Sometimes I wonder if humanity is worth saving, that maybe the time has come to pull the plug and turn out the lights.
My morning began with a review of my Twitter timeline, and this was near the top.
— PRI's The World (@pritheworld) July 17, 2015
What caught my eye was not the headline. Instead, it was the little girl.
There are four framed pictures atop my bookshelf at the office. Two pictures are of cats, one who died in 2001, the other who ran away a few weeks before I moved from Raleigh in 2006. The other two pictures are of my niece, one when she was an infant, the other when she was three and a half.
The little girl in the picture reminded me greatly of my niece. Not quite a twin; this girl is a few years younger than my niece, but she has the same features and the same unruly mop of curly hair. From a distance, I would almost certainly mistake her for my niece.
The PRI article wasn’t especially interesting. In the Yemeni civil war, the Saudis are using American-made cluster bombs as a weapon against the Houthi rebels, who may be backed by the Iranians. A cluster bomb is basically a shotgun-blast of explosives that are scattered over a wide area to do damage over as large an area as possible. Because of that, they stand a high risk of harming civilians, and the Saudi-deployed cluster bombs have had civilian victims. Most of the world is party to an international agreement not to use cluster bombs. The United States and Saudi Arabia are not.
I found the Reuters article where the image of the little girl — “An internally displaced girl waits with her father (not pictured) for her turn to receive food at a school in Sanaa May 17, 2015” — originated. The article, written by Chris Arsenault in June, reported on how the fighting in the civil war made the distribution of food from a United Nations program impossible.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis,” [United Nations World Food Program] spokeswoman Abeer Etefa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Cairo. “The city has been cut off from supplies for a long time.”
Aden residents have no running water or electricity, and food shops are empty because supplies have not been getting into the city, Etefa said.
Even before the latest violence, many Yemenis were going hungry. Yemen imports around 90 percent of its food and an estimated 16 million people, more than 60 percent of the population, need humanitarian assistance, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported.
The reasons for the fighting in Yemen are long and complicated, and I doubt I can do them justice. Yemen was once two countries, a generally religious north and a generally secular south, that were unified into a single country twenty-five years ago. (Yemen, by the way, is where “the Queen of Sheba” comes from; that area of the Arabian peninsula was once known as Sheda in pre-Islamic times.) Earlier in the year, religious rebels from the north, known as the Houthis, seized the capital city Sana’a and deposed the country’s president. This touched off a conflict as Saudi Arabia, who backed the deposed president, led bombing campaigns against the Houthi rebels to drive them back. The Houthi are Shi’a and are believed to be backed by Iran, the loyalists to the deposed president are Sunni (like the Saudis), and there might even be an ISIS influence at work in the country. This BBC article might explain it better. Boiled down, Yemen is an extremely poor country, and much of the conflict stems from who had power and who was excluded from power.
Sometimes I struggle with understanding humanity’s inhumanity to man and the glee and willingness with which is goes about it for what are the most trivial of reasons — their enemies believe the wrong thing, their skin tone is slightly different, they’re not like some amorphous “us.”
It happens all around the world, every single day. It’s not unique to Yemen. It’s happening in Burma with the Rohinga. It’s happening throughout the Middle East. It’s happening in Africa. It’s happening here. Hating on and hurting fellow human beings is wired into our software. I don’t understand it.
I look at the picture of the little girl, the tears welling in her eyes, crumbs on her chin, and my heart breaks. She looks to me like she’s three or four. Before the fighting, she had a home and friends she could play with. Two months ago, when that picture was taken, she had none of that.
There’s real suffering in this world. There are people in this country who have nice homes, with refrigerators and panties full of food, who fill their time with two hundred television channels with nothing they want to watch, who feel that they’re suffering because they have to accept that two men can ask for a marriage license. On the other side of the world, there are tens of thousands who have no roof over their heads, who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, who have lost everything they owned for reasons that have nothing to do with them.
At our best, humanity is capable of wonders, like our arrival Pluto this week. But at our worst — and our worst is so much more common — we turn on ourselves in pointless and brutal savagery.
I call myself a journalist. I am, I write about comic books and toys. Someone has to. It feels important. Just yesterday, I was thinking of how proud and happy I was with a piece I wrote in 2009 on Bloom County. Then I look at the pain and the suffering in the world, I look at the tears and the anguish in the eyes of this little girl in Yemen, and I realize how unimportant toys and comic books are. I could be writing something, doing something to make the world a better place, to help people like the little girl in Yemen and ease their pain and suffering, the little girl who reminds me so much of my niece. Little girls shouldn’t be crying because they’ve lost everything they’ve ever known and going hungry because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from or what it will be.
Then I wonder what one person can do, what I can do.
And I don’t know.