The Loss of Humanity in Syria and In Ourselves

I wish I wasn’t writing this post.  I wish I was in bed sleeping at 1:45 in the morning, but then, I think, there are worse things than being kept up by words.

In fact, there is slaughter going on in Syria.  Annihilation of families including mothers and little children.  Including babies.

I think of my own two year old daughter, V and her funny antics.  I think about how she thinks it is hilarious to walk around singing “Plop goes the weasel!” and how she stripped down into her “naked clothes” to wash her little kitchen dishes because she didn’t want to get water on her “special ones.”  She keeps me laughing every day.  I know that the dead mothers in Syria were laughing alongside their little ones sometime recently, despite the conflict in their country, despite the threats to their lives and their homes.  Children are joyful; they are a reminder of what is best in us and a more innocent way of viewing the world.  We haven’t corrupted them yet.  Even in the darkness, they can bring a smile to light.

(photo by PML)

We haven’t turned them into murderers yet.  At least most of them.

Some people would like to dehumanize those that did the slaughtering, much like people dehumanize the Nazis or any other number of war criminals.  People might call them “animals” in an attempt to distance themselves from the fact that: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”  In reality, all of us could be either the slaughtered or the slaughterers given the right circumstances.  All it takes is ignorance combined with a propensity for division and hatred and human nature can veer us right into the most destructive impulses imaginable.  We’d like to think we are different, but we still push the button on the electrical jolts in Milgram’s experiment when we are told to do so by someone in a position of authority, regardless of our own conscious.  We still stand by and watch ignorance perpetuated, silently, like global participants in the bystander effect, assuming someone else will solve our big political and social problems.  We still judge and dislike and in some cases, hate, based on differences or if someone has wronged us.  For many of us, if we are truly honest with ourselves, there is at least one person in the world we could see ourselves eradicating or some reason that we can justify taking the life of another.  If we can start down that path; we are capable of even more insidious atrocities.

I cannot pretend to have a great understanding of the political situation in Syria.  I am not knowledgeable enough to explain the dynamics of the division and unrest occurring there.  For me to lay claim to that knowledge, I would expect that I knew something of the area’s history, I would perhaps have travelled there to understand the culture and the people, and I would want to know the things that go unsaid and unexplained by the media, the power structure that ever has an incomplete public portrayal because we only ever get a portion of those dynamics in any country.  I don’t believe my cursory reading of a few online or print articles is enough to erase my ignorance of the situation.

But I do understand the loss of humanity, both the physical and literal loss of the good parts of the human spirit, when something like this occurs.   Where there is ignorance, power struggles, suffering, hatred and division, violence breeds.  Increasingly, I even see this happening in various ways within our own country.  People become complacent with easy explanations or become apathetic and victimized and give up their political power.  People are unable to consider any complexity of opinion beyond the sound bites fed to them by the media outlets they prefer and are comfortable with, media outlets that pick at differences and highlight divisions.  Those in positions of power abuse their roles and are insidiously self-serving.  People attack people instead of opinions or ideas.  People are unwilling to compromise or give any leeway because they are entrenched in their positions and the idea of being right or righteous.  People either feel powerless and angry or powerful and selfish.  People are intolerant and unappreciative of difference. People justify hatred.  Hatred turns to violence.  It is easy to see how relationships, groups, countries, and civilizations unravel.  And the same pattern happens over and over throughout history.

So I am up at night thinking about the relevance of the Syrian massacre.  I’m conscious of the relative safety of my own sleeping daughter in her little bed, and so privileged to not be in the position that the families living in Syria currently face.  I’m privileged to not have to take a really hard look at what layers of innocence would have to be destroyed before I might become the kind of person that would commit such atrocious acts.  I’m thankful to have some psychological and spiritual wholeness, but what scares me is how the little hatreds are only a step away from the big ones; how the little violent acts of anger and bitterness of resentment and ignorance leave us only steps away from being in a similar situation.  We are fooling ourselves if we think we are any different.  We are only fortunate and “they” are not.

What is the answer?  It is not simple and it is not easy.  In fact, it is the hardest thing we might ever do as humans, which is why war and violence persist.  It is an inner battle we must all fight to keep our hearts loving and compassionate in the face of hatred and violence.  It is in the cumulative choices we make as individuals, groups, and nations to pursue connection and solution finding rather than power seeking and self-benefit.  It is in not giving up our responsibility to be active, involved, and aware citizens when we have the gift and privilege to have a voice in our government and society.  It is in our choices to overcome our aversion and discomfort with differences and to seek compromise and solutions that benefit the many rather than an elite, powerful few.  It is in holding onto the good parts of our humanity and not succumbing to the destructive impulses we all possess when we are threatened.  It comes from seeking inner peace and peace with others rather than power over them.  These are steps we all must collectively take if we want to ensure we do not end up like the perpetrators in Syria, so full of hatred and violence that we could destroy the most precious symbols of light and laughter and beauty and innocence:  our own children.

2 responses to “The Loss of Humanity in Syria and In Ourselves

  • Juliana

    Pam, I get what you’re saying and I agree that it’s really easy to pass judgement when we are lucky enough to be born in the U.S and be (for the most part) safe. However, I can find absolutely no justification for the slaughter of babies. Pure evil.

    • Pamela

      Julie; I agree there is no justification. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that we should sympathize with that sort of heinous activity, only to understand that we aren’t exempt from turning into people who could hate and kill under the right circumstances, though it is so very hard for us to conceive of the circumstances that would take us to that dark of a place. I certainly can’t imagine myself there, but ultimately, I know that if I had been shaped in a different place with different influences, I might not be so wholly innocent; I might be capable of greater hatred and awful, horrific actions. I guess the point I was trying to make, which maybe written at that late hour didn’t come through, was that all of the “perpetrators” were once babies too, and that though it is hard for us to imagine what it would take for each of us to get to that awful place of slaughtering innocents, that it isn’t “just those other evil people” that are capable of doing these things. It is people who have evolved and changed into such a hateful place that they are able to commit such atrocities. It is people who accept ignorance and embrace hatred and violence so strongly that it overpowers and changes them. It is easy for us to just write people who do bad things off as “evil,” but if we are to learn anything from history, we have to take some responsibility for the dark, destructive instincts in ourselves as well. Those people all had choices to take that responsibility and they didn’t; they made awful, unconscionable, “evil” choices. Failing to understand their humanity won’t stop those things from happening; instead, looking inward at our own propensities to hate and disconnect from others will help us raise the sort of children who would never make the same choices. I want V to understand that people who do bad things weren’t always bad, weren’t born bad, but that hate and anger and circumstance changed them. Because those things we can change; we can change our anger, we can change our choices, we can choose good over wrongdoing. If we are simply “evil” people vs. “good” people, then there is no choice; it’s determinism. And to me, that would be an even scarier, darker world to live in. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts on this very sensitive, difficult topic. It is not easy to find the right words to discuss this sort of issue, and I value your willingness to share and dialogue about it. I think we are not so far apart in our feelings, just coming at it from slightly different angles.

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