The massacre of 141 children and staff at Peshawar’s Army Public School in Pakistan has shaken much of the world. The images of bloodied children being carried to ambulances by paramedics, parents, and good samaritans have once again flooded our television screens. But only for a few moments. In Nigeria this past summer, many took to Twitter in an almost cringeworthy campaign that reduced the value of engagement in humanitarian causes to a catchphrase and a hashtag.
Even as the United States has rounded the corner on 13 years of battle in neighboring Afghanistan, the unspeakably horrific images of children being pulled from the wreckage of the school conjured up images of massacres in Oklahoma City, Beslan, Columbine, and Newtown.
The terror reflected in the visages of rescue workers, the determination of the first responders, and the bloodstained faces of children carried from the school bear an almost surreal resemblance to an all-to0 frequent scene in recent years. Yet, disturbingly, not enough conversations or Internet discussions reflected any sense of urgency regarding the massacre. Perhaps it was caught in the media wake of the events in Sydney, Australia over the weekend. Perhaps not.
Perhaps Westerners have grown a bit too accustomed to stories of horrific massacres, bombings, and attacks from Afghanistan and Pakistan, such that even such otherworldly violence as that perpetrated on the young innocents in Peshawar on Tuesday can pass by with nary a second glance. This is not to say that our hearts weren’t made heavy with the horror that we all vicariously experienced through the terror-saturated eyes of mothers and fathers standing outside of the smoldering schoolhouse.
This is to say that perhaps many of us have become too willing to accept and absorb such images as normal. Is this a reflection of a bigger problem? Is our almost subconscious acceptance of scenes bearing great carnage a Pavlovian response to stimuli over decades of saturation? Yes. Is it a valid excuse for the average citizen’s failure to remain current on important international events? No.
The rift between the average Westerner and those fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the past 13 years has grown to become a canyon. Many writers have noted the incomparably small percentage of Americans who have served in Afghanistan, and many veterans and soldiers have written of their disdain for civilians who they perceive as inadequately sensing the urgency of the fight in the two countries. Many veterans, their views sharpened by close proximity to the Afghan people in particular, have had their world views reshaped, their understanding of life re-conceptualized, and their vision for what the world is becoming slashed and sliced open.
Many return home feeling an affinity and a kinship not with those back in the United States and in other Western nations, but for a people left disregarded by the international community—a people whose pain is matched only by those in pervasively unrelenting war zones such as the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine, Mexico, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Yet the headlines aren’t filled with the suicide bombings, attacks, and senseless murder that occurs almost daily in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Why is this? Many veterans have asked this question repeatedly. The replies are often little beyond a simple “we appreciate your service,” or “it really is Hell over there, isn’t it?”
It is not difficult to sympathize with the average American’s ignorance of war in the aforementioned areas. Many Americans are now working twice as many hours for half the pay. Family lives dominate what little free hours a working man or woman finds gifted to them on evenings and weekends. The opportunity to read in-depth and researched pieces on the West’s conflict with Russia, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the terror of the wars in Syria and South Sudan, and the spreading instability in Iraq is nonexistent for many Americans.
The American media, represented by the 24-hour news cycle of three cable television news stations, delivers nothing. Human-interest stories, narratives, and celebrity gossip dominate air time, encouraging the numbness many viewers feel as they catch 20 minutes of Fox, CNN, or MSNBC while sitting in the lobby of a dentist’s office or standing in line at the DMV. Our understanding of the world has been reduced to our own efforts at finding the information. Walter Kronkite no longer brings it to us on a silver platter with a beer and the day’s newspaper.
Citizenship is an active endeavor. It requires a sense of responsibility toward our communities, and it engenders in us a compulsion towards service in the interests of a greater good. We’re no longer spoon-fed the important news. In the information age, those with a connection to the Internet have access to information that is unprecedented in human history. The sheer magnitude of the knowledge at our fingertips is almost overwhelmingly intimidating.
Given the threats to our country, the conflicts raging in Mexico, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia have a tremendous impact on our everyday lives. Markets respond to unrest in the Middle East. Strategists in Washington adjust national security policy priorities as Russia intensifies its support for insurrectionists in Ukraine. The Department of Defense reallocates resources to meet security threats from pirates off of the African coast and to keep belligerents apart in the South China Sea. Events such as the one in Peshawar serve to remind us of the human cost incurred when ethnic, religious, and nationalist movements rise to a level of violence such that multitudes of innocents are slaughtered in cold blood.
Many Americans assert that the United States should not be the world’s policeman. Others would point to the balance that the U.S. military and diplomatic corps elicit when engaged. Much of that is outside the direct control of the citizenry. What isn’t outside our control is our own personal engagement. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be desensitized by world events. The carnage should turn our stomachs. The rapes should make us angry. The child slavery should intensify our feelings of righteousness and our motivation to destroy those responsible and return the victims to their lives. Disease rampaging through West African countries should not frighten us, but should instead inspire us to learn the causes and help facilitate the mechanisms that would find solutions. These problems are all significant and undeniable threats to America’s national security in the 21st century.
The world is a nasty place, to be sure. But that isn’t a sufficient excuse to divorce ourselves from the calamities, to divest from meaningful attempts made by military professionals, diplomats, NGO personnel, and assorted volunteers to provide justice and stability in important regions where nearly forgotten conflicts rage on, even as the eyes of the world are willfully diverted.
Our responsibility is remain engaged, informed, and sensitized. Otherwise, we abdicate our right to be surprised when the conflicts show up on our doorstep.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Gannett)