26 March 2005
"About suffering," Auden famously wrote in 1938, "they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters: how well they understood/ its human position; how it takes place/ While someone is eating or opening a window/Or just walking dully along." Yet the great crucifixion paintings of Caravaggio or Bellini, or Michelangelo's Pieta in the Vatican - though they were not what Auden had in mind - have God on their side. We may feel the power of suffering in the context of religion but, outside this spiritual setting, I'm not sure how compassionate we really are.
The atrocities of yesterday - the Beslan school massacre, the Bali bombings, the crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001, the gassings of Halabja - can still fill us with horror and pity, although that sensitivity is heavily conditioned by the nature of the perpetrators. In an age where war has become a policy option rather than a last resort, where its legitimacy rather than its morality can be summed up on a sheet of A4 paper, we prefer to concentrate on the suffering caused by "them" rather than "us".
Hence the tens of thousands of Iraqis who were killed in the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation, the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed in the Vietnam war, the hundreds of Egyptians cut down by our 1956 invasion of Suez are not part of our burden of guilt. About 1,700 Palestinian civilians from the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps - equal to more than half the dead of the World Trade Center - were massacred in Lebanon.
But how many readers can remember the exact date? September 16-18, 1982. "Our" dates are thus sacrosanct, "theirs" are not; though I notice how "they" must learn "ours". How many times are Arabs pointedly asked for their reaction to 11 September 2001, with the specific purpose of discovering whether they show the correct degree of shock and horror? And how many Westerners would even know what happened in 1982?
It's also about living memory - and also, I suspect, about photographic records. The catastrophes of our generation, or of our parents' or even our grandparents' generation - have a poignancy that earlier bloodbaths do not. Hence we can be moved to tears by the epic tragedy of the Second World War and its 55 million dead, by the murder of six million Jews, by our families' memories of this conflict - a cousin on my father's side died on the Burma Road - and also by the poets of the First World War. Owen and Sassoon created the ever-living verbal museum of that conflict.
But I can well understand why the Israelis have restructured their Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem. The last survivors of Hitler's death camps will be dead soon. So they must be kept alive in their taped interviews, along with the records and clothes of those who were slaughtered by the Nazis. The Armenians still struggle to memorialise their own 1915 Holocaust of one and a half million at the hands of the Ottoman Turks - they struggle even to keep the capital H on their Holocaust - because only a pitiful handful of their survivors are still alive and the Turks still deny their obvious guilt. There are photographs of the Armenians being led to the slaughter. But no documentary film.
And here the compassion begins to wobble. Before the 1914-18 war, there were massacres enough for the world's tears; the Balkan war of 1912 was of such carnage that eyewitnesses feared their accounts would never be believed. The Boer war turned into a moral disgrace for the British because we herded our enemies' families into disease-ridden concentration camps. The Franco-Prussian war of 1871 - though French suffering was portrayed by Delacroix with stunning accuracy, and photos survive of the Paris Commune - leaves us cold. So, despite the record of still photographs, does the American civil war.
We can still be appalled - we should be appalled - by the million dead of the Irish famine, although it is painfully significant that, although photography had been invented by the mid-19th century, not a single photograph was taken of its victims. We have to rely on the Illustrated London News sketches to show the grief and horror which the Irish famine produced.
Yet who cries now for the dead of Waterloo or Malplaquet, of the first Afghan war, of the Hundred Years' War - whose rural effects were still being felt in 1914 - or for the English Civil War, for the dead of Flodden Field or Naseby or for the world slaughter brought about by the Great Plague? True, movies can briefly provoke some feeling in us for these ghosts. Hence the Titanic remains a real tragedy for us even though it sank in 1912 when the Balkan war was taking so many more innocent lives. Braveheart can move us. But in the end, we know that the disembowelling of William Wallace is just Mel Gibson faking death.
By the time we reach the slaughters of antiquity, we simply don't care a damn. Genghis Khan? Tamerlane? The sack of Rome? The destruction of Carthage? Forget it. Their victims have turned to dust and we do not care about them. They have no memorial. We even demonstrate our fascination with long-ago cruelty. Do we not queue for hours to look at the room in London in which two children were brutally murdered? The Princes in the Tower?
If, of course, the dead have a spiritual value, then their death must become real to us. Rome's most famous crucifixion victim was not Spartacus - although Kirk Douglas did his best to win the role in Kubrick's fine film - but a carpenter from Nazareth. And compassion remains as fresh among Muslims for the martyrs of early Islam as it does for the present-day dead of Iraq. Anyone who has watched the Shia Muslims of Iraq or Lebanon or Iran honouring the killing of Imams Ali and Hussein - like Jesus, they were betrayed - has watched real tears running down their faces, tears no less fresh than those of the Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem this week. You can butcher a whole city of innocents in the Punic War, but nail the son of Mary to a cross or murder the son-in-law of the Prophet and you'll have them weeping for generations.
What worries me, I suppose, is that so many millions of innocents have died terrible deaths because their killers have wept over their religious martyrs. The Crusaders slaughtered the entire population of Beirut and Jerusalem in 1099 because of their desire to "free" the Holy Land, and between 1980 and 1988, the followers of the Prophet killed a million and a half of their own co-religionists after a Sunni Muslim leader invaded a Shia Muslim country. Most of the Iraqi soldiers were Shia - and almost all the Iranian soldiers were Shia - so this was an act of virtual mass suicide by the followers of Ali and Hussein.
Passion and redemption were probably essential parts of our parents' religious experience. But I believe it would be wiser and more human in our 21st century to reflect upon the sins of our little human gods, those evangelicals who also claim we are fighting for "good" against "evil", who can ignore history and the oceans of blood humanity has shed - and get away with it on a sheet of A4 paper.