Three images from the past few days have stuck in my mind.
The first was a group of anti-immigrant protesters screaming at a bus thought to be filled with Central American child refugees. It was instead filled with kids from the YMCA.
The second, even more disturbing, was of Israelis gathered on a hill overlooking the Gaza Strip, cheering as the Israeli Defense Force pummeled Gazans from land, sea, and air, Gazans unable to defend themselves, the rockets which Hamas launch towards Israel of no scope to combat a modern military.
The third was of drunken Russian separatists not permitting international investigators from working on the wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines jet shot down by, well, Russian separatists (with, I’m sure, an able assist from Russian military), leaving the strewn bodies to fester in the summer sun.
I’ve been struggling to put the events of the past week into some overarching structure. Yes, we can castigate Israelis, Russians, and Americans at the border. But taken in isolation they don’t present a clear picture. Taken in totality, one working with the other, they present a narrative.
Humans are on a precipice. We face challenges not faced by any previous generation. Despite the end of the Cold War, we are on a road to ruin. Not, perhaps, by nuclear Armageddon, but by an Armageddon of a thousand cuts: a war here, an atrocity there, and the ever looming shadow of global climate change. We’re quite aware of the warnings, quite cognizant of the dangers ahead, but can’t seem to refrain from acting in the old, tired ways.
Perhaps the dire situation reinforces acting in those old, territorial ways. The earliest manifestations of our brains, the lizard brain, the one which controls our fight or flight mechanism, is never stronger than when danger manifests itself—or when danger is foisted upon us by outside actors, trying to elicit a practiced response. Thus the Russian separatists, thinking they’re going to be subsumed by a Ukrainian horde. Thus the Israelis, thinking puny Hamas is going to drive them into the sea. Thus the frightened old white Americans, thinking 8 year old Salvadorans are going to destroy “their” country.
These modes of thinking do not serve the present situation. They never served humanity, if truth be told, but humanity was never as interconnected as it is now. Xenophobia and hatred were regrettable but the damage they wrought was tolerable when communities were separated by distance. We no longer have the luxury of that distance. The world witnesses live the atrocities perpetrated by Israelis on Palestinians. The world witnesses the horror of a civilian airliner being blown out of the sky, and the perpetrators governing access to the crash site. The world witnesses bigots screaming and aiming guns at children on the southern US border. Nothing happens in isolation any longer. Injustice sears itself into the world’s consciousness. And that consciousness, which demands justice, fairness, humanity grows at every crime which confronts it.
What we have is a war between empathy and disdain, between compassion and hatred. And thrown into the mix is indifference, an attitude where one can’t be bothered to care one way or the other, preferring to focus on the particular, the quotidian, the parochial. Those who are indifferent, however, are not not making a choice; by their indifference they have thrown their lot in with hatred. Hatred festers in indifference, grows in strength when it’s not confronted. There is no neutral ground; apathy gives succor to disdain and hatred. It’s not a third way.
And at this point in the human story, where our civilization has advanced to a state where the slightest wind can send it back into a dark age, the only thing which will continue it is empathy. Only a realization that we are all children of the same universe, all with needs and aspirations, will save the species. War and hatred are dead ends, literally; they will spell the doom of this experiment called humanity. Choosing tribalism will not lead to the survival of your own tribe, but to the extinction of all tribes, all peoples. Only when all peoples are recognized as fully human, with valid and necessary dreams, will we begin to move off of the wheel of conflict, struggle, and death. What the Israelis, Russians, and Americans at the border are doing will not ensure the survival of the Folk; it will, rather, ensure its extinction. One cannot withstand the tide; it will wash over you, one way or the other.
The only path forward, the only path which ensures my survival, and the survival of this wondrous civilization which allows my words to be transmitted around the world, is to guarantee my neighbor’s survival, and not only her survival, but her thriving. Only the recognition that we are all worthy of life and respect will stop this slide into disaster. Anything less and the future holds only darkness.
This isn’t an easy task. Nothing worthwhile is. But it’s the only choice which leads to life. Everything else leads to an unmarked, unmourned grave.