Japan vs Libya

No one would deny that the terrible events in Japan are newsworthy. The images of the Tsunami’s destruction won’t be forgotten easily. Yet sitting with friends yesterday, we turned to Libya and how quickly – and conveniently – natural disaster had pushed messy, man-made political chaos down the news agenda. A forgetting made easier by the fact that there are very few images of Libya’s civil war to connect with. Is it real if it doesn’t happen in technicolour ?
It is real, of course. There are 180,000 refugees at Libya’s borders, a humanitarian crisis that has now moved on from stranded third-country migrants who can be repatriated relatively painlessly. Reports I’ve seen from aid workers at the Tunisian border indicate those crossing now are largely Libyans and Somalis – people undoubtedly in need of international protection. Yet already, despite all the talk of humanitarian intervention, the Libyan refugee crisis has become invisible or even presented as the problem the West needs to solve, to avoid “floods” of migrants.
Yet I can understand why Japan grabs the headlines.  It’s because terrible though their human consequences may be, the Western world understands how to respond to “natural” disasters. Solutions are technical, scientific, attainable and absolute.  They involve search and rescue teams and structural engineers, not messy political compromise. Rebuilding doesn’t have to involve reconciliation. And we can all pretend there’s no one to blame. An Act of God, followed by humanitarian heroism. It’s an old-fashioned narrative, but it’s a compelling one.
Arguably the West could have found its moral conscience a little earlier and just not sold Gaddafi the weaponry he’s currently using to bombard his people, but where’s the profit in that? Plus, Libya is a useful focus for Western states : Gaddafi’s an old-time villain, and it avoids having to pay too much attention to the arrival of the Saudi Arabian army in Bahrain. After all, what’s a little protest suppression between old friends?

In the end, that’s why we’d rather watch nuclear meltdown in Japan than civil war in Libya.  In Libya, the West’s ambiguous role is evident, noble rhetoric tainted by political calculation.  In Japan, we can engage in human tragedy without feeling guilty; we can play the empathetic observer without having to confront our own moral complicity. In Libya, we have to play the hero or we’ll be reminded of our long-term political cowardice.
Which is why I predict that unless the West gets to parachute in and save the day, Civil War and refugees will slowly slip down new agendas, uncomfortable reminders of our own political failings.