunts me. It is not an extreme case, it shows how atrocious behaviour can be automatic and casual. It was the first morning after huge waves of refugees had flooded across the border from Kosovo into Albania. War-weary families had shivered through the night in a makeshift refugee camp. There was a skirmish as someone found a thief in the camp. A young man from a village nearby had woken up, looked out of the window, seen the misfortune of others and decided to go and exploit it. It was automatic and without hesitation. I remain, fascinated by his decsion-making. His smallness is the same smallness of those politicians, chat show hosts and warlords who search for misfortune and frissures in our society to sow division.
If we learn one lesson from all of this it should be the need for clarity of purpose. The Burkean maxim that we hold an obligation to pass the world we inherited to future generations in a better state than we found it seems more pertinent than ever. The global values set out in the UN charter, the human rights instruments and the development goals need to be re-sanctified and pursued with relentless vigour. We should insist that institutions of democracy have the primary responsibility of harnessing the available evidence and resources to build prosperity, peace and progress. Ambiguity and relativism on what is right and what is wrong should go out of fashion along with charlatan politicians. Clarity of these purposes is the best preventative weapon against those who would do harm.