The Ethics Of… Giving a damn about MH17

MH what now? Is that the plane that disappeared over Malaysia that one time? No? Or is it… OH YEAH! That plane that got shot down! Man I remember that. Those stinkin’ Russians or someone shot it down for some reason and our Prime Minister kicked up a stink, then everyone sort of forgot about it.

Yeah, it’s fair to say I’ve left this one a bit late. I was all lined up to write about it all in the weeks following the incident on 17 July 2014, but then our ‘longing for the 1950s’ government had a run at an internet filter and it was too good a trainwreck not to poke the rubble a bit.

But as it happens I have a friend who was nearly on the plane in question (flew back from Europe a few hours beforehand) who has made a special request for this article, so here it is.

For those who are having trouble remembering the details, prepare yourself to keep being fuzzy on them because it was never actually sorted out who did what, when or why. We know that MH17 was flying over the Ukraine on its way to Australia when it crashed without warning – almost certainly due to a surface to air missile. We know that the Ukraine was at the time embroiled in a civil war between those who wanted to join up with the EU, and those who wanted to side with Russia. And we know that all 298 people on the plane died.

While it seems highly likely that pro-Russian Ukrainians accidentally shot the plane down, thinking it was a pro EU Ukrainian plane, we have no definite proof. And given the crash site was in the middle of a war zone – not to mention a source of considerable embarrassment for Russia if they were found to be involved – it’s likely any evidence was eliminated with extreme prejudice.

But politics is politics and I’m not interested in it. This is hardly the first time someone has accidentally killed some civilians in a war zone, and sparked a diplomatic row in the process.

No, what interests me was the way we reacted to this incident, both as individuals, a community and a country. We were pissed! 38 Australians dead! Killed by a foreign military! News media went into overdrive, as did our social media channels, with outpourings of grief, constant minute-by-minute updates, roars for justice and accountability. Our Prime Minister was at the forefront of the charge, actively denouncing Russia, even openly accusing them of supplying the alleged shooters with the missiles in the first place – an exceptionally frank statement on the world stage, especially when it’s Vladimir Putin’s Russia you’re having a go at.

Vladimir-Putin-riding-a-bearYou know it’s photoshopped… but do you believe it’s photoshopped?

We even declared a National Day of Mourning to honour the victims of this terrible attack. In other words, MH17 was a pretty big deal for Australia.

All of which begs the question: why does anyone give a shit?

Yeah yeah yeah, how could I be so cold, heartless and callous, right? But uncouple yourself from the pity train for a second and actually think about this with me here – why did we care about this so much? Despite my friend’s relatively close call to the incident, I didn’t know anyone that got killed. I don’t know anyone who knew the people that got killed. Prior to this incident they were, as far as I was concerned, totally non-existent, and this is true of the vast majority of people who got so angry and upset about the crash. Does anyone find it a bit strange that we all got so worked up over strangers so total that we didn’t know they existed?

But these were our countrymen! How can I be so nonchalant about an attack on my nation, my people, my neighbours? Well go back and read my previous paragraph and you’ll get a pretty good idea – I had absolutely no relationship with these people, and the fact that the bit of dirt they lived on is connected to the bit of dirt I live on doesn’t change that. In fact, the extremely popular idea that I should identify with these specific 38 victims more because of our shared nationality is bluntly idiotic. Just as the idea of ‘manlyness’ makes no god damn sense unless it describes literally all men, so too being ‘an Australian’ means one thing and one thing only – we live on the same bit of dirt and bitch about the same Federal Government. Brotherhood? Shared values? Pride? Piss off buddy, have you met some of the people we share this country with? If you share values with some of these numpties I feel very sorry for you indeed.

But you don’t need to know people in order to recognise when injustice is done against them! You don’t need to know them to sympathise with lives cut short, parents, partners and children left behind to grieve.

This is absolutely correct and the principle that justice should ignore all creed, colour, and relationship has formed a fairly large part of the articles on this website. But this in turn raises its own question: if we’re so concerned about justice, regardless of who is involved, then why are we heaping so much attention on a single incident that killed only 300 people?

At exactly the same time as Israel and Hamas were doing a stellar job of helping each other kill the Palestinian people, with a civilian body count of 1462, 495 of which were children, doesn’t this seem like a slightly bigger deal than a measly 300? Or, if you think that the politics surrounding the middle-east make it too difficult for us to intervene successfully for some reason, how about the Ebola outbreak that’s happening in Western Africa right now? An outbreak that has killed at least 3200 people, has made its way to the USA as of this week – and which has been brewing since December 2013?

So if caring about the victims of MH17 on a personal basis is ridiculous, caring about them on a national basis is idiotic, and caring about them due to the injustice is disproportionate to say the very least, then why did we all care so much about these victims?

Maybe it was the spontaneity of the incident. Maybe it scared us in a political sense, a sign that Russia may be getting aggressive again? Or maybe, just maybe, it was because catching a plane between Europe and Australia is something we might do. Was it perhaps the thought that ‘this could happen to me’ that drove out emotional connection with the event, rather than any real concern for the victims.

So should we even care about MH17? Given I seem to have nothing but disdane for our reasons for doing so, does caring just make us ridiculous/idiotic/disproportionate/selfish people who should know better?

Am I really arguing that people caring about each other is a bad thing?

Sometime rephrasing an issue changes it entirely, and just like that all my objections are laid low. Yeah sure, our motivations for caring about the victims of MH17 might be odd, stupid or even sinister, but that doesn’t change the fact that what we’re doing is essentially a good thing – caring about the fates of people that have been wronged.

It might be tempting to look down on this care when we seem quite satisfied to ignore other injustices and disasters elsewhere in the world, but this is exactly the wrong way to respond to the situation – we don’t want people to care less about things, we want them to care more. Arguing that people shouldn’t get so worked up about MH17 because they don’t also care about the middle east conflict is MAKING THINGS WORSE. Instead, how about we encourage this concern, these demands for justice, and encourage people to foster it to include other issues, other people and other problems.

Sure the reasons why we care about something determine how we go about helping, and Australia’s screaming charge back into Iraq right now is a great example of a good cause being abused (more on that another time – just contrast it against the USA’s reluctance for a good start though), but I’d rather people cared badly than they didn’t care at all. At least we have something to work with this way.

The world is a big, scary, complicated place and there is nothing more tempting than burying your head in the sand so you don’t have to deal with it – ignorance is bliss, right up until the train you were ignoring runs you over.

MH17 drew the heads of many out of that sand and made them pay attention. Whatever their motivations, no matter how stupid or broken their reasons, this is one small step away from blissful ignorance. We need to encourage the to take another.




One thought on “The Ethics Of… Giving a damn about MH17

  1. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Mercy | The Ethics Of

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