Last night, for the second time, I wept over politics. I should confess that I am a fairly emotional person. Then again, I think anyone who is paying attention to life should be. Whether we agree with air strikes on Syria or not, shouldn’t we all be weeping over a situation where air strikes have begun in which civilian casualties will be “kept to a minimum”, to quote our government?
I imagine it is my town. I imagine that a dreadful terrorist cell has sprung up here with atrocities planned that are further than my imagination will let me travel. They have already started committing them and horrific death lurks everywhere. The only way to get rid of them is to take them out, in carefully targeted strikes. These strikes will be direct and civilian casualties “kept to a minimum”.
What minimum is OK? We need to get rid of them. WE NEED TO. This is too much. We have to accept some collateral damage.
But what if it is my 3 year old daughter, who will be buried alive or burnt to death? What if it is my son who is left holding his father’s hand as he drops to the ground? Even if it was a minimum of one and it was one of my precious ones, I would have to draw a line. I would insist that there must be another way.
My friends and those around me would probably agree. We can’t have a little one from our town suffer like this. Perhaps some in neighbouring towns would agree with us, but others, scared of the danger that might be heading their way, might think that one is not too much, that life is hard, that we need to accept that. I suspect the further away from me and my town you get, the less that one life matters.
Syria is very far away. I would have struggled to find it on a map with any precision before it became the country that got our attention. It is far enough away for one life not to matter. Especially when we are not paying attention.
But sometimes our attention is captured even when we don’t want it to be. Sometimes an image slips in that we can’t distract ourselves from. Collateral damage becomes real and the rhetoric of war is exposed for the nonsense it is.
That’s the thing, though – it requires attention. And paying attention in a culture designed to distract you is difficult. Then, even when you manage, it becomes exhausting and overwhelming and just too difficult to maintain. So we mourn for a time then go back to the things that are easier to deal with.
When our country last debated entering a war, I wasn’t paying attention. It was the start of the century and I was old enough and educated enough to have taken some responsibility for informing myself but I didn’t. I was recently married, with a life to build. I had started a new career and moved to a new town. I had money to spend and advice all around me on the best ways to spend it. My own life required diligence.
Don’t misunderstand me. I had values. I took an interest in people. I shared what I had and I hoped my country could be something better than it had been as I grew up.
Perhaps, partly an inheritance of those long Tory years, whose details I did not understand but whose essence was tangible around me, I was thrilled with the election of Tony Blair. I saw a fairer future. Things could only get better. D-Ream said so.
So when there was debate about air strikes on Iraq, I wanted to believe in the man I had put my hopes in. I dismissed the critics as not understanding the gravity of the situation. And never once did I consider the people of Iraq. I just believed the government spin of catching bad guys, as if we were in some Hollywood movie. And I am ashamed to admit that I think I might, if pushed, have even accepted a small, anonymous child as a sacrifice. I needed my government to be the good guys. I needed life to stay safe.
I have grown up since then. I have seen the facade wipe away from people in power and have learned to understand that as much as I long for it to be so, things aren’t black and white. And I just can’t work out who the good guys are. So I have learned not to trust people because they are on my television screen or words because they are in print. It is still my bias but I have learned to watch out for it and remind myself of what I know.
People in power, even if they don’t start out that way, often end up needing power more than anything else. And the need for power seems to be at the heart of this on every side. I don’t exclude myself from this. A bit of attention from a successful blog post is enough to sway what I will write next away from what I think might be less popular. I am gripped with need to continue to be successful. Until I remember to pay attention to what matters.
Following the refugee crisis online has been a sobering reminder of what matters. Stories like those featured on Humans of the Refuge have made those at the heart of this crisis feel very much closer. My vain concerns are ridiculous in the face of the brutality that so many people in our world face. And so I have paid attention, to try to understand and to see if there is any hope in any of this.
As I have studied, I have discovered a story with so many twists and turns, I cannot follow the plot. In the end, Syria’s story seems to be the world’s story: everyone wants power. Governments all over the world, the UK’s included, are part of the reason Syria is as it is. The lust for power existed long before the terrorists. They just seem to have grabbed it with a particularly evil fervour.
I think those in power prefer us to be distracted, in case we notice the inconsistencies in the story we’ve been sold.
My tears were shed last night when at the end of Hillary Benn’s speech, the House of Commons burst into ecstatic applause. The clapping, which had been inappropriate when it was practised by novice MPs encouraging a maiden speech, was apparently acceptable to celebrate the thought of bombing a country. The irony of this after his father’s speech (which had been shared on social media all day) to demonstrate the folly of such strikes was clearly lost in the celebrations.
I still do not understand the cheering. Mr Benn ( I feel like he must have entered an alternate zone via a dressing room at some point in his formative years) demonstrated good rhetoric but as far as I could see, added nothing new to the argument. Was it relief that the ghost of war debates past could finally be exorcised if they now had a Benn onside? Or did it reflect people so desperate to have their way, they forgot what it was going to involve? While I viewed the debates on the Iraq war through a Hollywood lens, last night I found myself transported into an Orwellian nightmare.
I watched the subdued Scottish benches and wondered how they, and the brave individuals sat amongst the masses, could stand to be amongst the braying triumphalism . I am sure Mhari Black is right when she says she will never forget that sound.
Paying attention is difficult. There is so much to understand. Paying attention hurts a lot. The small child buried alive and the boy holding his father’s hand as he was shot dead are real stories from Syria. Sometimes I think it would be easier to go back to the time when politics was someone else’s business and I didn’t know any of the things I know now. Yet without paying attention to the brutality I could not see the beauty that arises from it.
There is hope in individual stories of people refusing to bow down to terror, when it is perpetrated either by the terrorists or the media, and demonstrating that flowers are stronger than guns.
Today my heart remains heavy about the decisions that have been made in my name. I continue to believe that there must be another way. It seems this will not come from government. So, in the meantime, I must find my own ways to be the change I want to see. Right now, this involves simply not looking away. I will pay attention, no matter how many tears I have to shed.