Death and giving a damn

By Zairil Khir Johari, MP for Bukit Bendera

On that day we’ll say to Hell: “Have you had enough?”

And Hell will answer: “Is there more?”

Lifted from the literary masterpiece “Death and the Dervish” by Bosnian Meša Selimović, the two haunting lines above make appropriate reflection, given the morbidity of current times.

A little more than two weeks ago, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered. In retaliation, a Palestinian youth was burned alive.

Today, the Gaza Strip has become hell on earth. Casualties mount daily as white phosphorous smoke envelopes the skyline amid the continuous pounding of the Palestinian territory by the Israeli armed forces.

To date, more than 940 Palestinians have died while thousands are injured. With food supplies fast depleting and boxed in on all sides by the Mediterranean Sea and a concrete barrier that runs along the entire Israeli and Egyptian border, every surviving man, woman and child in Palestine is living in fear and trepidation.

In fractured Syria, a motley amalgamation of militant groups has declared territorial control over parts of Syria and Iraq, declaring itself the new “caliphate”.

Its leader now claims religious authority over Muslims the world over, even as it wages brutal sectarian violence against Muslim minorities.

Over at the Ukraine-Russia border, a Malaysian passenger liner was brought down in cold blood by an anti-aircraft missile, and along with it 298 innocent lives.

Suddenly, what most of us have been dismissing as an inconsequential civil war now threatens to be a catalyst to the 21st century’s second global geopolitical crisis after September 11, 2001. In the most politically charged statement to come from the White House yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been singled out as a “culpable” party in the senseless attack on MH17.

To most of us, the world now seems beset by chaos. Facebook timelines are filled with death and destruction – images of maimed and slaughtered casualties of war, gruesome aviation crash scenes and all manners of conspiracy theories which attempt to make sense of what is happening.

In truth, the only thing we should be surprised at is how surprised we are. Take the three crises aforementioned.

Ukraine did not become a warzone overnight. Riots have been taking place since the end of last year, culminating in a revolution that deposed of the previous president.

Following that, Russia began to prop up its allies from the toppled regime by annexing, through the use of military force, the Crimean Peninsula. A stand-off has now resulted between Russian-backed rebels, on the one hand, and the Western-recognised government, on the other.

Yet, despite the fact that one country had unilaterally invaded another sovereign territory, did any of us really care?

Syria, on the other hand, has been dogged by a civil war since 2011. What began as popular demonstrations against the autocratic regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a protracted urban guerilla war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, displaced millions and worse, attracted revolutionaries and insurgents of various denominations.

The Syrian crisis is precisely the sort of conflict that spawns radical militants. In other words, Afghanistan was repeating itself, but what did the world do? Today, in place of Osama, we now have “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian story has been treated for years as nothing more than a permanent foreign affairs item on the nightly news.

So numb are we to the decades-long occupation of the Holy Land and the apartheid-like subjugation of its people that we hardly bat an eyelid whenever we hear of skirmishes and human casualties in Gaza or the West Bank.

And it is precisely because no one cares – not Nato, not the United Nations, not even Palestine’s rich and influential Arab neighbours – that daily atrocities can be carried out by the Israelis with impunity.

Scant regard is paid to international law and conventions as defenceless civilians continue to be shelled and murdered in the name of Israeli “self-defence”.

The fact is that we are all guilty of not caring. It is too easy to switch the TV channel or flip over the pages in the newspapers whenever the names Ukraine, Syria or Palestine pop up. They seem too remote, and their sufferings are not our problem.

But that’s where we’re wrong. It is precisely because we don’t care that terrorists get emboldened, that state-sponsored brutality can occur in broad daylight, that thousands continue to be murdered each day.

Remember Srebrenica. More than 8,000 Bosnians were butchered because the world didn’t care. Remember Rwanda. A fifth of its population was wiped out because the United Nations failed to act. Remember the rise of the Nazis. Europe was nearly annihilated because no one cared what Adolf Hitler was up to until it was too late.

How many times does history have to repeat itself before we wake up? How many more wars are we willing to condone by not doing anything? How many more deaths are we willing to endure before we finally give a damn?

*This article first appeared on The Malaysian Insider

*The views expressed in the article are the personal opinion of the columnist

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