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A Requiem for Humanitarianism

There is no history of a revolution which is not at the same time a history of barbarism. 
(Inspired by Walter Benjamin)

And the almost live pictures of Colonel Qaddafi’s freshly killed body, covered in human blood, dirt and mud, dragged on the streets of Sirte, followed by the footage of his rotting corpse on display for at least four long days for ecstatic men, women, and children to watch and take pictures of, broadcast onto our screens, into our living rooms, up and down our news channels, tragically epitomize such moment of historic barbarism.

When violence and murder of human beings, innocent or not, is commoditized; when the ultimate form of barbaric voyeurism can be found in every corner of our planet where there is electricity and satellite coverage; when our governments start to contemplate extracting reimbursement from the same people they have been bombing the hell out of, this is when you know you are watching not just news but the news of a historic barbarism in the making, before your very own eyes, live, on the hour, every hour for as long as it sells.

Yes, we pretend to find public execution of people appalling and barbaric; we don’t hesitate to condemn such behavior in the strongest terms possible.  Nevertheless, we seem to have an obsession with watching dying and dead people on TV.  This is the bulk of what we buy as news and watch or read while eating.  And the fact that most of us don’t even find it controversial should be highly controversial itself.

A few optimists still believe that:

If nothing is left, one must scream, because silence is the biggest crime against humanity.  (Nadezhda Mandelstam)

The problematic here is not the silence, for that is a fact; what I find problematic is our presumption of the idea of humanity; it’s a utopian idea; it’s an illusion, a myth.  For it is apparently not against our humanity to stay silent while witnessing human atrocities.  Even if only a few of us actually benefit from all these killings and wars, that is still no good news for you and me; it doesn’t mean that we are not complicit.  It takes one person to push the button, to operate a drone, or to drop a bomb, but it takes the whole humanity to remain silent, to change the channel.

It is not the US government alone, it is not just the NATO forces, it is not just the fascists of every era, it is each and every one of us with a working tongue, an ear and an eye, with smart phones in our pockets and with televisions left on — we are all complicit.  We can’t say we didn’t know, we didn’t see, because it all happened almost live in front of our very own eyes, in the comfort of our living rooms, on our breakfast tables.  They did it, we watched and we said nothing.  We remained blind to the light that was shed on our own kind of blood.  It didn’t happen to us, it is not real, it’s only on TV; it will disappear at the push of a button.

None of this will change unless we re-view what we understand by such loaded terms as “humanity” and “humanitarian” against what they really are.  What we lack in our understanding of such terms is a revolution of the kind that we have been lucky (or unlucky, some would argue) to have in physics and philosophy.  Maybe then we’ll be able to reform our self-understanding and by that maybe our reality too.

Remember when Colonel Qaddafi asked his murderers: “Do you know what is wrong and right”?

I tell you: there is no right and wrong; it is all wrong, wrong, and wrong.

All these fantastic words (nonsense) which have been attributed to the “true” nature of humankind: humanity, justice, laws, rights, duties, good, truth . . . are all myths.

Wars, guns, killing, blood, dead bodies, our deafening silence: facts.

We have changed everything to mean its exact opposite.  Justice is injustice, bad is good, war is peace, and humanity is barbarism.

Let me end on a rephrased note from “The Moral Equivalent of War” by William James where “peace” and “war” are replaced with “humanity” and “barbarism”:

“Humanity” today is a synonym for “barbarism expected.”  The word has become a pure provocative, and no government sincerely wishing humanity well should allow it ever to be printed in a newspaper.  Every up-to-date dictionary should say that “humanity” and “barbarism” mean the same thing, now in posse, now in actu.  It may even reasonably be said that the intensely sharp competition for broadcasting and watching acts of barbarism by the nations is barbarism itself, permanent, unceasing; and that the images shown live up and down the nations’ news channels are only a sort of public verification of the barbarism hidden in the momentary “humanitarian” intervals.


Shirin Shafaie is an Iranian researcher and PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.  She was educated in Iran (BA in Philosophy and MA in Philosophy of Art) and in the UK (MSc in Middle East Politics).  The core of her research is critical war studies in general and the Iran-Iraq War in particular.


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