Yemen has only really been in the American public conscience since December of 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to explode a bomb hidden in his underpants aboard a plane over Detroit. It didn’t go well, for him at least. But that was the first time the media en masse started to pay attention to Yemen. Before, if it was known at all, it was talked about vaguely, as a state where there were probably terrorists, but who really knew?
Well, after that, everyone knew. It wasn’t vague. For Americans, and much of the West, Yemen = terrorism. For me, as someone who spent a good decade of my life writing (or trying to write) professionally about Yemen, terrorism was always the hook. Most of us writing or talking about it tried to show the bigger picture, to paint Yemen as an actual country with real people and a history, but the story was almost always, ultimately, terrorism.
And that’s been a contributing to Yemen’s agony. I’m trying to remember the last (or first) time I’ve heard a US politician talk about Yemen in positive terms, other than paying tribute to former President Saleh for being an “ally” in the GWOT, but even that was entirely about terrorism. It is identified, if at all, with being one of those explosive places on the map, the kind of joint where nearly everyone wants to kill you. Yemen is met with a shrug, at the most positive.
That’s partly why, I think, the horrible reality of its present has failed to make even the slightest dent in the public mind. What is happening in Yemen is shocking and sick-making and morally revolting; the numbers are truly apocalyptic. 17 million people are facing famine this year. Social services are wiped out. Traditional safety nets have been destroyed by war. Distribution networks are non-existent. Every 10 minutes, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes. The mind reels at the brutality of life and cowers from the lengthening shadow of a death-hunted land.
These are the kinds of horrors that usually awaken the generous conscious of the American people, and I genuinely mean that. For all our public meanness, when the country is roused, its private citizens turn their good fortunes outward. But with Yemen, there is nothing.
I think that’s partly, of course, because we have our own problems here. A quick glance down this blog shows where my priorities are; I have less an excuse to ignore Yemen than literally almost anyone in the United States. Even Yemen posts have largely been US and Trump-centric. But a lot of it is because Yemen is easily brushed off as a country where there are no real people, just terrorists. And if not terrorists, certainly some other kind of bad dude.
That’s why the war crimes of our great ally Saudi Arabia have been ignored (by successive administrations, to be clear). It’s why we don’t at all blink an eye when Yemen is reduced to “areas of active hostilities“, an expansion of war. It’s why it isn’t a scandal when the incoming POTUS knows absolutely nothing about the region (though to be fair, he doesn’t know anything about anything). And it is why a strategy designed to provoke civilizational collapse is basically seen as aces all around, when it isn’t being actively ignored.
And that’s what this is: a civilization that is collapsing, pummeled from without and starving from within. It’s running out of water as well as food, a terrible harbinger for our collective climate-imperiled future. The lack of resources fuel more war; war increases the resource shortage. Millions will die in withering agony.
This could be the worst famine in modern times, surpassing even the miseries of Ethiopia, Somalia, Biafra, Ireland, approaching the terror famines of the Ukraine. And to be clear, this is little different than the last example (or any of these examples). You don’t have the towering figure of Stalin or Mengistu orchestrating the misery, but you have the shadow of indifference and even active complicity across the world.
The UN estimates it needs $2 billion dollars to fight the famine, and $1 billion has been pledged. That’s pledged, not collected, and it is still short. Meanwhile, we’re slashing foreign aid (the public meanness which stands contemptuous rebuke to the short bursts of private decency; no politician has ever won by promising to increase aid to foreigners). The US alone could easily make up the shortfall; Trump wanted a billion for a down payment on his idiot wall. But there was no way to turn cruelty into decency.
This isn’t about the next generation of terrorists, or the stretegic importance of turning enemies into allies. That is important, and it is blind and willful idiocy to let Yemen collapse. It isn’t even about how we are dealing with a terrible onrushing future in which this will happen more and more, as resources dwindle and water evaporates and conflict increases. That’s also important; this is just the beginning of the show.
But it is also simply mean and terrifying. These are real lives, which will be extinguished with a stomach’s empty and piteous howl. These are human beings, lives ripped apart by Yemen’s place in the world’s collective conscience, as a testing ground for ideas and ideologies. It’s another judgment on our species. It isn’t a good one.