Wednesday, 14 September 2011

9/11: The Scale of Tragedy

The ten year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th have just passed, marked by the many services honouring the near 3,000 dead - including the memorial at Ground Zero where each of the victims names were read out and then followed by the ringing of a bell for every one of the fallen. The sombre reflections this macabre anniversary invoked were moving, humanising and emotive, with one commenter on BBC News described the attacks as an example showcasing both the best - in the heroism of those who risked their lives to save others, and the global outpouring of sympathy afterwards - and the worst of humanity.  The terrorist attacks of 9/11 against civilian targets (and the Pentagon) were a tragedy, no doubt about it.

But the greater tragedy of 9/11 is that it is a lesson in perspective. Distorted perspective, that is. When disasters - man-made or otherwise - occur there is a global outpouring of sympathy, of concern, of help. When an event happens that gets the cameras rolling, that the media can ascribe simple motivations for, and where victims can be clearly identified, people come together to offer support. Such was with 9/11, the tsunami, the recent earthquake in Japan. At a very basic level, humans care about the lives and deaths of people they don't know.

This distortion in perspective comes from the failure of the world to notice the quiet, on-going and complex problems that are responsible for far greater numbers of deaths. UNICEF estimates that 9.7 million children under 5 die every year from preventable causes. For these deaths there can be no excuse that blames the individual; these are children and not accountable for their well-being. Where are the names intoned and bells rung for those who die in such circumstances? Instead of their names being honoured, these victims repeatedly die unknown - unemoted about and not humanised - to the world at large and, consequently, no lessons are learnt from their deaths; nothing is ever done because of their expiry.

The failure to utilise the good will of humanity to stop a scale of infant death in proportion to 9/11 every three hours is a failure of global political elites, particularly those in the media, to draw attention to issues of concern to the whole of humanity. Instead, the media prefer the spectacular to the important, the trivial to the serious, and the simply-explained to the complex. As long as such an editorial line is the norm by the majority of the media, political debate will continue to be about petty distractions instead of issues of real import.

As I said above, 9/11 was a tragedy. However, it is a tragedy that has highlighted both the capacity of humans to care about others, and the fact that, in ordinary times, people are not cared for, or about. Since, in spite of the protestations of the most cynical of people (politicians, economists, neoliberals), humans are capable of caring for people other than themselves, it is about time that this capacity of humanity is put to work for the good of humanity, instead of accepting the trivial distractions that entertain and divide us at present.

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