18/02/2015 8:34 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

In Wars, We Treat Heroes As Mascots And Suffering As Statistics

ABD DOUMANY via Getty Images
Syrian children react as they wait for treatment at a makeshift hospital in the rebel held area of Douma, north east of the capital Damascus, following reported air strikes by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on February 2, 2015. More than 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict started, and around half of the country's population has been displaced. AFP PHOTO / ABD DOUMANY (Photo credit should read ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images)

In wars the suffering of individuals is often forgotten. If not forgotten then it is subsumed into broader and more general narratives that use individuals merely as examples to illustrate particular points of view. For those of us who are fortunate to not live in or close to war zones, the atrocities, the grief, the destruction, the turmoil, the instability, the shock, the blood and the unpredictability all become distant statistics, comments in newspapers, parts of TV discussions or points in arguments to make a case against war or for that matter for war.

Amidst all the sanctimonious condemnations of terror and patronising political platitudes about morality, there are not many people who actually translate all this talk of principles into action. Ironically, the few who do go out in order to try and alleviate the pain and suffering of their fellow human beings often become the most prominent victims of violent retribution.

Sadly, after their deaths, they are co-opted by groups with vested interests as mascots of a kind. Not much is known about or written about all the aid workers and journalists from across the world who put their lives at risk when they enter war zones. However, when they are killed they are claimed as examples of the very ideals that their self-professed spokespersons represent. Talking about the recent tragic death of Kayla Mueller, an aid worker in Syria, President Obama said that "she represents what is best about America."

However, reducing Kayla to the status of an American hero is an injustice to her memory. She was much more than that. Kayla Mueller represented the finest aspects of humanity. She was from among a handful of people who accepted great personal risk in order to try and help fellow human beings. In labelling her and hyphenating her identity we imply that certain qualities and characteristics are the preserve of some communities and not of others.

Today virtually every newspaper article about Kayla highlights the way in which ISIS is trying to blame a Jordanian air strike for her death while the Americans and Jordanians are emphatic that ISIS is responsible for her death. The sad truth is that we are all responsible to some degree. The refugees that Kayla went to serve in Aleppo were created in the first place as a result of a context in which we are all complicit.

We perpetuate an economic system that is sustained by conflict, we vote for governments that invest more in defense than education and then we support their selfish and selective foreign policies in the name of abstract and vague principles that actually mask insatiable greed. We then make films like American Sniper about this misdirected foreign policy and create a culture where violence is the norm and peace is what naive people believe in while in college, before 'aspirations' and concerns of realpolitik kick in. As it happens Kayla was killed in Syria, though before this she risked her life in Israel working with the International Solidarity Movement, the same group that aid worker Rachel Corrie worked for before being run over and killed by an Israeli army bulldozer. Indeed it seems incredible that there are those today in Israel who try to imply that her work almost made Mueller a terrorist.

The sad truth is that we are all selective in our empathy. Millions will pour into the streets when 12 Frenchmen are killed in Paris while there are only a few rumblings about three young Muslims who were executed just recently in North Carolina. Everyone condemns the brutal burning of the Jordanian pilot, but who now remembers the teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir who was burnt alive last year in retribution for the mindless kidnapping and murder of three young Israelis, Naftali, Gilad and Eyal.

Those who marched because Michael Brown and Eric Garner were victims of police brutality in America have remained silent when an Indian man, Sureshbhai Patel, was paralysed because of his treatment at the hands of local law enforcement in the US. If ISIS uses sexual violence to humiliate prisoners then the pictures leaked from Abu Ghraib prison of American soldiers also testify to the fact that barbarity, brutality and cruelty are not the preserve of any one national, religious, ethnic or racial group.

Fortunately, kindness, empathy, sensitivity to the suffering of others and compassion are also universal attributes and are not just found in certain countries or within certain communities. Kayla Mueller was living proof of the fact that there are individuals in the world who are able to see beyond the cynical manipulations of politics and so put their own lives at risk in order to give hope to fellow human beings.

On her blog aptly named 'Imbued with hope,' Kayla wrote that for as long as she lived she would not let "suffering be normal." Then writing from prison, she said, "I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it." It is hard to see any good resulting from the senseless death of someone who was selfless and moved by the pain of others. Maybe Kayla would disagree and argue that people might be shaken out of their stupor and wake up to the trauma all around them when they hear her story. It is our responsibility therefore, to echo her last words, rise with her spirit and proclaim that we too shall not remain quiet while people silently suffer.

More On This Topic