In a speech delivered Wednesday 23 September, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described the state of our world as “falling apart.” He spoke in particular of turmoil and despair, of war’s presence in our world, of the nearly unprecedented number of refugees, people displaced and victims of violence, and of the deadly threat posed by the spreading Ebola epidemic.
He is right about the pitiful state of our global civilization. But there is nothing new about the violence, brutality, and injustice he denounces. Mankind has always shown difficulties to strike a balance between civilization and barbarism, between leadership and tragedy. In today’s situation there are only two different elements: first, that now we know in a second what’s going on in the opposite side of the planet, as news spread at amazing speed; second, that we all feel humanity is in a place to act more effectively and drastically to decrease that ubiquitous turmoil and despair.
“Not since the end of the second World War have there been so many refugees, displaced people, and asylum seekers,” he said. The statement is interesting –almost astonishing. Has he forgotten the humanitarian catastrophes that plagued the world in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the beginning of the 21st century? The war in Congo, the genocide of Tutsis and Hutus, the war in former Yugoslavia, military dictatorships in Hispano-America –to cite just a few? In all honesty, he should rather be saying: Since 1914, the world has been in a state of continuous chaos, turmoil, and violence.
In any case, the answer, of course, is not in dates or in history –but in the dark, bottom layers of the human soul.
Meanwhile, at the same 69th Session of the U.N. General Assembly. President Obama, on military retaliation against ISIS: “The only language these people understand is the language of force.” Obama, a leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Price, but even before he was tested and put into a situation in which he needed to act. Awarded a Nobel Peace Prize just on the sole basis of rhetoric and words, for he had done nothing before receiving that award (if not for signing some drone strikes) other than advocating for the dismantling of Guantánamo and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The language of force.” Language and war, words and violence: both spheres of human interaction have always had a curious, paradoxical relationship. Words should foment understanding and communication. But often are just the fuel that feeds conflict and hatred. Behind beheadings and atrocities are always ideologies –words—that back up acts of extreme violence. And the rhetoric of force implies always the failure of words, the losing of mankind’s ability to deal with opposing views in a peaceful way. Force almost lowers humanity to the level of animals.
Yet here it is a BBC reporter at the Turkey-Syria border, two days ago, interviewing Syrian refugees fleeing from ISIS’ obscene brutality. They see the American-lead coalition forces bombing ISIS’ positions nearby, at the other side of the border. The refugees start yelling in exultation. One of them says to the reporter: “Obama is the best man in the world.”
We bomb barbarians to bring some degree of happiness and hope to a people whose lives total brutality has shaken. Why international forces have not acted before in Syria and other places to assure the safety of the innocent? It’s something hard to answer.
President Obama himself personifies and exposes how complex the subject of war is. The issue of the use of force is, in reality, irresolvable. And not even law, or ius in bellō, or the best human intentions will succeed at resolving the riddle of when and why use military force in behalf of third-parties in dire straits.