The Yemeni Nursing Home Massacre and the “Globalization of Indifference”

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Yemen is a country being pulled apart and battered by several different conflicts, internal and external, some a product of its history and some the imposition of global trends. It’s a proxy war for some nations and a Petrie dish for others.  It’s a country where modern violence has become, to the outside world, quotidian and expected, and where it takes a particularly horrific, or at least focused, attack to garner headlines.

Such an attack happened last Friday, in the Southern port town of Aden- once the capital of the secular and socialist south, later the hotbed for a new democratic Yemen, and now the bloody plaything for competing millenarians and indifferent governments. On Friday, at a nursing home, 16 nuns, volunteers from around the globe, were bound and executed with shots to the head.

(This was extreme enough to warrant an immediate disavowal and denunciation by Ansar al-Sharia, who said it wasn’t the way they fight. And it is true- since reforming in the last decade as AQAP, they have avoided the kind of blood-thirsty acts that alienate a local population.)

The global reaction to such a shocking crime was at once justified, but also indicative of how societies come apart at the edge of attention, until all it happens all at once.

One of the reactions came from Pope Francis, good man that he is, who said:

“These are the martyrs of today,” Francis said Sunday in St. Peter’s Square, calling the nuns not just victims of the attackers but also of “indifference, of this globalization of indifference, that does not care.”

Now, it is clear why the Pope would speak on this- nuns are, after all, essentially his employees. And he made it clear that this was part of a trend. Pope Francis is a man who historically speaks out for all victims.

But it was his “globalization of indifference” that really jumped out to me. In a way, he is overstating the case. After all, at probably no other time in human history are people more attuned to violence and suffering around the globe. And while politicians in many countries are rising to power by indifference or cruelty to victims of this violence, whether in Syria or Central America, there are also millions who care, and who agitate for better policies.

He did really strike something, though, and that’s more the specification of indifference. After all, 168 civilians were killed in Yemen in February. There have been thousands killed in these mutating conflicts. Countless have been killed in US drone strikes or Saudi bombings or suicide attacks or open conflict. But Yemen has still mostly percolated on the sidelines of US interest, and our primary image has been that of a drone blowing up weddings.

When something like this happens, we pay attention, since violence toward nuns has a way of grabbing our imagination. It’s an outrageously cruel attack, which is exactly the point. It’s meant to be divisive, to inflame Western outrage and to provoke more conflict. ISIS and affiliate groups know we won’t do much when they are setting off bombs in Muslim districts, so this is a way of upping the ante. I think the world is too distracted to really notice or do anything, but that won’t stop further attacks.

In a way, this ties into what Pope Francis was saying, at least incidentally. Because I do think “globalization” has a lot to do with this, even if it is a term so big it is essentially meaningless. It’s a stateless idea, and that’s what global terrorism and Yemen and Syria have in common. It’s also the only bulwark against the difficulties.

This kind of globalization is a rejection of the state system that grew post-Westphalia, and was transplanted on “colonies” after WWI and WWII. In Syria, the internal contradictions finally grew too heavy, exacerbated as they were by many causes, including the US invasion of Iraq and massive droughts in the country.

In Yemen, this process happened much quicker. Yemen was not a nation-state in any modern sense until the late 1960s, though this doesn’t mean it wasn’t a real place or country. It was two countries until 1990 when global forces created the need for unification, and plunged into a civil war just four years later. The north won, and was basically an occupying power for the next twenty years, imposing a strict and essentially alien religion on the area. They were “one country”, but it was tenuous and not concordant with history.

The implosion of this idea was one that the West didn’t really notice. While we were getting used to the idea of stateless, transnational actors, we didn’t realize that one of the primary causes of their appeal was that the state system wasn’t working. The increase in global empathy, mostly through enhanced communications (modernity’s greatest gift) wasn’t matched by an increase in political imagination. Militants were able to gain such a foothold in Yemen partly because there was the idea that a central government had to be in charge, even though it was entirely unwilling and incapable of doing so. That combination of authority, cruelty, incompatibility with history, and incompetence created the conditions for massive and mutating war, stateless actors, and general collapse.

None of this is to say “Yemen can’t handle democracy” or some other absurdity. Nor is it to imply that they aren’t “modern”.  The “modern” idea, that of a collection of nation-states, is what is outdated. It is both a-and-anti-historical. It perverts history, and helps give rise to history’s discontents.

So no- there isn’t a globalization of indifference. But we are in a state where violence and extremism understand the modern world far better than those who try to preserve an impossible idea. If we can’t catch up, all the empathy in the world won’t matter.

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