The Tragedy and Power of a Single Story
Photo courtesy of Mint
“And always, after the dust of the war rhetoric settles, after the bitter old men, who drove the masses to madness, grow senile or die off; the world looks around, blinks and realises it has lost far too much, yet again, to death or to hatred.”
I am sick and tired of people not taking a stand on Palestine because they fear it is a “complex” issue; they don’t know enough of the history, they are neither Israeli or Palestinian or they have Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, Jewish, Christian, American, German friends or relatives.
To me the situation is so horrific, so bleak, so desperate that any (previous) complexity has now been stripped away. There is nothing complicated or nuanced about taking a stand against occupation, against apartheid, against starving out a population, against indiscriminate violence, against genocide. I thought we, as a generation, were bringing up our children in a world where these were absolute, uncompromisable values.
I even wish we were still at a point where we were actually dealing with a complex issue - a problem that had multiple conflicting angles, that needed to be pondered on, deliberated or discussed, that required bilateral compromise or mediation, that was still at that crossroad where thoughtful, mature negotiation could lead us away from the precipice.
Unfortunately, we are far past that post. We have fallen off the precipice of complexity and are now being confronted with the stark singularity of needless mass murder. The problem we face, as a world, is now horrifyingly simple. At this moment in Gaza a ferociously armed military, urged on by an unapologetically racist regime, backed by the world’s largest arms dealers and funded by the most powerful nations and protected by the world’s most powerful media organizations, is systematically bombing and destroying a sliver of land inhabited mostly by stateless, displaced people, the majority of whom are children.
Just as the problem is horrifyingly stark, the path being taken is also horrifyingly clear. Before us lies systematic killing, more killing, even more killing and then the possible weight of yet another genocide.
Complex problems are a luxury. They require some level of parity. So, for the sake of peace, and despite the enormous disparity of power between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people, I would even grant that this was a complex issue right up to the point of the Hamas attack on October 7. After decades of violence, subjugation and humiliation meted out to the Palestinian people by the Israeli state, by settlers and by the military, Hamas’ latest retaliation was terrible and violent. Civilians were gunned down. Adults and children were taken hostage. The problem is complex because, while it is impossible to condone what Hamas did, it is possible to understand why they did it.
If, in response to this attack, the Israeli government had paused to reflect on the self-defeating trajectory of violence, if it had found the courage and the integrity to denounce this path and chosen instead to prioritize, the safety of its own citizens taken hostage, negotiate for their release in exchange for the 5,000-odd Palestinian prisoners it is holding; if it had agreed to dialogue, to finding a just resolution to a complex problem confronting two wounded peoples; if any of this had happened, this problem would have remained a complex one. There would have been different ways to interpret what the next step ought to be, which party was contributing to the solution and who was exacerbating the problem.
Instead, the Israeli government chose (I would say gleefully) the most violent response conceivable – insisting that for every Israeli life taken, several Palestinians must die (even at the cost of more Israeli lives in the process), cutting the supply of water, food and electricity to an impoverished (largely child) population of two million trapped in Gaza and proceeding to bomb it continously for now over two weeks.
This response has plummeted this tragic and complex story to a level where there now is only one telling of it. A single story of the systematic destruction of one people by another, across a great and deep imbalance of power.
Throughout history, the greed and evil of (often a handful of) human beings have brought us, repeatedly, to low points such as this, points where the scales are so imbalanced that, after it all, there has been only one story that could ever be told.
The destruction of the First Nation People, the Aboriginals, and other indigenous people by colonizers; the slave trade; the Holocaust; the Rwandan genocide; the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds; the genocide against the Rohingya; and the war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war were low points in history where, at least with time, a single story of unmatched and terrible violence emerged.
And always, after the dust of the war rhetoric settles, after the bitter old men who drove the masses to madness grow senile or die off, the world looks around, blinks and realizes it has lost far too much, yet again, to death or to hatred.
