The suffering of strangers

The largest functional moral community today is the nation.  Through the immense capabilities of national government it can, for example, pool its resources to protect the weakest, enforce rules of conduct, and promote the education of the young in specific directions, whether peaceable or warlike.

upernational arrangements tend to garner faint praise, but are based entirely on the convenience or interest of the members rather than a shared moral vision.  That is the strategic failure, rarely remarked upon, of the EU:  it is morally hollow.  Nobody wishes to live the EU way of life.  Nobody would die to sustain it.  Nobody knows what it is.  As for the UN, the current scandals are, one hopes, not typical of its workings, but few would call the institution anything loftier than a smallish stage on which smallish powers strut.

The rule of good rides on the fate of the nation.  Tragedy consequently occurs when the nation becomes a source of evil.  Examples, sad to say, aren’t lacking:  I need only mention the monstrous rule of the Kims in North Korea, the seemingly endless tides of famine that sweep over Sub-Saharan Africa.  The nation fails, either willfully, from evil rulers, or from incompetence, the rule of chaos.  What is to be done?

As I have written before, the free and wealthy nations intermittently berate themselves for failing to prevent a catastrophe beyond their borders.  We recall the Nazi’s holocaust, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the massacre of the Hutus in Rwanda, and we say, again and again, “never again.”

That is a bad conscience speaking:  whether such effusions reflect well or meanly on those who mouth them, I can’t say, but they rarely if ever lead to action.  The tragedies recur.  The moral case is clear enough, but the practical problems are daunting:  is the suffering of strangers worth the invasion and conquest of a foreign country, to feed the hungry or liberate the concentration camps?

The turmoil in Iraq is a salutary example.  We wish to impose democracy.  Nasty-minded people there wish to kill Americans and Iraqis until we quit the country.  Our good wishes count for little; the world probably doesn’t even believe in them.  What would have happened had we invaded Rwanda?  Who would have cheered, even here?  In Somalia, we turned tail after taking casualties.  And we know that saving the victims of the Khmer Rouge, who triumphed after the end of the Vietnam war, would have been impossible.

So what is the answer?  I have little to offer, except this.  Those of us who are safe and free should expose and condemn evil, wherever it is found.  Thugs who murder in the dark may hesitate when a light is shone on their bloody deeds.  At the same time, we should avoid empty posturing and breast-beating – at all costs, avoid exploiting the suffering of strangers for purposes of self-dramatization.  On behalf of those deprived of human dignity, we must never diminish or devalue our own.


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