Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Century of Humanity vs. Digital Emptiness

In Dallaire's final chapter, he links the forces of desperation and poverty that he saw at work in Rwanda to the rage evidenced in the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the United States. He concludes: "No matter how idealistic the aim sounds, this new century must become the Century of Humanity, when we as human beings rise above race, creed, colour, religion and national self-interest and put the good of humanity above the good of our own tribe."

This heartfelt plea provides a counterpoint to an earlier incident. Shortly before going to Rwanda, Dallaire attended the funeral of a Canadian soldier killed while on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. The soldier's father asked Dallaire to explain to him why his son had died. Dallaire said he had no answer; it did not occur to him then to talk about the good of humanity. Rwanda transformed him. He is, like most of us, a creature of his own experiences. The problem for the world, and for Dallaire's hopes, is that for all its horror, Rwanda's tragedy did not transform the world's will or capacity to carry out humanitarian interventions.

- From The Helpless General, Madeleine Albright's review of Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire's SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.

...Click. We are watching a commercial about deodorant, then a news broadcast of some hurricane in Honduras. Hundreds of men and women huddle beside crude shelters, children play in the mud. Trucks load and unload food and medical supplies.

...As I rub the sleep from my eyes, I am tempted to turn off the TV.

The truth is, I feel no connection to the faces on the screen. The Hondurans are just so many electronic pixels. I've decided that has been the great achievement of our age: to so thoroughly flood the planet with megabits that every image and fact has become a digitized disembodied nothingness. With magnificent determination, our species has advanced from the Stone Age to Industrial Revolution to Digital Emptiness. We've become weightless, in the bad sense of the word.

The Honduran women in their earth-colored shawls, the vacant men wearing their lopsided straw hats, are nothing more than bits on the screen, surges of electrical current, evaporations. I wish Shiela had never turned on the TV. I'd like to drift back to sleep, or read.

- From Reunion, by Alan Lightman (2003).

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