Over the weekend, a Yemeni family in a remote governate northwest of Sana got together to celebrate a wedding. Had you, for some reason, heard about the wedding in advance, you may have smiled. You may have been happy at the thought that, throughout the senseless horror and disease and starvation scything their ways through this shattered land, that people were still ready to start a life. That they still could have a night of dancing, of celebration, and of joining.
But then, you might have heard about what actually happened.
At least 20 people have been killed in two Saudi-led coalition air attacks in northwestern Yemen, according to residents and medical personnel.
Most of the dead were women and children who were gathering in a tent set up for a wedding party in Hajjah’s Bani Qays district on Sunday, a medical official told Al Jazeera.
At least 46 people, including 30 children, were wounded in the attack, the official added.
Chances are, though, that a lot of people didn’t hear about the strike. I had sort of a busy weekend, and didn’t really glom onto it, and it wasn’t until Tuesday that the enormity sunk into my sheltered life. Really, the odds that any westerner heard about the strike are only slightly better than the odds that you heard of an obscure wedding between strangers in a strange land in the first place.
Or, rather, I’m guessing a lot of you did hear about it; this is a find damn readership. And I know you were upset and sickened, and almost certainly as outraged as you were when you heard about Syrian kids being gassed. But you certainly noticed that the reaction was a little different. You noticed that some people are considered human, and some are essentially not.
It certainly isn’t that the strike got no coverage. It’s just that it is quickly buried, something bad happening in a bad land. It’s that we expect it in Yemen, and due to our country’s complicity in the slaughter, there is never a reaction.
The UK, which supports Saudi Arabia with the same conviction, if not the same publicity, as the US, at least pays tribute to virtue with hypocrisy.
The UK government has said that its heart “goes out” to relatives of people killed when a Saudi-led air strike bombed a wedding, but that it still refuses to halt arms sales to the country.
Foreign minister Harriet Baldwin said Britain had been told by Saudi Arabia that an investigation would be launched into the incident in the Yemeni civil war, which left 20 people at the wedding party dead including the bride.
I have no doubt her heart goes out! Any human would be sickened. And I have no doubt that Saudi Arabia solemnly pledged to investigate. But I have as little faith in the sincerity of their investigation as I do in the idea that Trump will huddle with Merkel and Macron to do something for the beautiful children that have been snuffed out.
(After all, this doesn’t sound like the Sauds are particuarly mournful or concerned:
“Rescue workers struggled to reach the site because of its rugged terrain and because fighter jets remained in the air, spreading fear that more strikes were coming.”)
It’s a cliche and trite to say that some lives matter more than others. And we all know that Syrian children didn’t really matter to Trump, or to the Republican Party, or to the right-wingers clamoring to protect them. After all, this is a party whose official stance is that every Syrian child is probably a terrorist.
And it isn’t just for the right that Syrians are barely human. Democratic inaction in Syria wasn’t deliberate cruelty, and based more on the idea that there was little we could do, and would probably make it worse, but that still wasn’t a particularly human reaction. For political reasons, we blocked off the true horrors of Syria.
But briefly, and for political reasons, the gassed children of Syria were briefly and brightly human, for the reason that the last moments of their humanity were particularly terrible. That’s wasn’t going to last though, and indeed didn’t last past the fading echoes of irrelevant missiles.
The issue though isn’t that they were briefly human for political reasons; it’s that they aren’t human for essentially non-political reasons. Or, if the reasons are political, they are in a very broad, non-electoral, and even nonpartisan sense. If the reasons for dehumanizing Syrians and Yemenis are political, they are political in the sense that politics is the sum of our culture.
Our culture creates these politics, which allows us to be both ferocious and indifferently complicit in Yemeni genocide. It allows us to be for some solid-seeming reasons (opposition to Iran and partnership with Saudi Arabia), but even that is part of the same piece: we accept that in the abstract, and so just don’t care that there were real people at the wedding.
I don’t know if it is self-protective cognitive dissonance that allows us to accept these murders done in our name, or if it is just indifference, but I know there isn’t a real difference. We refuse to look at what is done by our country, and refuse to imagine anyone else as being real.
But they were. The bride and the groom were real, and probably terrified and excited about the first night of their new lives. They probably were scared of the wedding bed but panting toward it. They probably giggled at advice of the elders. The children probably ran around, hoping for some sweets, knowing that even in degraded and denuded times there was the possibility of something delicious on the tongue.
But now some of them are dead, and some of them have been torn apart or burnt badly or lost their sight or hearing. They may be scarred for the rest of their lives, and the mental trauma will never go away. They’ll forever be living that brief burst of fire and light that roared its way between childhood and everything after.
We can only shrug and ignore that if we want to. We can only ignore a real chance to stop it if we don’t care, and the media doesn’t care, and our politicians don’t even talk about a genocidal war being paid for with an indifferent flick of the wrist. All that can only happen if we want it to.
There are a million reasons why we are where we are, and why cruelty is both waged and met with a shrug. I don’t know if we have the capacity to examine that. I do know that until all lives, both here and abroad, are treated and understood as real lives, any moral progress is a flickering lightbulb, illuminating very little, casting jittering witchshadows around the room and hinting at the monsters in the corners. It can go out at any time.