Wednesday 23 July 2014

Oh, the humanity!

The tragedy of flight MH17 seems to have done wonders in bringing Newcastle and Sunderland fans together, but precious little to knock any sense into the warring parties in Ukraine.

One might have thought that having nearly 300 entirely innocent passers-by rain down on your heads would be a light bulb moment, calculated to make any sane person pause and reflect on exactly what they were hoping to achieve.

Instead it seems to be the occasion for obfuscation, procrastination, prevarication and downright lies about who did what when.

Compared to another recent air disaster, the one initial comfort to relatives of the victims seemed to be that at least they knew what had become of their loved ones, and would get their bodies back reasonably quickly.

So much for positive thinking.

Similarly in Gaza, attempts to arrange temporary ceasefires, let alone a permanent peace, founder on deeply rooted communal hatred.

Technology moves on relentlessly, giving half-trained muppets the capacity to blast airliners out of the sky. Yet human nature seems to be stuck forever in the Stone Age.

Only the other week we learned of new airport security restrictions inspired by intelligence reports of the development of ever more fiendish explosive devices, designed to evade existing surveillance equipment.

Such 21st century inventiveness seems wholly at odds with the mediaeval practices that the jihadists want to impose on their own communities and the rest of us, from stonings and amputations to the repudiation of sexual equality.

My mother was wont to shake her head as she watched the news on her tiny black and white TV, asking why people couldn’t just get on together?

It remains the single most important question facing us today.

Though it seems only fair to add that my parents, like most of their generation, were also the repository of a huge range of racial, national, religious, political and class prejudices, most of which they duly succeeded in passing on to me.

Some I rebelled against, as children should, and decades of political correctness have deterred me from expressing the remainder in public. But I fear the germs still lurk, like those dormant seeds that can set a desert ablaze with colour if it ever receives a drop of rain.

Traditionally religion was the best tool for smoothing off our rough edges and helping us to rub along together. But today religion asserts itself in perverted forms that glorify violence and death, even for what most of us regard as co-religionists.

For the proverbial man from Mars, the conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite in the Middle East must surely be as utterly incomprehensible as that between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

My wife, whose ancestry is Persian, has grown tired of rolling her eyes every time the TV report of some atrocity or other leads me to refer to “your lot” causing mayhem again.

She counters, entirely correctly, that nearly every active trouble spot on the planet, from Palestine to Kashmir by way of Iraq, is the creation of British imperial policy, either trying to do the right thing and please everyone (always a difficult trick to pull off) or pursuing the traditional path of divide and rule.

In Ukraine, at least, neither Britain nor Islam bears any obvious blame.

Like many I have been reading daily snippets of 100 year old news as today’s papers commemorate the countdown to the outbreak of World War I. It is impossible not to be struck by the normality of life in July 1914, in a world about to be blown to pieces. How did civilised and sophisticated countries with closely related ruling families come to this?

The same way that children looking forward to their holidays end up as battered corpses scattered across the cornfields of Ukraine: through the fatal loss of any sense of proportion.

The Hindenburg airship catastrophe of 1937 was distinguished by being captured on film and the subject of a radio commentary. No one who has watched it will ever forget the commentator’s plaintive cry of “Oh, the humanity!”

If the same thought has not occurred to those in Ukraine surveying their handiwork, the outlook for 2114 looks bleak indeed.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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