The Bad Colonel

A throng of gunmen haul a 69-year-old man through the dusty street. His chest lays bare, face bloodied. He is beaten and sodomized and shot.

What kind of person does not feel compassion? Well, me, the kind who understood the victim was Saddam Osama Gaddafy.

For an humanitarian, compassion isn’t just a nice thing, like a day without dust in Khartoum or stroopwafels in a care package. Stripped to its essential principles, compassion is humanitarianism’s driver. Not money and not adventurism and not do gooderism or altruism or charity and certainly not the twin devils of winning hearts and minds or building the legitimacy of the state. Compassion is what moves us to address the suffering of others, no matter that they are foreign to your family, village, clan, or nation. They are humans.  Compassion is also that common ground between the Christian ethos of Western missionaries and the humanist ethos of Western INGO staff on mission. Jesus would have felt compassion for the Colonel, no?

Compassion became a second victim of October 20th, Gaddafy’s final bad hair day. Like that sentence’s finish, an ambivalence allows acceptance of the inappropriate (Hillary’s laugh), the uncivil (meat locker visitation hour) and the illegal (his killing). It later struck me that I didn’t feel compassion, my heart too easily counterweighted the final half hour of abuse with his forty years of torture, violence and egomania.

While an individual manages to excuse himself for such an emotional, vengeful reaction, I find the official silence of the humanitarian community rather loud. Maybe not on Gaddafy’s death, because we don’t usually report on such singular events, but on the entire Arab Spring. We portray ourselves as defenders of law and of what is right and of fairness. Yet in these historic times we show the lack of compass so evidently present in our cousins, the human rights organizations. They’ve had this right all along. They’ve steadfastly and no doubt unpopularly and no doubt unlucratively documented and denounced the violations committed by the West’s very champions.  Maybe it is easier for them: their mandates force them look at what the law says and look at what the actors are doing.  For us, compassion and pragmatism often dictate when we exercise that part of our mandates to raise our voice.

Here, our compassion, like our neutrality, follows rather a rather lopsided set of mainstream Western mores.  In Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya we humanitarians have seen victor’s justice; the treatment accorded to those on the side of the dictators by those who have raised their fists for freedom and democracy. We have seen the violent abuse of black Africans trapped inside Libya, condemned by the color of their skin to the accusation of mercenary. We’ve seen doctors not wanting to treat “them”. And we’ve seen those jumpy mobile phone videos of a wretched man dragged out of a drainage ditch. We’ve seen a great deal. We haven’t said much.

7 thoughts on “The Bad Colonel”

    1. Sophia, if I had the answer to that one I’d be earning a lot more money. I tend to think compassion is within all of us. Probaby a useful tool from an evolutionary standpoint. But then it gets lost when politics, ideology or war beat it out of us; when we forget that the “other” is really an “us”.

      1. So, compassion is really about self-interest? And then it becomes a case of persuading others that it really is in their best interest to help others and be less greedy (except when it doesn’t serve their self-interest?)

  1. Didn’t Richard Dawkins describe this rather well in ‘The Selfish Gene’ when he postulated a gene for altruism and it’s promotion through time in humans by natural selection?

    If it’s to be believed (the best theory currently available, in my lowly opinion) that we’re instinctive animals, as opposed to beings in the form of our creator, then we should view even the most inhuman acts through the lens of biology, not religion.

    1. And humanitarianism? More closely linked to biology or religion? The science of keeping people alive in a crisis or the faith in the goodness of our mission?

  2. Good question Marc!

    I’ve come across humanitarians motivated by religion – they are investing in the certainty of their own wellbeing in the hereafter – and I’ve met humanitarians motivated by science – they are investing in the wellbeing of their fellow humans (or, from a Darwinian perspective, their children) in the here and now. Being a pragmatist, I choose the latter. But I wonder how many would agree.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *