The death of Aylan Kurdi
THE DEATH of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was washed ashore in Turkey, bespeaks not only of the tragedy of a father, who now just wants to “lie in a grave with his children,” but of the moral indictment of the whole human civilization for its inaction against the likes of Bashar al-Assad who continues to guiltlessly murder his people in the present Syrian civil war.
Does history belong to tyrants? Perhaps it does, for the image of Aylan brings to our memories the same indifference that the free world showed during the Holocaust. The world did little or nothing to stop Adolf Hitler during those years leading to Munich, with Great Britain and its allies choosing appeasement instead of having that firm conviction against Hitler’s whims of expanding German territory.
History is sometimes no more than a collection of caricatures of shameless rulers. Indeed, the blood of martyrs can grow a beautiful flower, but the madness of a tyrant can grow a garden of poisonous weed. This banal list is very long. For instance, millions died due to famine during the forced collectivization in Ukraine imposed by the ruthless regime of Josef Stalin, during which reports of cannibalism persisted. The Khmer Rouge murdered two million. In Kosovo, the bodies of dead Albanians were run over by tanks on orders of Slobodan Milosevic. In 1994, more than 800,000 Tutsis died in the hands of their Hutu countrymen in Rwanda.
Thomas Nagel explains in his essay, “The Problem of Global Justice,” why the free world remains morally unaffected by the horror that millions go through in their war-torn societies. Nagel suggests that justice rests on the idea of a collective interest. The question of justice is internal to nation-states. It does not extend to outsiders. Political persecution in this regard is a problem that a sovereign people will have to deal with internally.
But is it merely a question of sovereignty? Sovereignty is the power to govern. People, being naturally selfish, surrender their individual interests to the state. The state supposedly is tasked to tame the beast in every man. Hobbes tells us that political legitimacy is based on our associative relations and not on moral grounds. For this reason, equality according to Nagel becomes an internal requirement on the political, economic and social structure of nation-states. Nagel writes: “Justice is something we owe through our shared institutions only to those with whom we stand in a strong political relation.” For instance, Hungary’s decision to deny entry to Syrian refugees is a political move, but not a moral one.
John Rawls’ liberalism will prove inadequate insofar as, for him, the notion of global justice would have been limited to “internally just states.” Now, what is happening in Syria might become that tragic narrative between those who possess the power to alter the course of the conflict but are unwilling and the great evil that is Al-Assad. The problem, thus, is that any state can be no more than a cold monster in whose draconian ways the threatened lives of millions of Syrian women and children mean nothing.
Nagel further explains that justice is politically grounded in the establishment of rules in the basic structure. Without the basic structure, people will be left on their own. As such, institutions are not only instrumental. Institutions are intrinsically valuable to people. This includes the ability of the state to secure and maintain peace. However, this duty is an internal affair. Nagel adds that the duty of justice “is sui generis, and is not owed to everyone in the world.”
In his book “Night,” Elie Wiesel writes how he felt existentially abandoned by a good God: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.” The only thing that gave the very young Elie the will to live, in those days of endless hunger and torture, was his father. While sadly he lost his father, in the succeeding decades thereafter he regained his faith in humanity, saying that “our lives do not belong to us alone; it belongs to all those who need us desperately.”
When we, as human beings, imagine ourselves being in the same circumstance as those nameless millions in Syria, there would be no other option for the living except to appeal to the common humanity that defines who we are. The Hobbesian notion of sovereignty
violates our common interest as humanity. The right to live is a natural right. It cannot depend on the restrictive associative relations within societies.
The United Nations must act now with full conviction. Edmund Burke is right: “The only thing that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” You can’t save a life by doing nothing. To truly help the Syrian people, Al-Assad must be stopped. There is just no other way. The free world must do what is right because the Syrian people deserve to live.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He holds a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.