Lifeboat ethics all over again

lifeboat ethics

I was among those who were shocked, not to say disgusted, when biologist Garret Hardin argued, in 1974, that the relatively well-off nations were like passengers in a lifeboat surrounded by more stranded people than they could take on board. So, his logic ran, we needed to triage the world and write off some people and lands as too far gone to rescue from immanent starvation. I went on record, along with others, saying that we wanted to be included in that abandoned third; we did not wish to live in a world that turned its back on fellow human beings with such callous disregard.

Words are cheap, perhaps, but our revulsion at “lifeboat ethics” was real. And it’s back. A provocative essay by Bronwyn Bruton, a democracy and governance expert writing for the Council on Foreign Relations has urged the West to withdraw from Somalia [see Ms. Bruton’s response to this], and her scheme (which she calls “constructive disengagement”) is finding a resonance with policy elites around the world who now seem poised to wash their hands of Somalia and watch three quarters of a million people starve.

Call it the “Somalia syndrome.” In the 1990s, as a recent New York Times editorial states, “the United Nations urged American forces to disarm the warlords ravaging the nation of nine million, but the Pentagon … did not want to risk more American lives after 18 servicemen were killed in an epic street battle immortalized in the Black Hawk Down book and movie (and video game).” This “epic” battle has been blown up into a specter of media-hyped proportions, leading to the unfortunate image of Somalia as a kind of chaotic black hole in which those who intervene disappear.

According to leaked reports, the reason President Clinton did not intervene even to jam the radio broadcasts that were instigating the appalling slaughter in Rwanda in 1994 was because of the shadow of the Blackhawk. But as far as it goes, Bruton’s sober assessment concludes realistically that, “I don’t think that there’s a case to be made that the famine can be mitigated through military intervention.”

This rings true, or it should, not just because Somalia is in the grip of wanton militias (the Shabab), but because military intervention is designed to kill, not to save life. We are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan the futility of training, arming, and ordering men and women to kill and expecting them to stay within agreed upon rules—not to mention go on to build stable regimes. At some point we need to recognize that there is a terrible simplicity about life: destructive energy is destructive, positive energy is positive.

What does this mean right now, for Somalia? Policymakers, having recognized that military intervention will not work (one wishes they would recognize this when it comes to war, not just when it comes to humanitarian rescue missions), throw up their hands and say there is nothing we can do.

I say they are wrong. First and foremost, we can not, as they seem to be suggesting, harden our hearts against the suffering of the Somalis: for us, apathy is not an option. Remember the words of Martin Luther King: “I will not let anyone bring me so low as to make me hate him.” Or forget him. In other words, what happens in our own minds and hearts matters; it is the first line of defense or cure for any situation.

Second, if you believe in nonviolence—which implies a belief in the resilience of humanity and the meaningful order of the world—you cannot, any more than I can, accept that if violence doesn’t work (which it does not), there is no alternative.

Of course, we do not have cargo planes and troops of volunteers at our disposal. As a military official said to me at a meeting of the U.S. Institute of Peace when I complained, in the early 90’s, that we had chosen the Marines to deliver food to Somalia, “What other organization can put 30,000 men on the ground in one week?” Certainly not the peace movement. But remember, this has happened before and it will happen again.

When the tsunami struck South East Asia, the U.S. and other states hastened to improve the global tsunami warning system. This did not address the underlying problem—climate disruption due to runaway industrialism—but at least it put in place a system to mitigate the damage of the next event of its kind. But when it comes to famine we seem to learn nothing.

What if every one of us would sign a pledge that we will not turn our eyes away from the Somalis in their suffering, but do everything we can think of to help them?

What if we pledge that from now on we will make every effort to understand what causes not only this famine, not only famine in general, but the culture of cruelty and disregard that makes such disasters possible?

What if we raise funds, call on a group like the Nonviolent Peaceforce to offer an entirely different kind of protection, and pick one area of Somalia where we can arrive, get into contact with the local militia, and at least save one group in such a way that we show the world that care is not dead, that what affects one affects all, and what we have done here could be done on a larger scale?

Even if it is too late to save the 750,000, it is not too late to save the human image.

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