People are dying, right now. Dying because where they live is terrible and because they want to find another life. They’re dying because they wanted to live some kind of life and were willing to risk everything – their lives and their children’s lives – to do it.
As a person who is like those people – we might have different coloured faces or different body shapes or different experiences of the world or religions, but we’re essentially the same – it takes a lot to kill off our first instinct, which is compassion.
So if you see someone else hurting or in pain, your first instinct is to help. Do something. Do what you can. That could be me, you think, so you would hope someone would help you, if it happened to you.
It’s just an accident of birth that made some of us live comfortable lives and gave others a situation so intolerable that they would risk anything to escape it. We can either pretend that we somehow deserve what we’ve got and they don’t, or recognise the enormous, overwhelming privileges we enjoy.
So it takes a lot to be able to see people dying to find a better life and think, no, leave them to die. It will only encourage the others. These men, women and children must die; it will stop a few others. We must not help them. We must let them suffer and die.
People. Human beings. People with lives, dreams and hopes. People with histories stretching back thousands of years, with families, and friends and everything that makes anyone alive – souls. Hundreds of souls cramped into filth to risk drowning. Half alive, risking death. And yet we would rather they died than help. What did it take to put us here?
It’s easy to blame one outlying squawk of badly written trolling in a national newspaper, and to imagine if we removed that person we would make everything okay. But it’s more than just one columnist, or four or five angry voices below the line in the comments box. This goes back to who we are, collectively.
We praise politicians who make “tough choices” and “difficult decisions”. We read long, elegant pieces about how wars and slaughter are sad but necessary, and how it’s the lily-livered anti-violence fools who are the real cause of trouble. We vote in men in suits who do more of the same. You’re not grown up if you believe bombing people is somehow erroneous or immoral; you’re shoeing a touching naivety if you believe that anything other than violence can solve anything. The whole culture is pointed in the same direction: it’s awful, but that’s war. Some people must die for the common good. No bloodied bodies in shards of rubble in our teatime news broadcasts; but bowed heads on remembrance day, and help the heroes. It’s terrible, but necessary.
That’s part of how we can numb ourselves. Some people are allowed to die. As long as it’s not us, it’s all right. We may feel a twinge of something in our guts when we read about other people’s deaths or hear about them on television, but these are a mass of other people; they aren’t us. We can detach ourselves sufficiently. We do not watch them drown or see their bloated corpses fished from the sea, days after, but even if we do, we can still fine enough of a disconnect to ensure we don’t worry about it too long, or even at all. We deride people like the nasty columnists but they’re just able to represent a more efficient version of ourselves; they’re just more practised at what we’re already training ourselves to do.
We are encouraged to look after “our” money and “our” wealth; we are told to value what we have, and to guard it jealously. We look outside our homes the same way we look over our borders. We’ve got enough, and we’re pulling up the drawbridge. It polls well. It’s what we want.
And so when a boat capsizes and families die in horror and pain, we can rationalise it carefully and calmly, using the sensible detached reasonable messages we get all the time. These people had to die. It might seem wrong but we mustn’t be squeamish. We deserve what we have and they don’t. Let them die. It’s hate turned into rational thought.
The only thing that can kill hate is compassion. And the more hate there is, the more compassion you need, in yourself, to fight those rational, reasonable, sensible voices telling you that regrettably some people have to die in agony so we can live in comfort. Compassion needs to grow. And it won’t work straight away. You need to keep fighting hate with compassion, and compassion, and compassion. And it still won’t win. It’ll never win entirely. And they will call you naive, and daft, and soft. But only compassion has a chance. Only compassion means anything.