“Why don’t we do something?” my relation said, in a tone of anguish over the telephone.
Ukraine, of course. All news dwindles away in the face of war in Europe: missiles slamming into apartment buildings; desperate refugees picking their way across demolished bridges.
We wanted to forget COVID; but not like this.
You know a situation is really getting under people’s skin when your extended family starts calling to talk about it. Reaching out to me, I suppose, the same way you’d call a cousin who’s a plumber when you have a leaky faucet. I’m in the trade, this thinking-about-stuff business; maybe I can share the inside story.
I tipped back in my chair, put my feet on my desk. This would take a while.
“Well...” I began.
It’s human nature to want to insulate yourself from horrors. To exile them safely to the past — hard enough to contemplate cities being bombed in 1944, never mind to think about cities being shelled last Thursday.
We also like to segregate suffering, not only in time, but geographically, as far from ourselves as possible. The genocide in Myanmar furrowed some brows. But it was in the former Burma. Way off. Not so much video, and what photos was got, to be frank, were not of white folks. That part gets unsaid. But it’s true. Human beings have a proven track record of toughness when it comes to shrugging off the sufferings of anyone unlike themselves. Which is not that easy an option for our kind when forced to see a cute little blonde Ukrainian girl in a bomb shelter singing “Let it Go” from “Frozen” in a small, piping voice.
“It’s extra upsetting because it’s people like us carrying cell phones,” is what I actually said. My relative agreed: We’re all basically displaced Eastern Europeans. This is too close to home.
Though not a problem in Russia itself. There was a story Sunday in the New York Times, headlined “Ukrainians Find That Relatives In Russia Don’t Believe It’s a War.” It was about how Ukrainians, phoning their families in Russia, are being met with disbelief. War? What war? The “war” in Putin’s funhouse mirror worldview, is the West imposing sanctions. A reporter in Russia can go to prison for 15 years for calling what is happening in Ukraine a “war.”
And should the truth come out, never underestimate the ability of people to ignore a grim reality.
Remember the opening of Eli Wiesel’s novel “Night”? The little village of Sighet, in Hungary. All the foreign Jews are taken away, crying, crammed into cattle cars.
“What do you expect?” one villager sighs. “That’s war.”
One deportee, Moishe the Beadle, manages to escape. He returns to Sighet and tells of the horrors. Being forced to dig their own graves. Babies tossed in the air and machine-gunned.
Nobody believes him.
“People not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen,” Wiesel writes.
Give the world credit. It does seem to be listening to the news coming out of Ukraine. And even acting, a little. We’re trying a range of economic sanctions. Gum those Russians into submission. Seize a yacht here, close a store there, congratulations all around. And now, an oil embargo. Which might be the best we can do.
“Without Pearl Harbor, the United States probably would have never done anything to stop Hitler,” I said to my brother-in-law.
We sat on our hands. Two years passed after the Nazis invaded Poland before Japan forced us to act.
And though we won World War II, there is no guarantee what would happen now if we took on Russia.
“We could make it worse,” I said.
Not that there’s much chance of our acting decisively. Putin knows what to expect from us. In 2014, he seized Crimea. We dithered then too. Though some saw clearly what was ahead.
“I don’t think it’s over,” Senator Dick Durbin told me in 2014, after a quick fact-finding visit to Ukraine. “Here is Ukraine hanging by a thread, the army is just a shell of an operation. When they asked us for aid, here’s what they asked for: fuel, tires, sleeping bags and food. You think to yourself, ‘Oh man...’”
Durbin was pushing for more aid for Ukraine.
“All we can hope is the West makes serious noise and Putin decides not to go further,” he said.
As I’ve said before: Hope is not a success strategy.