Through vain self-absorption and greed men “lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each of them and the prosperity of all.”–De Tocqueville
What happens when, in the name of democracy, a country makes a series of decisions that lead to 225,000 deaths, of which 137,000 are civilians, and 7.8 million refugees, over 10 years? Those numbers are as shocking as they shockingly ignored, for the average American is either blithely unaware of the true cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in human terms, or slightly if unconcernedly aware of their 3 to 4 trillion dollar cost in economic terms. This is dangerous territory. Who is ready to argue that so much death, suffering and extraordinary expenditure of money we don’t have, is a just and judicious response to the death of roughly 3,000 individuals on September 11, 2001? For, consciously or not, as a country we have decided that an American life–even though not every casualty on 9/11 was American–is worth the lives of 45 foreigners. What’s more, we have decided that for every American life, we are justified in actions that lead to 2,600 refugees.
Of course, one of the most common objections to this line of thinking–aside from “many of these deaths are from internal strife, not at the hands of Americans,” to which I will turn later–is that the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq were living under despotic regimes to begin with. Yes, the logic goes, the wars have been bloody and caused immense suffering, but we have given the people a chance at freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, the rebuttal is depressingly simple. If we truly cared about the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and if we were truly concerned about the despotic regimes under which they languished and died for decades, why would we have lent support to Saddam Hussein when he was fighting Iran, or to the freedom fighters, now known as the Taliban, when they were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan? Why did we not intervene earlier? Why did we support the regime of Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddhafi in Libya? Why do we continue to support Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and so on? No, much as we did not care much for what was transpiring in Europe until the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor, so too have we turned a blind eye to the sufferings of those we now claim to be seeking to protect only after the war came to our soil. The hypocrisy is blatant and frightening. For if we are to use the shield of morality to cover for any war we wish to undertake, then there are plenty of opportunities to do so–Sudan, North Korea, Myanmar, Bahrain, and so on–but how long until this farce falls apart? How long until we realize that we do no favors to the world when our sole motive is self-interest, and our primary tool for expressing that self-interest is poorly planned war? What’s worse, we do no favors to ourselves, beyond unleashing strife abroad and spending money on war that could be used for education, health care, infrastructure and energy infrastructure and research.
To the argument that the vast majority of deaths have been at the hands of terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, as opposed to American soldiers or contractors, the response is equally simple: what right did we have to topple a regime that we supported, only to then execute a poorly planned and underfunded strategy that opened the door for internal strife? Anyone with any understanding of the regions in question could have predicted what transpired. Thus we are as responsible for these deaths as if we had pulled the trigger ourselves: the only difference is a legal one, for in war we can justify what in peace we would punish with death. Indifference and blindly following orders have killed far more humans than evil (remember that for all their megalomania and brutality, neither Stalin nor Hitler nor Pol Pot killed anyone directly; rather, they relied on the complicity of thousands of their henchman–and the silence of millions of citizens– to carry out their reins of terror). Put another way, the road to hell is paved, not with good intentions, but with rationalization and apathy. Few are those that pull a trigger or enact a policy that allows for that trigger to be pulled, but there is no shortage of people that fail to prevent the policy and deny the pistol a chance to realize its terrible potential.
What we are left with, then, is the tremendous weight of individual responsibility. It is a weight of awareness, of action, of struggle and identification with the plight of those unseen and often unheard. The lure of blissful ignorance, tantamount to tacit compliance, is so strong, however, that only the great religions and philosophies contain lessons that are up to the challenge. Indeed, I think that a sober analysis of all great systems of thought leads to the realization that they exist, in part, to demonstrate that self-interest, which comes all too naturally, is inextricably linked to ‘other-interest’. This holds more true over the long-term–think American foreign policy designed to protect America that comes back to bite us two decades later, such as with our aforementioned support of Osama Bin Laden in the 80s–than it does in the short-term. The challenge is to overcome the allure of arguments tailored to the present: “we are in danger and we must protect ourselves;” “if we do not act we will be bombed,” etc. What’s more, the challenge is to negate the most pernicious of beliefs of all: that there is nothing the individual can do, that the problem is too deeply rooted to be moved by the actions of an individual. The problem, of course, is that if no one acts, this becomes inevitably true: the philosophy of cynicism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, not even the actions of a small group of people are enough. As history has shown, be it in India, in the American South, or with migrant farm workers, mass movements succeed when inspired and incorruptible leadership strikes a chord within the hearts of thousands, all of whom recognize the true path to a better world–not violence, not self-defense, but mindfulness combined with sagacious, non-military action.
Lastly, it is worth noting that this weight of individual responsibility, as I have called it, must not be confused with cynicism or despair. Only an attitude of love and joy for the world the seeker seeks to better can lead to a better world; after all, if the heart is filled with anger at others and the world at large, it is hard not to see a contradiction in wanting to help others! In fact, instead of the mental, spiritual and physical torpor associated with apathy, individual responsibility offers a different path, one filled with nature, friendship, love, spirituality and connection to and support for those that suffer. Individual responsibility is a way of life; it is, I might, in bolder moments argue, the only true religion–the philosophy that binds us together, opens our eyes to both the beauty and the ugliness of the world, and allows us to shape our surroundings in a way that promote opportunity, liberty and hope.