The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Mourning

This is the difficult one to write. It is also the necessary one.

I had been planning to write this weekend about the two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq, two of ... how many is it now? I have heard numbers ranging from as low as forty to well over a hundred. Of those, twenty-three are now confirmed dead; another eleven presumed dead. At least sixteen have been released. In addition, somewhere between 11,793 and 13,802 civilians have been killed since the attack on Iraq (Iraq Body Count), as well as 1,124 military of all coalition countries (Iraq Coalition Casualty Count). (Note that this refers to reported deaths only and Iraq only: Afghanistan statistics are not included.) There have been blogs set up specifically to keep count! Collect all the reasons together to hate, and to keep hating, and to cultivate hate!

I heard a radio commentator mention that the hostage scene in Iraq was becoming a bad one. I say that there is no such thing as a good hostage situation. Once it becomes a hostage situation, once the situation has been created such that hostages are seen as the only option, both sides have already accepted that to give in even a little is to lose all ... and thus that in the hardest-line action, they have nothing to lose.

So much focus on individuals, when there are so many terrible things happening in the world, too many of which dwarf even these numbers: and yet it might be that we cannot conceive of horror except as it touches the daughter, the husband, the neighbour ... the individual. The individual is needed to focus public sentiment. Too much death and suffering blanks us. It is too immediate. It is too much. As Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt is quoted as suggesting, "Change the channel."

Most of us reading these words still have the luxury of doing that.

That it happened to be French journalists was met in the United States with a wide mixture of reactions: but among some, mockery was perhaps inevitable. (Some even went out of their way to specify how they were not enjoying the plight of the French.) Under a single unifying banner, there would have been no reason for any shift to goals outside Iraq. If ever there were a single piercing event to demonstrate that the various opposing factions were in no way whatsoever united by anything except perhaps a need to get the invaders out, this was it. I have the strong impression even that the reason might have been a quick justification created after discovering that the journalists were French and not of a coalition country: something to fill "dead air" with the appropriate spin until the journalists could be handed between individual groups to reach one which favoured release.

Doesn't make it the least bit easier on the individuals involved. Statistics are meaningless. Reasons are meaningless. Once on the front lines, a person can only accept what comes down from those holding the power over lives, knowing that they have already made the decision that life is a tradeable commodity, knowing that if there is to be any chance to survive, one's own own leaders must have done the same.

The difference in taking an entire school hostage lies only in scale and in average age: for some reason we react more strongly to a threat to children. In all other respects, the conditions are identical. The situation had only one possible outcome as soon as it began. And now at least 335 persons are dead.

Among the powers of the world, three can be considered to be drifting toward an extreme hard-line in dealing with terrorism, Israel, Russia, and the United States; and consequently strong pressure on Canada to do likewise at a federal policy level -- and perhaps it is even seen so from an outside perspective: for all we did not intervene militarily in Iraq, our hands are not clean. Even when they appear to each other as opposites, countries sharing a polemic appear amazingly alike to those standing outside. (I might have added India but for recent election results: we will see.) In each of these countries, the shift toward a hard-line approach to negotiation has been catalysed by a single event or series of events; with a parallel increase in violence and violent protest as the government and sometimes populace response grows increasingly less flexible. I won't try to identify cause-effect here -- I am not at all sure the concept any longer has any real meaning here -- but I can recognise a vicious cycle when I see one.

There are some all too eager to make a banner of other people's suffering. I suggest only that imposing needless suffering on some has never yet resulted in improving lives for all. There is enough of suffering to go around without our willingly contributing to it.

Monday and Tuesday have been declared national days of mourning by Putin. I mourn for the families who have lost. I mourn also for the families who have yet to lose ... for, much as I hate to know it, I recognise also that this is far, far from over.

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