Monday, July 27, 2009

A fireman can't let people burn

The other day I was pondering the issue of radical evil, following this blogpost as I continued to check my favourite lurking places on the Internet. As it sometimes happens, a series of comments/posts emerged from the cyber fog and left their imprint upon my mind, for a variety of reasons. Only later did I realize that these comments --each from very different authors-- were somehow in conversation with each other, in that they offset the deeply riven difference in the moral principles that animate the positions declared in them.

I have decided to post the relevant quotes from each venue and let a certain picture emerge:

I. Two Comments by two posters in conversation on some message board:

First comment:

It's interesting to think about Rwanda. Everybody believes not sending massive foreign troops in there was a ghastly mistake. We assume that would have ended the war and prevented the genocide and everything would have been fine. But why do we assume that? What makes us think even more people might not have been killed over a longer period of time in some endless power struggle with us westerners trapped in the middle, unable to fix it and unable leave? Of course, it's assumed we could have just run in, stopped the genocide and left. As it is, the Rwandans had no choice but to fix their problem themselves, and it seems like they've done not a bad job so far.

Second Comment:

There are a lot of black Africans (safe ones of course) suggesting that aid to Africa is simply allowing Africans to put off reform, both by tamping down the extreme violence that would lead to massive continent-wide revolt, and by enriching those already in power. That may also be the case in Afghanistan. If we pulled out altogether, conditions could get much worse for civilians in the short term, but bring about the kind of peoples' revolution that would result in a stable government.

II. Via Terry Glavin: "David Aaronovitch
: "And if we were to pull out now (and forget here the question of relationships with our allies, and imagine that they do the same), what then? Happy, peaceful Taleban, alone to do what they will with their statues and women, free to find their own way to God and content to allow everyone else to do the same? Happy fundamentalists of Swat, uninflamed by trans-border bombings, taking their part in a peaceful Pakistan?"

III. From Sign and Sight:


In a highly moving article the physicist Janusz Ostrowski describes (here in the German version) his experience of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as a fireman. The Polish fire brigade was hired by the Germans to ensure that the houses with people in them were razed to the ground, while those containing goods remained standing. One day the firement discovered some young girls crying for help in a burning house. "The sergeant ordered us to ascertain whether szkopy (German Soldaten) or szaulisy (a derogatory term for Lithuanian, Latvian, or Ukrainian guards) were nearby. Once we'd given the all clear, he said: 'Any one who wants to can head for the other truck, but if you're feeling brave, we going to them out of there.' Three men headed off. Jurek said: 'I'm not risking my life for a couple of Jewesses who the Germans are going to kill sooner or later, if not here then somewhere else. There's no point. And if you get them out the szaulisy will come along, rape the prettiest ones and shoot the rest! This is an idiotic risk of life.' And he left. Somewhat hesitantly, as if he was ashamed. I agreed with him in principle. But the sergeant caught my eye and then, looking up at the windows, he said: 'A fireman can't let people burn.'"

To recap:

I: The Rwandan genocide came and went without outside intervention. Consequently, things have worked out not too badly for the Rwandans. There is a lesson to be learned from this chapter in history.

II: If we were to abandon Afghanistan now, what would happen to those targeted by the Taleban, namely, women and girls?

III: A fireman can't let people burn, even if he knows that the human beings he rescues will be murdered soon after.

In considering the above, I think we need to recall this document:

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

And this Meditation XVII by John Donne: Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind"

And this, from Elie Wiesel:

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.

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