Thursday, December 09, 2004

Avoiding the question

If something is wrong and you could do something about it, but the problem is far away - is there a point where it’s okay to call it someone else’s responsibility? What if your doing something wouldn’t have much individual effect? And it would distress you? And if - by not doing something - you could put the whole matter out of your head, where you wish it had stayed?

A letter arrived yesterday from Amnesty International Australia. The envelope says, "Warning: Some people may find the enclosed material disturbing", and they’re not bloody joking. There’s a leaflet inside. On the front is the photo of a face:

When the body of street child Catrachito Luis was found in Guatemala, his eyes had been gouged out, his ears and tongue cut off - treatment customarily meted out by police to informers. The police claim they were not involved.
It’s not obvious when you look at this child that he no longer has eyes or a tongue, nor that he is dead. His face is so badly messed up, it’s not obvious he was real.

There’s also a plastic pen in the envelope, which you might possibly be holding in your hand as you read about the torture methods of interrogators at the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in Seoul. No, you don’t want to know. Neither did I.

Amnesty is trying to shock us out of complacency. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea. It’s taken me a whole day to look further than the first paragraph, and yesterday I thought I’d stop there. The point of the mailout is to say that:

In the right hands, the pen you are holding is a powerful instrument of change. In the right hands, it can make things happen. ...[Join] more than a million people in more than 150 countries who are prepared to stand up and be counted as people who won’t look the other way.

When, if ever, is it excusable to look the other way? I don’t want to look at this horror. I don’t have money to donate. I could write letters, but then I’m going to have to live with these torture stories in my head. They don’t make me feel angry, they make me feel sick.

But then I think about the people who aren’t me, and there’s quite a lot of them. Some are getting their eyes gouged out, or are being forced by Indonesian police to beat their mother (who is hanging upside down from the ceiling), or are finding their 2-year-old daughter has been raped by a soldier in Columbia, or are being sexually assaulted in public by reservists in Bosnia, or are found beaten to death on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, or are killed as child soldiers in Monrovia, or are dying in prison in Malawi.

In a letter accompanying the leaflet, the sentence: “What happens next is distressing. You may wish to stop reading.” Stop?? I wish you’d never made me start! Yes, I wish to stop! Yes, obviously!

But what if I do stop? Would you?