Irreplaceable and irreducible

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

One of the many indirect dangers brought about by the pandemic is becoming desensitized to the scale of the death that surrounds us. Every day we are presented with the numbers of the newly sick and the recently deceased, and while the total number of the former can decrease, the latter keeps growing. The number of recoveries is a testament to both the nature of the illness and the heroic efforts of our frontliners and those who care for the sick, but as of Sept. 14, 2021 we are at 35,529 dead, with over 200 new deaths added on that day.

When even a single death in our families can devastate us, it’s hard to truly understand this number on a mental or emotional level. 35,529 is not just a number – each one represents a person with dreams and aspirations, with achievements and passions, with family and friends that loved them. Each person’s death cannot be reduced to a mere statistic, even if we have no choice but to continue the morbid count as the battle against COVID-19 and its variants continues.

I say battle, but the sad fact is that while this is symbolic when it comes to the struggle against the virus, real battles persist even during the pandemic. The civil war in Yemen which began in 2014 continues to rage amidst the pandemic, while Ethiopia’s civil war in the Tigray region began in November of last year, well after COVID-19 reached the country. The recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan also shows how closely beneath the surface the embers of war may linger, just waiting for the right spark.

Every day human beings kill other human beings, not out of passion or personal grievance, but out of misguided ideology or as instruments of the machinery of the State. It is in war that humanity becomes its own worst enemy, where humanity most easily loses that which makes us human.

Today is International Day of Peace, and with human lives still under grave threat from COVID-19 and other natural sources, it’s still important to mitigate the largest threat posed by human hands, to work at the elimination of war.

It may sound like a pipe dream – but in spite of what many may believe, war is not something that comes naturally to people. The fascination with warfare that can be found in our stories and entertainment mediums do not contradict that statement – we are interested in the exceptional, the unusual, the hard-to-imagine.

For those of us fortunate enough not to live in conflict zones, the horrors of war are foreign to our personal experience and daily lives. We may be born with destructive tendencies and appetites, but these are usually of a deeply personal nature – people lash out at what we personally fear, at what threatens us, to assert or display our own power and position to a group.

The potential for violence in humankind becomes capable of the massive harm of warfare only in the presence of two things: a learned ideology that legitimizes violence, and institutions that allow the creation and deployment of violence on such a scale. Technology has increased the power of both these elements – harmful ideologies spread across borders as fast as they can be typed into a keyboard, and modern weapons mean that in the 20th century alone, war was responsible for more than 100 million deaths – almost half the estimated population of the world in 1000 AD.

100 million… If 35,000 is hard to fathom, how much more that number? And yet each person who was part of that number is just as unique, irreplaceable and irreducible as those in the 35,000, as that of the first loved one you ever lost. And each of those people lost their life as a direct result of the actions of another. And what is caused by human action can be stopped by human action.

War is not inevitable, unless we make it so. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “The world will live in peace only when the individuals composing it make up their minds to do so.” And minds and hearts are what need to be transformed in order to lessen the grip of warfare. All over the world, ultra-nationalistic and extremist ideologies are being pushed, and we must do all we can to prevent pride in our nations and ethnicities from becoming an excuse to hate and marginalize those seen as different, as Other.

We must take care to educate our children in empathy and diversity and provide them with the ability to critically evaluate a wide variety of perspectives and experiences. This is just one of the reasons that we so urgently need to find ways – such as more research into vaccination for minors – for children to safely return to schools. More knowledge, more books, more education… that’s the way to secure a better future, not the other way around.

But challenging the grip of ideologies is just one part of it – the institutions of government created to execute the coercive powers of the State must be responsive to the will of the people and made to adhere to democratic and humanitarian principles. As a nation, we must be vigilant in the exercise of our right to defend our nation – but such exercise must be in line with the very high standards set by the Constitution. There must be adequate checks and balances to ensure that military might cannot be used as a tool for personal interests, nor as an instrument of oppression of the very people the institution was meant to protect.

Peace is such a difficult goal to achieve because it is not merely the absence of war. It’s not the silence of a battlefield after all who oppose the victor have fallen. The peace we long for is what has been called a “positive peace” or a “just peace” – one in which the violence embedded in unjust and inequitable structures has been uprooted and where efforts are made to reduce cycles of violence and retribution.

Human life is irreducible to a number, and each one is precious and irreplaceable. Death is a part of life that we must accept – but not death at the hands of another, not death in the trenches of war.

The road is long, but we walk it side by side, and peace is the only worthwhile destination.

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