War is on my mind and I guess you can relate… For most people in the Western world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is at the same time incredibly disturbing and relatively easy to deal with in their everyday life.
The main reason it is easy is of course because we are far away and we feel insulated, especially on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. It is also easy because there is no doubt in our mind about who is to blame for the ongoing carnage — certainly not in my mind anyway.
Ukrainian flags flying everywhere are as strong an expression of solidarity with another nation as I have ever seen in my lifetime. From the first flag I saw here in Cleveland in February, to the large one hanging from an official mast in London last month, to the giant one flying next to the US stars and stripes last weekend in Chicago, they all signify our strident objection to the war in Ukraine.
This is comforting, but only to a point. Because we feel (we know?) that we are not doing enough, as nations and as individuals. There is only so much of our thoughts, actions, and resources we are ready to dedicate to a people in utter distress. What’s more, it is clear that the West has been much more attuned to the suffering of the Ukrainians than to that of many other populations caught in similar man-made turmoils.
This is a well-known fact: you feel more empathy for people who look like you and are culturally close. Victims of wars and catastrophes outside of Europe and North America get a fraction of the West’s attention devoted to those in Europe and North America. To put it bluntly, non-white suffering is not as intensely painful to Westerners.
This trait should be recognized in our reaction to the war in Ukraine, but not only for its bitterness. It is also, paradoxically, a reason for hope: as coordinators of help to refugees around the world have stated, the massive resources put together to effectively take in millions of Ukrainian refugees in central and western Europe in a matter of weeks demonstrates unequivocally that an effort of this magnitude can be made by developed countries — something that has often been denied in relation to other international crises.
War is entirely foreign to me. It amounts to some memories my grandparents shared with me, books, films, and the news. I will certainly never be a soldier, so it is an experience I can never really comprehend. But when it comes to being in a country at war, the recent events in Ukraine have created a shift: I no longer think this could never happen to me or someone in my family.
Our friend Eli, a keen observer of international events whose mother grew up in Ukraine, told us the other day that, for the first time in his life, he thought he might not die of a natural cause. This is not exactly reassuring when you know his company makes radioactivity detectors and sales to corporate and governmental customers have surged since the beginning of the year.
Last November, when war was not on my mind, a man carrying a sign caught my attention. The sign read “Veterans before illegals.” Minette and I saw him on our way back from school. As did one of her schoolmates and her father, of Pakistani origin. It was a jarring sight because of what the signed implied. That undocumented immigrants have more rights than veterans. That humans beings with complex life stories can be summed up as “illegals.”
Then I thought of the man who was carrying the sign. Probably a veteran himself. Most probably someone with a complex life story, who felt unseen and disrespected and wanted to speak up. He was standing there alone on the lawn between the road lanes. War is on my (our) mind now. I wonder what this man, who is so far apart from me, makes of the turn of events in Europe.