Do we ever really learn though? We’re now fifteen years into the twenty-first century. The twentieth, that bloodiest, most cruel of them all in terms of the sheer industrial scale of the killing, is fifteen years in the past. And this year, 2015, seventy years on, we in now-peaceful Europe and the rest of the developed world have remembered the ending of the Second World War, have nostalgically harked back (those of us still living who are old enough to recall) the blessed relief that victory against tyranny was won; that it was all over.
Never again, was the determined resolution back then. Never again will we settle differences from the trigger end of a gun. We’ve learned our lesson. We want something better for our children and all those coming after.
Never again. Let kindness and tolerance be the watchwords from now on. No more unreasonable hatred.
And by and large, peace has held in Europe, if you don’t count the horrors of the Balkan war in the 1990s. As it has in North America and (tidy catch-all phrase again) the developed world too, in spite of coming terrifyingly close to nuclear Armageddon in the 1960s. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said of Africa and the Middle East, then or now. But, we Europeans complacently tell ourselves, in the case of Africa it was – in places still is – down to primitive tribalism; fear and hatred of the Other. And for the Middle East, tribalism too, additionally overlaid with religion. Sunni Muslim pitted against Shia; Arab implacably opposing Jew.
But no, no; we Europeans are above all that now. I don’t think we should be too self-congratulatory though. Yes, we are perhaps quite enlightened at times; quite good at responding with financial aid when people in other parts of our shared planet suffer natural disasters. That’s straightforward; we can write a cheque or click PayPal in response to the latest depressingly frequent international appeal and feel good about ourselves. There’s no conflict. It’s un-contentious human kindness.
On the other hand, some of us are happy to see the West intervening (well, let’s be honest, invading or bombing) when troublesome Arabs or Afghanis are deemed to be threatening our national security, whatever the cost in life or limb to their general populations. Others of us aren’t. We can argue the merits of issues like that amongst ourselves until the cows come home and never agree.
It’s undisputable though that there are two threats nowadays, one alarmingly real enough and the other perceptual: firstly terrorism and secondly inundation as some would see it (although the numbers seen as a proportion of the indigenous populations of host countries are tiny) by ‘hordes’ of migrants. Possibly a small percentage of the people entering Europe are simply coming in search of a better life (as Europeans go to live in other countries for the same reason), but one can’t really blame them if they feel the European grass is greener. As far as economic migration goes, it’s a two-way street.
But it seems pretty clear that the majority of people, those risking death in overloaded boats on the Mediterranean or fleeing Syria and the very real danger of a cruel civil war with equally brutal combatants (the BBC reported yesterday that both sides were using chemical weapons, as if ‘ordinary’ warfare weren’t bad enough), or the hopelessness and squalor of refugee camps, are not simply ‘migrants’. Let’s use the proper word; these people are refugees.
As I say: it’s a matter of perception; how we as individuals instinctively view them. Some will automatically feel empathy and sympathy. Others will say: no, they can’t possibly be refugees. They don’t look like refugees. Look at them! They look well fed, not emaciated like concentration camp Jews. They’re not in rags. They’ve got mobile phones (like the vast majority of people in the world)! They smoke, so they can find the money for that. They’re just taking the Mickey.
That’s nonsense. Simply judging by appearances. All the reports coming out of Syria by journalists actually on the ground, seeing for themselves and hearing the testimony of the suffering people, are far better placed to give an objective and informed account than the usually ill-informed, opinionated bloke down the pub or those mouthing off vitriolically on social media. Really, it’s simply prejudice; believing what you want to believe, judging an entire people on the basis of automatic dislike; not evaluating as individuals. Feeling threatened by the (physically slightly different) Other, unlike once cruelly used Jews who look indistinguishable from ourselves and therefore are much more deserving of our sympathy.
There’s been an alarming rise in xenophobia and extreme right-wingism in Europe in recent years; a disturbing echo of Jew-hating in the 1930s, and look where that led: the horrific, appalling conclusion of the Final Solution in Nazi Germany. Whereas present–day, compassionate Germany is welcoming refugees and putting many other European countries, including Britain (whose government wants to keep them firmly at arm’s length) to shame.
In the last century the other reviled and oppressed group was of course black people. There may be slightly less of prejudice about as far as that goes these days, apart from some pockets in America, but the new Other to be feared, because they have a different culture and a very tiny minority of them want to kill us, are Muslims. Fair enough, Europe cannot absorb people of the order of millions. At some point there would have to be a limit, a line drawn. But we mustn’t repeat the mistakes and horrors of the 1930s; fall for easy populist xenophobia, and set in train unstoppable forces of evil again.
We really must learn from history.
That’s my view, anyway. But I’d rather be naively empathetic than cynically indifferent. This brings me in a roundabout way to mentioning my novel Convergence, which explores themes of racism and bigotry, although in an unusual, inverted sort of way. Unusual too in that it tells the story of two elderly people, one black and the other white who fall in love. You can learn more about it by clicking the cover image at the foot of the page (not the one above).
It’s free to download on Amazon this coming weekend, September 12 and 13.