Saturday, March 08, 2014

On Tragedies -- Recognized and Unrecognized

Let me begin by expressing my sorrow for the 239 passengers of flight MH370 and their family members.  Any loss of life of that magnitude is a tragedy for the entire world, but this tragedy is particularly international, with 14 different countries represented among the fallen passengers.  Air travel seems to be safer than ever these days, but as this event reminds us, it is never 100 percent safe.  This event is just one more reminder that you can’t take life for granted no matter how young or healthy you are.   Every day we wake up in the morning is a new blessing.  And in consideration of those who won’t wake up this morning, especially those who the Fates have cheated out of a long life, the rest of us are obliged to live just a bit more compassionately and nobly in their honor.

This type of tragedy has been on my mind lately, ever since I heard from my daughter last weekend that five young men in her small liberal arts college were involved in a car accident, killing three and wounding the others.  The boys were sober, seat belted; in fact, they were complying with all the laws of the road.  They simply had the misfortune of sliding the wrong way on an icy, Minnesota road right into a large truck.   The college president said the next day that it was the worst day in the college’s history.   My daughter was clearly shaken by the incident even though she wasn’t close friends with any of the victims.   Tragedies like these cannot help but tug at our hearts whenever they are brought close to home.

Plane and car crashes are awful events, but at least we can experience them for what they are: pure tragedies and nothing more.   By contrast, geopolitical strife doesn’t affect people the same way.   When we hear about distant lands torn apart by religious, ethnic or other divisions, we stop feeling compassion and start feeling hatred.  What’s more, we begin to ignore our feelings and concentrate instead on our thoughts.   Ideas come into our heads about the great chess game that is known as geo-politics.  And, at least here in America, these ideas spawn many of the same questions:   What ideology do the perpetrators believe in?  And what about the victims?  What do we think of those ideologies?  Is there an evil dictator who is behind this madness, and what can we do to stop him?  What can and should America do to fight the evil that is behind the violence?    Does America shoulder any blame for what is going on?  And if so, which American leaders are mostly at fault?  

Once all of those questions are asked and answered, we have no time left for compassion.  We’ve now simply entered the arena of chess, and chess is as cold blooded a game as war itself.

When I think about tragedies in the world today, I can’t help but think about the Vietnamese coast and Northfield, Minnesota.  But you’ll forgive me if I also think about the Ukraine.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have Ukrainian friends most of my life, and I know that these people are fighters.  As a general matter, I mean that as a compliment.  Yet in this case, I fear that the divisions in that country that have already resulted in bloodshed will only get worse over time.  Just look at the maps in the following link, and you’ll see what an ethnically divided place we’re talking about:

Here in the United States, we take pride in the notion that ours is a melting pot nation.   But in other parts of the world, people are loyal to their ethnic groups and mother tongues, and perhaps less so to the countries in which they are citizens.  Those loyalties can easily enough be exploited by unscrupulous leaders from abroad, and Putin clearly falls into that category.   This morning, however, you’ll forgive me if I stop racing through one conspiracy theory after another or assigning blame to failed American policies or leaders.   This morning, please allow me to feel for the people of the Ukraine and pray that whatever happens in their nation, it can get sorted out with as little loss of life or liberty as possible.  

Premature deaths are tragic, whether they are “preventable” or not.   Let us never forget that tragic element.  For it is precisely when we put that element aside in the name of our own ideologies that we begin dehumanizing one another and treating human beings as means to our own ends.   Stated simply, a single death from a Kiev riot is no less sad than a death on flight MH370 or on the roads near Carleton College.  Sometimes, we need to stop thinking so much and simply say a prayer for those who have left us too soon.

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