In September 2001 the English novelist Martin Amis wrote about the week of “incredulous misery” that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center. “Thinking of the victims, the perpetrators, and the near future, I felt species grief, then species shame, then species fear.” Anyone who has followed the catastrophe that is unfolding in Yemen will understand what Amis meant. What has made the crisis even harder to comprehend, however, is the moral confusion that Yemen’s civil war has occasioned in the West.
Three days ago the New York Times discreetly removed a tweet which asked how could a country “under the close watch of the United States and Saudi Arabia – fall so swiftly into crisis?” The paper quickly apologized for “poor framing” and retweeted a link to its coverage as: “The world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” As the Times reports, the current cholera outbreak has already claimed 2,000 lives and infected 500,000 more – thousands of young children among them. A leading cause of the epidemic is Yemen’s ravaged infrastructure including the wholesale destruction of “a crucial seaport and important bridges as well as hospitals, sewage facilities and civilian factories.” The destruction is the result of “repeated bombings” by a Saudi led, US-supported coalition – presumably the “close watch” referred to in the original tweet.
A revolution in military technology since the September 2001 attacks has transformed remote warfare into an activity that is closer to a video game than traditional combat. It has also spawned a culture that is indifferent to human lives. When Brandon Bryant, a former drone pilot, spoke with the US National Security Agency in October 2015, he drew attention to the slang that he and his colleagues used to dehumanize their targets. Children, for instance – who could often be observed for several hours before a strike, as diminutive heat signatures on the drone pilot’s screens – were called “fun-size terrorists” or “terrorists in training” (TITs); an adult was called a “bug splat.” Like many other drone operators, Bryant used drugs to numb the psychological pain of his job and quit when his post-traumatic stress became intolerable.
This tendency to minimize suffering in other countries has a shameful pedigree in many liberal democracies. Writing in the wake of the attacks on the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, for example, the writer Teju Cole pointedly observed that when terrorist attacks occur in a Western capital, they are accompanied by “a tone of genuine puzzlement.” Many Westerners sincerely wonder: “Why have they visited violent horror on our peaceful societies? Why do they kill when we don’t?”
As Cole points out, this perspective is only tenable if one ignores the ways that many modern democracies perpetrate “extreme violence” in defence of their perceived national interests. Those who speak out against the deployment of such violence invariably face “harsh consequences” and widespread public condemnation. Some are even branded as traitors. “The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks.” Cole denounces this tendency and urges instead a wider compassion: “We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.”
The United Nations estimates that 10 million Yemenis require immediate assistance. It warns that the current cholera outbreak may foreshadow even worse epidemics. Despite these dire predictions only 40 per cent of the estimated US$ 2.3 billion of the necessary humanitarian aid has been collected, much of it from the nations that lead or support the war-making coalition fighting against the Houthi rebels. To add insult to injury, the Trump administration has chosen to embrace the Saudi regime that has underwritten the worst atrocities in Yemen. The moral contradictions of foreign intervention in Yemen are essentially irreconcilable. Thinking of the victims, the perpetrators and the near future, we ought to feel some variation of grief, shame and fear. Instead, collectively, we have responded to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe with a mixture of resignation and indifference.