German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche writes,
“Everyone wants to be pre-eminent in this future – and yet death and the stillness of death are the only things that are certain and common to all in this future!”
“How strange,” he avers, “that this one certainty and commonality has almost no power over men, and that nothing is further from their minds than the brotherhood of death!”
Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations confirms the displacement of two million Ukrainians. There are fears of a growing number of people being displaced if the two states do not agree to stop the war—the power ultimately being held in Russian hands.
Hundreds of thousands of people including children and the elderly have already crossed into bordering Poland with many more on the way. According to the UN, Moscow’s invasion as of the 11th of March killed at least 516 civilians and injured over 900 people. The actual death count, the organisation says, is likely significantly higher.
While one can not welcome enough the Polish, larger European and global gestures of kindness and generosity to Ukrainians facing intolerable hardships and imminent death, one would be remiss not to point out the double standards and racism at play here. The same kindness has not been extended to other refugees of war.
To be sure, the issue is not as simple as race, as Europe is dealing with a war in their backyard. They feel this war closer to home, so helping their neighbour becomes not only a moral imperative but a matter of survival. Due to this geographical proximity, the change in perception and the difference in response to the war is understandable.
Ian Bremmer argues “[…] the main reason why this war is getting so much attention is not racism. It’s because of the outsized impact it could have on global prosperity and peace” and even the possibility of World War III. According to him, the war is getting much more attention because “When the world’s largest grain exporter attacks the fifth-largest grain exporter, and when the world’s largest gas exporter and second-largest oil exporter gets cut off from the global trade and financial system, the cumulative impact on everyone in the planet is so much greater than any amount of poverty, deprivation, and death Syrians, Afghans, and Yemenis are experiencing.”
There may be some truth to this argument, but to believe that the outpouring of empathy and support for Ukraine is entirely grounded in cold logic and calculations about the war’s economic and geostrategic ramifications for the West and everyone else on the planet is a bit of a stretch and frankly disingenuous and even callous. The fact is that the US and Western governments, media and public had little to no interest in the lives of Afghans, Syrians, Yemenis and others. So, racism, most probably resulting from social difference and distance and hence the lack of empathy, can not be ruled out in its entirety.
The same Europe has over the years been opposed to accepting refugees fleeing Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and African countries for the same reasons that are forcing Ukrainians to leave their homes now—wars. In contrast, their response to the white, blue-eyed and “civilized” Europeans (in this case Ukrainians) has been rather unprecedentedly welcoming.
Live media coverage by white European and American journalists shows the shock and grief they rightfully express at the calamitous situation. However, these same journalists have also inadvertently shown their implicit racism and disingenuity by saying things such as how can this happen to a “civilized” and “developed” nation of Europe.
“Now the unthinkable has happened to them. This is not a developing third-world nation. This is Europe,” one reporter said. “These are prosperous middle-class people. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to,” said another. “This is not a place with all due respect, you know, like Iraq or Afghanistan. You know this is a relatively civilized, relatively European, I have to carefully choose those words too, city, where you would not expect that or hope that it is going to happen,” said a CBS news reporter.
To believe that the outpouring of empathy and support for Ukraine is entirely grounded in cold logic and calculations about the war’s economic and geostrategic ramifications for the West and everyone else on the planet is a bit of a stretch and frankly disingenuous
The racist Freudian slips of these reporters such as “relatively civilised,” “not a developing third world nation” and “relatively European” are clear indications of the pervasive, whether conscious or unconscious, orientalist bias of racial superiority and cultural valorisation of the white race over the rest.
By implication and comparison, terms like “civilised” and “European” render refugees from non-European or non-Western countries as “uncivilised” and somehow deserving of the plight they have endured for years.
Such a narrative is all the more disingenuous when one accounts for the role powerful Western states have played in stoking conflict and carrying out direct invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have led to the death and displacement of millions. This element is largely ignored from the Western narrative on immigration.
What is more, the Polish-Ukrainian border video circulating on social media shows Ukrainian security personnel stopping Africans from boarding the trains for Poland. Although unclear if it is Poland or Ukraine’s policy, their bilateral agreement or just random discrimination, the act of filtering and preventing Africans caught between life and death from leaving Ukraine is blatantly racist and inhumane.
This behaviour is not new though. The presumption that white blood is superior and somehow sacred to brown and black blood has a long history. In their maddeningly disproportionate response to the 9/11 attacks, the US government killed thousands of innocent children and other Afghans during their two-decade-long adventure and, when were accounted for it, brushed it aside as “mistakes” or “collateral damages.” Thus, holding civilians of brown blood in utter disregard.
It is no surprise then that the Taliban, a ragtag militia group of several thousand, prevailed over history’s most powerful military machine in the end. Every murdered child had a family, a home, a village and hundreds of relatives who lived across districts and even provinces. A single act of killing wounded hundreds and thousands of hearts and souls resulting in hate, anger and an insurmountable insurgency that the US and NATO and their posterity might never forget.
I do not support the Taliban ideology and their inhumane practices, but it is also important to acknowledge the heinous crimes of the US and NATO. The killing of innocent children playing in cornfields, reading the Quran in a madrassah or eating leftovers in a village wedding, by a white man in a cool airconditioned office comfortably sitting in a chair at a US base where drones were launched to Afghanistan are unforgivable.
None of these and countless other deaths made headlines in the Western press, let alone a sincere show of shock and grief. In February 2018, an Afghan NGO, Human Rights and Eradication of Violence Organization submitted over 1.7 million war crimes committed by groups like the Taliban and the Isis, as well as Afghan Security Forces and government-affiliated warlords, the US-led coalition, and foreign and domestic spy agencies to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
After a thorough investigation and verification, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda concluded that “there is a reasonable basis to believe” that since 2006 crimes against humanity and war crimes were committed by the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, the Afghan National Security Forces, Afghan National Police and its spy agency, known as the NDS. Moreover, Bensouda also confirmed evidence of war crimes committed “by members of the United States armed forces on the territory of Afghanistan, and by members of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in secret detention facilities in Afghanistan.”
In response, on September 2, 2020, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Bensouda, and another senior prosecution official, Phakiso Mochochoko. The administration also revoked her US visa. The US claim was that it was not a party to the Rome Statute, as President George W Bush had renounced the signature, fearing “unfair” prosecution of Americans for political reasons. Bill Clinton had however signed the treaty before Bush.
Bensouda argued that Afghanistan was a party to the treaty and the crimes were committed on their territory. But who can hold accountable such a powerful and arrogant bully? As if this was not enough, Trump dropped the mother of all bombs on Afghan soil. This bullying and criminality go unnoticed in the Western press and is not prominent in Western consciousness. In contrast, the loss of one French, British or any white life in a terrorist attack makes the headlines. No human in their right mind and heart should condone the loss of life, but they should also speak out against the selective moral outrage and brazen discrimination and racism of the West.
As I watched the video of white Ukrainian security guards preventing Africans from escaping their own mortal fate, I wondered if there was any hope of humans ever coming together. I queried, as Nietzsche said, if the imminent “brotherhood of death” will not unite the human race, what will? The answer, if history is any judge, is that the unified human feeling will almost always remain a longing. The occasional, selective show of empathy may be the exception.