Within all of these single stories that we have inherited, there would have existed contradictions and complexities, whether genuine or manufactured which , due to the scale of the tragedy, the obviousness of the crime, the enduring inhumanness of the intent, the power imbalance , have ultimately been reduced to irrelevance. No one is interested in pointing fingers at a few Jews who might have killed Nazis, no one tells the stories of slave men who may have been driven to violence, no one wants to know if the First Nation people really were the first to inhabit the land they lived in. No amount of “complexity” can change the shape of the scar left behind after a generation of people are killed.
Today if the Israeli state, backed by America, the UK and Europe, is allowed to proceed down this path, the world will inherit the weight of another single story of colossal tragedy.
How to solve the larger, more complex problem I don’t know. What I do know are simple lessons I have learnt from history – that violence begets violence and bigotry begets bigotry. Even if the Israeli state succeeds in killing or forcibly expelling the Palestinian people from Gaza (and maybe after that The West Bank), they will be left with a new generation of Palestinian children with even stronger reasons to hate Israel. They would correspondibgly inherit an even more paranoid Israeli state, whose most violent and extreme citizens will continue to live their lives in fear or by violence. This kind of existence ultimately implodes on and destroys itself. History has taught us this.
Ironically, the loss of life is a problem one can leave behind. The loss of humanity is a disease that one carries on, it pervades one’s family, one’s relationships, one’s mind and one’s legacy.
This again is a larger problem for more complex times. At this moment, we must recognize that the crimes being committed in Gaza, while being perpetrated or permitted by self-serving cohorts within the Israel state, the US, UK, EU and UN, are so enormous that they weigh on our collective conscience.
We are not the first population to carry this burden of responsibility. During slavery, during the Holocaust, during the genocide against the First Nation people and during all the other crimes against humanity, there would have been countless numbers not directly involved in the violence who didn’t really believe that any of it was happening or who believed that there was some rationale or justification to it all. People who wanted to be fair and look at “both sides”. D id the Jews really deserve it? Were the slaves actually sub-human? Did the First Nation people provoke the massacres? Most of these people who asked these questions were not inherently bad people, but at a time when resistance could have saved human lives, they chose silence and thereby endorsement. After the inevitable tragedy unfolded, everyone seemed surprised at the scale of it.
Today there lies no excuse for not knowing. This single story of collective tragedy, shame, cowardice and hypocrisy is happening on our watch. Our children, who will inherit the world we create today, will ask us just as we asked our parents and they asked their parents – why did you allow this to happen? What did you do to stop it?
A single story of tragedy is an awful curse to bear. But it can be replaced by a single story of resistance. Instead of inheriting the collective shame of inaction, why can’t we add all our strength to a categorical demand right now – no to violence. No to apartheid. No to occupation. Never again to genocide.
In order to do this we have to stop paying lip service within our families, our offices, our religious institutions and our social initiatives to the kind of world we want to create for ourselves and future generations. We stand on yet another starting point, yet another turning point, yet another point of no return. It holds within it the power to change the trajectory of a “complex” problem that has plagued three generations of people over the past 75 years.
I want to end with a short anecdote. Like all over the world, in Sri Lanka too, people have been gathering together to protest the on going horror in Palestine. At the most recent protest I attended I was standing next to a young, bespectacled man, who was clearly out of his comfort zone within the protest. He hardly raised his voice, he looked bewildered but he stood with us in the pouring rain, in the face of police resistance and intimidation, holding up a banner demanding the end to genocide. I had to ask him why he was there. His answer was not complex. It was powerfully simple. “I am a pharmacist. I watched the bombing of the hospital yesterday. I could not sleep. What is happening is wrong.”
If the courageous and empathetic Israelis whose family members were killed or taken hostage can call for peace and a cessation of hostilities, why can’t we?
If the traumatized people of Gaza, right now being bombed, are calling for peace, why can’t we?
If a timid pharmacist cannot sleep at night, how can we?