The recent avalanche of American generosity towards those whose lives have been destroyed by the horrific damage of the Tsunami offers a troubling contrast to our callousness towards those whose lives have been wrecked by the man-made horrors of war. The uncomfortable reality is that the purposeful suffering inflicted by armed conflict is more morally tolerable than suffering caused by natural disasters.
To understand this dichotomy of conscience, consider why wars are fought. They are not fought to liberate a people or bring democracy to a country. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had little to do with liberating women or throwing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein out of power and even the White House now admits that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. These wars, like all wars, have been fought because of greed and the quest for power and control, and the perceived need to restore honor. They are being fought to maintain and perpetuate a dominator, patriarchal society
We accept the cost of war, that collateral damage is a necessary if unfortunate side effect of our violence. Due to the near total information lockdown imposed by the military there are few pictures of Fallujah after the U.S. attack on that city. That is regrettable because it would be interesting to see pictures of Fallujah side by side with the devastation caused by the Tsunami. One wonders what difference, if any, there is between a city that has been bombed away and one that has been flooded away. They are both reduced to rubble, the surrounding landscapes permanently altered.
More profoundly, what about the impact on people's lives? We are rushing to send water and medical supplies, food and clothing to the victims of the Tsunami. But in Iraq, we have deliberately destroyed the water and electrical systems and made little effort to repair and replace them. The result is an extreme shortage of potable water and not enough power for such things as refrigerating food. We have bombed hospitals and cut off medical supplies, gasoline is scarce and expensive. People are without homes, jobs or schools. And as is always the case, civilians, most of them women and children, bear the brunt of this collateral damage.
By their very nature, wars are purposely destructive. We destroy the land and the people living there who are in our way or challenge our right to control them. It is no accident that we poison the land with permanently devastating weapons like depleted uranium and nuclear bombs or that the victims are disproportionately female. The rise of the patriarchal society in which we live was made possible by the domination of both the natural world and of women.
So why our greater horror at the devastation caused by the Tsunami? Quite simply, we are determined not to let the forces of nature have the upper hand. It is worth remembering that this country was settled in large part by taming the wilderness and its inhabitants. Today we pollute our waterways, our air and land with all manner of toxic pollution. We do this with no regard for the destructive impact of our actions because we have come to believe that the water, the air, indeed the whole world, are ours to control and use as we please. The damage done is merely the collateral damage of our insatiable need to have the most, to be the biggest and the best.
And everywhere, we shut our eyes to the victimization of women, particularly due to conflict. We shut our eyes to the shocking numbers of women who live in poverty and don't have enough to eat. We see the male privilege that allows sexism and violence against women as how the system works rather than mechanisms that perpetuate patriarchal control.
The domination of women and the earth have always been crucial to patriarchy because it is the only way to control the perpetuation of life. Forcing a woman to have sex against her will or denying her food to feed her family controls who lives and who dies. We add chemical fertilizers to crops in an attempt to grow more food, we mine the earth of its resources to supply our "needs" and build structures in which to live. Conversely, when we go to war, we destroy our enemy's homes and infrastructure and poison their resources in order to control them.
Because these acts are deliberate, we are not affronted by the damage they cause. Just like men frequently beat women "for their own good," the havoc of war, albeit unfortunate, is considered acceptable because it strengthens our control. Natural disasters on the other hand, particularly of the size of the recent Tsunami, are not within our control.* They assault our sense of power over the land and over our lives. We are quick to offer aid to the survivors and restore things to their man-made state because it is unthinkable that such a tragedy occurred at the hand of forces beyond our control (which we quickly want to re-assert).
War and violence however, are ours to control and it therefore seems perverse that we are so accepting of the incredible damage and hundreds of thousands of lives lost due to our insatiable lust for power. Unlike deaths due to natural causes, we are culpable for this carnage. It is time to realize that true empowerment will only be achieved by taking responsibility for the destruction that takes place by our own hands.
*Obscenely, we did in fact know that such an earthquake was likely to occur and chose not to warn those affected for fear of economic repercussions. While it is not clear how many lives this would have saved, the implicit arrogance vis-à-vis the forces of nature versus our own selfishness is clear.
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org which publishes Atrocities, a bulletin documenting violence against women throughout the world. Her work has been published in numerous publications including, Awakened Woman, Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, The Progressive, Rain and Thunder, Z Magazine , Common Dreams and Information Clearinghouse.
Other Articles by Lucinda Marshall
Immorality of American Generosity