A silver lining on war

A mother sweeping the streets, killed in Mogadishu by Al Shabaab.

A silver lining of a cloud riddled with bullets – it’s still silver.

When I arrived at the refugee camp in Dadaab I was bowled over the head with the monstrosity of what I saw. The millions of lives shattered in the name of meaningless political conflict had me losing hope for a while in any human institution. In that camp, hundreds of thousands live without homes or families, and it’s enough to make me despondent about being on this planet. In a world where such atrocities can take place, where they take place without the entire planet rushing in to right them, just what is the point? And how savage are we…how hypocritical our smiling faces and cautious policies in the face of madmen and rapists of countries.

There is a thread of rationality to the previous argument, but there is I hope a stronger thread to this one: it’s getting better. Way better. Listen to Steven Pinker on TED (or read his essay) for an understanding that we as a race are getting less, not more violent. While the scale of killing may be increasing, our tolerance for it is sharply going down. Remember that rape, stoning, hanging and stake burning were relatively recently the norm (stoning is, in fact, still the norm in Dadaab, but that’s a separate discussion.) Under that lens, I begin to see our growing horror and sensitivity to these practices as the strongest force working to eradicate them.

This perspective does not excuse us from horrified vigilance. On the contrary, it emphasizes the role of changing cultural norms in eradicating this violence. And some cruelty is not acceptable.

I don’t think that we will ever achieve total peace (and it would involve a Huxlian level of societal control that doesn’t sound like a good idea) but I do believe that war is preventible in the way isolated acts of violence are not. Because those who cause war are (usually, hopefully) subject to political incentives, it’s possible to imagine a world where most countries are so against the very idea that it almost cannot happen.

Then again, it’s possible to imagine that world collapsing when someone decides to throw a nuke. But we have our silver lining for now.

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