In a modern world infused and driven by billions of images, few of them rise to the level of those iconic photographs portraying an individual death that goes on to define a generation. We all still have them buried in our minds – the man being shot in the head near the close of the Vietnam conflict, a child’s body washed up on a beach, or another child in Sudan, abandoned and with a vulture lurking nearby, or a man plunging head first from the World Trade Centre in a remarkably graceful and poignant moment.
These images define us – not just for our capacity to empathize but frequently in our failure to act in effective ways that could have changed many of these tragedies.
It takes a remarkably cruel heart to witness such things and not be moved. We recoil at the words attributed to Joseph Stalin, when he said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” Deplorable as it is, the observation is nevertheless true. From the mists of human carnage emerge those odd unforgettable images of one person facing their fate in the last breath of life. We will do what we can to assist the individual – start a hashtag, donate some money for the family, complain to our political representative, even start a petition. But we rarely display the dedication to enter into the larger contexts of such tragedies because, well, they’re too complex, to messy, and would take great swaths of our time and money to make a difference.
What is compelling today is just how many of these images there are and just how hopeless the circumstances that created them. One publication, back in 1916, made the poignant observation that, “There is double the pathos for us in the death of the one little New York waif from hunger than there is in a million deaths from famine in China.” If it was a reality for some back then, it has become the real world for all of us today. And what it is implying is that our capacity for noble compassion diminishes the more the number of victims climb. That bears repeating:
“Our capacity for noble compassion diminishes the more the number of victims climb.”
Though no photo was published of the brutal slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey earlier this month, the last photo of him seen entering the embassy causes a collective cringe since we know what is about to occur. Picturing his fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, waiting outside the gates of the consulate for him only makes it more tragic.
Nevertheless, that one murder has focused the world’s wrath on the country, especially its head Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The media has been fixated on the account since Khashoggi was one of their own – a journalist who lived in Virginia. And there is the fact that the freedom of reporters to do their job is a sacred value which we treasure in the west. Then there are just those troubled emotions we face as citizens the moment we picture what the last few moments of this man’s life must have been like.
But now comes the tough part. We’re angry and demand action from our government. This one man’s murder has come to define this generation’s sense of futility at the barbarism emerging from other parts of the world as well as in our own nation. The problem is that Saudi Arabia has all sorts of lucrative trade deals and oil contracts with the most powerful nations on the planet, including Canada. Ironically, they are also a strategic ally in the west’s war on terror. The jury is out on what will happen to oil prices if some kind of sanction is levied against Saudi Arabia. Will we be content if the Trudeau government cancels this country’s $15 billion-dollar contracts, as many are asking, when the results will be lost jobs in places like London, Ontario.
We are quickly up against the difficult choice between our values and our livelihood and it won’t be easy. Usually the economic priority prevails. In a trading world devolving into confusion over America’s emerging nationalism, losing jobs and cheaper oil will be the price we will likely have to endure if we want punishment for the manner of Khashoggi’s murder.
Most of the countries enjoying traditional trading deals with the Saudi regime can only prevaricate for so long. There is no easy solution. Should they refuse to stand up for human rights in this case, they will pay the price for their cowardice come election time. If by showing courage, however, and demanding justice results in a more expensive economy or hundreds of jobs lost, the political cost will be even more severe.
Governments are playing for time on this one, hoping that the anger over this one man’s life will dissipate enough that trading relations can continue. The more justice is delayed or denied, however, the more humanitarian apathy comes to define a generation far more effectively than one moving image producing sympathy.