For whom our values toll
Listen to your heart when troubling TV images of world crises fade
GENEVA — Some places seem to just drop off the map. The phenomenon is not so hard to spot. One day such and such a country is all the rage. The TV crews are there. The think tanks are whirring away. Politicians assure their constituencies that "something is being done." Maybe even a policy is tweaked here or there. And slowly at first and then suddenly like the equatorial sun going down in Africa, the lights are taken down, the show is over, and the circus moves out of town.
And what's left? The politicians move on to the next crisis, hoping that next time the foreign names are a little easier to pronounce and wishing that those charity groups would stop being so troublesome and just get the food, or whatever, there a bit quicker next time.
For the audiences at home, there is a sense of uncomprehended tragedy that leaves them feeling empty and helpless just like the last time - and the time before that - as disquieting images from far-off lands blur slowly into each other.
It is surely one of the ironies of this new "global village" in which we now live. The richness, diversity, and speed of images that can be relayed instantaneously from around the world seem to be in marked contrast to the poverty of our desire to look and relate to what we see.
And for the filmed, the talked-about, the written-about people - for those victims of conflict whose personal and private agony has been laid bare and then forgotten? The day after the circus moves out is just another day like the day before. Another day to survive.
Pity more, though, the abandoned, forgotten conflicts, those that either never make it to the screen or that do so even more rarely than others or in a way that leaves the viewers more baffled than before.
These are places where people die prosaic deaths, uncounted and unrecorded, far from the world's attention. And not just from bullets or shells, but from land mines, from unchecked disease, and from the cumulative effects of lack of education and endemic poverty.
Most conflicts in the developing world need international attention and serious engagement from outside players.
That's not to say outsiders can always stop a conflict or bring it to a resolution. Sometimes they can't. Sometimes the ability of foreigners to mitigate a war is greater - sometimes lesser. It's vital that we outsiders know what's going on, are engaged, and ready to do something about it.
But, all too often political attention is as fickle as the wind. And humanitarian agencies - which feel obliged to be present - work as best they can in the vacuum left unfilled by the politicians. Humanitarians can never turn their hand to politics, and yet most humanitarian crises demand political solutions. That is, where humanitarian agencies can get access. In more and more conflicts, the combatants deliberately keep Western and international eyes out of the way.
Why should there be this political lack of interest in images and developments from far-off lands, from places with no names? Why are some conflicts forgotten?
The usual explanation is that there is no economic interest at stake, or there is no national interest. And, yes, it is difficult to argue in hard figures that people in Europe or the US would be financially better off if the conflicts in Afghanistan, Sudan, or Sierra Leone came to an end.
But does not our humanity cry out that we should at least try?
At least part of the national interest should be the humanitarian interest. If we neglect our sense of compassion, humanity, universality - values that are shared the world over and through history - then it is we who are the poorer.
Our values are part of who we are - and they have less worth if not applied universally. We come to the help of others because of who we are as much as who the victims are.
As the 17th-century English poet John Donne wrote, reflecting on the sound of a distant funeral bell:
"No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; ... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
That is as true in our digital, globalized world as it was in 17th-century rural England.
*Chris Bowers is the senior editor at the Geneva headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society