Photograph courtesy JDS

Towards the end of the 12th century, a man named Temujin would create an empire that would grow into the largest empire there ever had been. Even up to now it is second in size only to the British Empire. This empire would follow policies that would encourage trade and communication, and will become one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse empires in history. All in all, many people would view this man as a great man; someone who helped to advance the human civilization by setting up conditions that would allow it to prosper. If the man’s name sounds unfamiliar, that’s because he’s better known by another name – Genghis Khan, and the empire he found is the Mongolian Empire, the largest contiguous empire in history.

Time has the interesting effect of making it harder for people to empathise; to feel the pain of those who suffered. When people talk about Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan, when they talk about how great these men were, how brilliant they were, how glorious were their victories, how much good they’ve done to the world as a result of their actions, people often forget that these men caused immense suffering to many people. No one really knows how many people the Mongolians killed. The estimations vary from 10 million to 17 million. This number could be even bigger than the number of people that the Nazis killed. When Mongolians said they’d kill you if you don’t surrender, they really meant it. They would come to your country, to your city, kill every single man, woman and child and burn the city. People would be so paralyzed with fear that Mongolian soldiers would rape women in front of their fathers, husbands and brothers and no one would raise a sword. The Mongol sacking of Baghdad alone is said to have killed about one million people. And yet, when you read this, is it horror that you feel for your fellow human beings, or are you simply fascinated and awed by the scale of things?

Just like time, distance too has the interesting effect of making it difficult for people to empathise with other people. Towards the end of the Second World War, the Americans would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs. These bombs would kill 90,000 to 160,000 in Hiroshima and 60,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki. This was a great horror, but people miss the larger picture when they talk about it. The truth is, these bombings were not much worse than what was already happening. The allied forces conducted air raids in Japan and killed close to 900,000 people with firebombs in horrible ways, perhaps even more horrible than the atomic bombs. Many of those who died were civilians. The allied forces also bombed the German city Dresden and killed about 25,000 people, again many of them civilians. Many of the officials of the allied forces knew that they would be held accountable for war crimes had they lost.

The important thing to note here is that none of that would have happened if aircrafts had not been invented. This was 20th century modern world, not 12th century Mongolian Empire. People actually had a better sense of morality. But aircrafts made it easier to kill civilians, and sometimes even necessary. This was 1940s and the technology needed to target with precision simply wasn’t there. You had to hit everything to hit anything. Towards the end of the war, there might have been the technology to do that kind of targeting. But they kept doing what they were doing because it was working for them. There were indeed military facilities that were targeted by the atomic bombs. It’s just that there was no attempt made to limit the collateral damage. Basically, anything was okay as long as there was some military facility that would get destroyed because of it.

The thing is though, if you get one of those pilots who dropped the bombs on civilians, and tell them to kill 200,000 men, women and children with a knife by cutting their throats, even if this was physically not impossible, I don’t think they’d do it. It’s essentially the same thing. In fact, dying this way is perhaps better than dying because your lungs burst out, or dying because of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Still, the closeness makes killing more difficult. It’s difficult to dehumanize a person when you can see that person’s face, up close. In fact, I don’t think those higher raking officials would have given orders to kill 200,000 men, women and children if it meant cutting their throats with a knife, instead of dropping bombs on them from air.

There’s an even more fundamental cause that makes it hard for people to feel other people’s suffering, and time and distance are special cases of it. It’s the idea that a certain group of people do not belong to your group of people. The only reason it is acceptable for many people to eat beef is because cows don’t belong to their group. The pain and suffering it causes is acceptable because it’s not they who are the subject of that pain and suffering. Similarly it’s acceptable for many people to do certain things that might inflict pain and suffering on another group of people if it serves a greater cause. Ends indeed do justify the means, unless you are Kantian or religious. But you are far too willing to accept pain and suffering on a group of people that is not yours than if it was yours.

It is often said that the Tamil Tigers used Tamil civilians as a shield during the final stages of the war. This is often used to justify attacking them, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths. This might very well be a good enough justification. But those who think this way must be honest to themselves and imagine that the venue was Colombo instead of North, and the civilians were Sinhalese people you know instead of Tamil people you don’t know. Would you still think it is okay to attack them if the LTTE was using them as cannon fodder? This is a question you have to ask yourself, but I can guess the answer you’d give if you thought about this really hard and was honest to yourself. You wouldn’t like the idea. I know this by looking at how the Tamils feel right now. They don’t like it. You wouldn’t either.

You have already picked your sides. Whether war crimes happened in a large scale or not is irrelevant. What matters is which side you belong to. You have started with the conclusion and worked backwards. There might be some people who’ve genuinely come to the conclusion that war crimes never happened after carefully examining the evidence. There might be some people who’ve genuinely come to the opposite conclusion after carefully examining the evidence. But the vast majority of people haven’t actually read the UN report, haven’t actually watched Callum MaCrae’s documentaries and don’t even know what reputable foreign media say about these things. The vast majority of people who protested MaCrae when he came to Sri Lanka hadn’t watched his programme. Yet they behaved as if they had. They have already reached the preferred conclusion. It’s made easier by the fact that those who might have suffered did not belong to their group. You would notice that except for a very few people who are on the government payroll, no one really protests when foreign organisations ask about Ekneligoda or Lasantha Wickrematunga or Poddala Jayantha. It’s difficult to justify bad things being done to people when it is difficult to exclude those people from your group of people.

Such is human nature.