From time to time I take a moment to ponder the breadth of violence and brutality of the world, and to allow myself a few hours of despair over the hopelessness of it all. The human race is full of admirable people doing wonderful things, but it is at least equally filled with tyrants and murderers doing the unspeakable.
Right now in the world there are dozens and dozens of armed conflicts raging. We are told that this is not a problem because from a statistical perspective global violence is at an all-time low relative to population. I am sure this is a great relief to the 8 year old girls being raped in Africa, or the Lebanese whose family members were killed in battles between Hesbollah and Israel. I am sure the victims of the Janjaweed are made glad by the fact that these militia are not nearly as efficient as someone like Hitler.
And while hundreds of thousands die to this violence every year, millions more die to greed. Treatable diseases like Malaria and Tuberculosis kill huge swaths of population because they lack the funds to pay for the medicine they need. The western world could easily afford to treat them, of course, but we find it more important to protect the profitability of our pharmaceutical companies. We justify this through the concept of "Property rights." We find nothing wrong with the idea that if one man grows grain enough for two, and another grows nothing, the first man is justified in eating his fill and letting the rest go to rot while he watches his neighbor starve. We measure the value of humanity in dollars, and admire those with the guts to squeeze as much blood and money as they can from their fellow human beings. Imagine the horror if allowing the manufacture of generic drugs in countries that can't afford the branded version would cut into the bottom line of Bristol Meyers Squibb. Surely a rising stock price is worth the lives of countless faceless people in far off lands.
And those of us in western countries do our part to hurt foreigners as well. We happily burn 5 times our per capita allotment of oil so that we can drive our vast SUVs and cool our expansive houses. We subsidize our farmers so that we can enjoy nostalgic concepts of "honest work" and "the American way of life." What does it matter if this prevents desperate people from getting a chance to compete in the marketplace? We pay our taxes so our government can go to Iraq and kill and kill and kill in the hopes that somehow this will eventually put an end to the killing there. If we disagree with this policy we may write a few angry letters or refuse to vote for those who support it, but how many of us actually do more? How many of us actually know what more there is to be done? How can we stop a war machine this vast and powerful?
Of course the Western World is not alone in its amorality. Let us not pretend that we live in a black and white universe of perpetrators and victims. African leaders routinely focus on lining their own pockets rather than helping their people. Mugabe turns Zimbabwe from breadbasket of Africa to country on the verge of starvation. The South African president claims that AIDS isn't caused by HIV, but rather by poverty. In Venezuela Hugo Chavez claims to oppose the evil acts of the United States even as he represses dissenters in his own country.
There are no groups whose hands are clean of blood. There's an old description of family hierarchy that goes like this. "Boss yells at worker. Worker goes home and yells at wife. Wife yells at daughter. Daughter yells at little brother. Little brother kicks cat." Those who have power will use and abuse it to get what they want. The children are our future? The children pay homeless people $10 each to fight each other on camera.
As individuals we can do our best to try and resist our base urges and do good in the world. We can try to be kind to our neighbors, nonviolent in our political choices, ethical in our economic ones. But as individuals our impact is muted. Humans are strongest when they are organized, and that is also when they are most evil. I do not think George Bush would be willing to shoot an Iraqi child if he looked into her eyes, but he will sign executive orders leading to hundreds of them being shot. The shooters will claim that they had no choice, someone signed an executive order, they were doing their job. Nobody takes responsibility for their actions, nobody has blood on their hands. Instead the blood is shared equally among all participants. We are all guilty of at the very least complacency, and usually quite a bit more.
What is the problem? Original sin? The cruelties of a limited world? The fact that the human mind evolved for tribal living, not living in a globalized world where computers connect billions of people and a decision in Washington has consequences in Nairobi?
Or is it just that the essence of humanity is to do good and glory in it, and do evil but deflect the blame? I don't know. But I do know that I am saddened by every preventable death and every "minor conflict" and I think that if our leaders were as well, that would be a start.