As President Obama weighs a strike on Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in a battle between the Assad regime and armed rebels, many in the region are bracing for a conflagration that could spread well beyond the country's borders.
But another kind of spillover is worth considering: the effect of an overwhelming conflict on a region struggling to uphold human rights and the rule of law independent of nationality, religion, or political affiliation.
Amira Hass, who covers Palestinian affairs for the Israeli daily Haaretz, argued yesterday that ranking atrocities or injustices sometimes obscures individual rights and government responsibility.
"There are those who say [widow Nahil] Rajbi’s fear of being deported from her home in the Old City of Jerusalem is dwarfed by the suffering of the million Syrian children who have become refugees. Some would even go so far as to say that the history of Israeli domination over the Palestinians is dwarfed by the incomprehensible slaughter taking place in the region," she wrote. “According to that logic, men can tell the women in Israel and Italy not to complain about gender discrimination because their sisters in Africa still suffer the practice of female genital mutilation, while in India, the selective abortion of female fetuses is still widespread. Westernized Jews can tell Arab-Jews and Sephardi Jews that they should stop complaining because they’re doing far better than residents of favelas in Brazil.”
"Ranking injustices, atrocities and discrimination on a scale of horrors is just one more technique employed by those in power to retain their power, to justify their excessive privileges and to belittle any public or civil struggle for equality," she added.
Ms. Hass is known for her passionate defense of the Palestinian cause, which causes some to discount her journalism as advocacy. But she has raised an important question here that goes well beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Is justice a bell curve in which you get a passing grade as long as you’re doing better than the F students? Or does one atrocity – however great – excuse ignoring other injustices?
Take Egypt, where a potent mixture of anger, resentment, and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood has led some to cheer the Egyptian security forces’ killing of more than 600 people protesting the military’s deposing of President Mohamed Morsi last month.
Perhaps compared to Syria, the scale seems minor, but it is still worth considering what is driving both the killing and the public acceptance of such actions. One important factor is the almost mindless infatuation with Gen. Abdel-Fattah Sisi that has caused many people to disregard or even condone such actions against the Brotherhood, as we wrote about last month.
To be sure, it can be hard to see the humanity amid such turmoil. Sarah Birke recently wrote a poignant account for the New York Review of Books of how much Damascus has changed just in the past year, which is well worth reading.
But if Hass is right that the scales of justice weigh each individual equally and independently of all else, then there are many individuals in this troubled region that have recognized even small injustices and endeavored to tilt the scales toward the good – whether it is giving voice to a minority pianist in the contested city of Jerusalem, providing young Egyptians a more nuanced political view along with a paycheck, or building up civil society in a part of Yemen where guns, money, and pedigrees rather than ideas have traditionally held sway.
It would be unfortunate if Syria's tragedy was used to excuse injustice elsewhere in the region, as Hass seems to suggest – or, conversely, overshadow the progress of individuals or countries.