Paul Thomas

It takes a hardish heart to live in a lucky country

Sep 11, 2015 | The Age of Terror

Burning Monk Syndrome (BMS) has always been with us but is becoming more prevalent due to advances in communications technology.

The condition takes its name from the periodic spectacle of monks setting themselves on fire to draw the world’s attention to the suffering being inflicted on their country, often but not always Myanmar.

Providing the monk remembered to ensure his self-immolation was captured on film, footage or photos are transmitted around the world prompting outrage and causing the media – and perhaps the public – to focus attention on the target of his self-sacrificial protest.

Editorialists, pundits, activists and those on the lookout for a worthy cause join voices to insist SOMETHING MUST BE DONE. Cue statements in parliament deploring the oppressive regime, perhaps a UN resolution, maybe even a sanction or two.

Then as the image of the burning monk fades from the collective consciousness, so outrage recedes to vague concern until eventually we cease to care. Not because we have hearts of stone but because, well, we’re suffering from compassion fatigue and need to build up our reserves for the next tragedy.

Meanwhile, back in Myanmar or wherever, the dictator and his cronies are breaking out the Johnnie Walker Blue Label. They knew all along it was just a matter of waiting for the storm of outrage to blow itself out; now that it has, they can get back to ethnic cleansing secure in the knowledge that it will be a few years before the world is once again capable of being shocked by the sight of a burning monk.

The photo of the drowned three year old Syrian refugee on a Turkish beach has caused a BMS pandemic and spurred the international community into a race to the moral high ground. The prevailing sentiment was captured by this message posted in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Rest in peace Aylan Kurdi. May God forgive us for failing you.”

Count me out, if you don’t mind. Given that God in His various manifestations bears a heavy responsibility for the Middle East’s chronic dysfunction, of which the refugee crisis is just another catastrophic consequence, begging for His forgiveness seems a little abject.

How did we fail Aylan? By not invading Syria after first bombing the crap out of it, deposing Bashar al-Assad, imposing a puppet regime and combating the inevitable insurgency? If events in Iraq and Libya are any guide, that wouldn’t have turned out any better for Aylan.

And why is this little boy’s death of such a different order of tragedy than the deaths of all the other children who’ve disappeared into the abyss of civil war, sectarian strife and barbarity? If there’s a special pathos attached to death by drowning when in sight of a safe haven, what about the boatloads of Libyan refugees who didn’t make it across the Mediterranean?

While we’re far enough away to afford the luxury of altruism, spare a thought for those upon whose doorstep this acute moral dilemma is unfolding.

The nation state is a political, ethnic and geographic entity. The overarching strategy behind the European project was that, if the political dimension was out-sourced to a supranational body, ethnicity and geography would in time become largely irrelevant.

That was the theory. In fact, despite what their political elites keep urging them to do, the Europeans refuse to give up the trappings of their nation states. Now faced with demands to absorb refugees, countries that haven’t experienced significant immigration or embraced multi-culturalism are casting a wary eye on those that have and digging their heels in.

As Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban put it, “We think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.”

Callous perhaps, but I suspect he speaks for the majority of Hungarians who no doubt took note of the fact that even as Britain was agreeing to take 20,000 Syrian refugees, British drones were killing British citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria.

So we make our gesture, striving to strike a balance between moral obligation and realism because, at the end of the day, there’s only so much we can do. After all, charity begins at home although judging by our growing inequality there are limits to that as well.

And perhaps we need to remind ourselves that being lucky people in a lucky country in a cruel world requires a Nelsonian blind eye, a short memory and a hardish heart.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.