“Unworthy” Victims in Ukraine?

Although I’ve lived in Portugal for the last 32 years, I grew up in New York, so in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I received about fifty emails from friends and acquaintances from all over the world asking if my childhood friends and family members were safe (which they were). In their messages, they expressed their solidarity with me and other New Yorkers. And yet a number of others wrote that although they didn’t support terrorism, they could easily understand why Moslems would violently oppose the recent wars waged by the United States in Iraq – as well as America’s support for Israel – and be eager to avenge themselves on Americans. Two of these friends expressed no compassion for any of the victims of the attack and explained instead that the United States “was asking for it” – “it” being an attack on American soil. Although I had been arguing for decades that America’s foreign policy in the Middle East was misguided and morally bankrupt, their messages struck me as heartless and inappropriate – and, given my own state of worry and shock, incredibly mean-spirited. To one of them – a Portuguese writer – I took the time to ask if he would tell a grieving friend whose son had just died of a drug overdose that the young man was “asking for it”? Would he not instead express his grief and concern? I added that there’s a time for expressing compassion and another time – later – for trying to provide context and offer explanations. I also said that assigning blame at that moment to anyone other than the terrorists was largely pointless because – while New Yorkers were searching for missing family members and burying their dead – it only served to create resentment in me and other Americans. I suggested that in a few months, if he wanted, we could sit down and discuss how U.S. foreign policy had contributed to the development of Moslem activists who believed that murdering 3,000 men, women and children was justifiable and would further their cause. He never wrote back. And I never spoke to him again. 

And so, one of the lessons that the attacks on America in 2001 taught me is that there are people who lose their compassion when it comes to countries whose policies they don’t approve of or whose leaders behave in ways that they find objectionable. To them, there are “worthy victims” and “unworthy victims”. In the case of 9/11, the 3,000 New Yorkers and others who died in the terrorist attacks were deemed “unworthy” because of U.S. government foreign policy.  

I mention this now because some commentators and politicians have decided that the Ukrainian men, women, and children murdered in Bucha, Mariupol, and cities and towns across the country are also unworthy victims. Why? Because President Zelensky and the country’s leadership had the audacity to wish to move closer to the rest of Europe and – perhaps one day soon – seek membership in NATO. That was an unforgivable mistake, they say, and quite enough to explain Putin’s invasion and its relentless brutality. Indeed, a great many of them believe that the Russian dictator may very well be the true victim in this conflict. For instance, here is what British Labour MP Dianne Abbott said about the conflict at a political meeting during the second week of February: “We see that the United States has decided that it needs to send US and other NATO troops to Russia’s borders. This alone should tell us that the claims that Russia is the aggressor should be treated skeptically.”  

Here in Portugal, where I live, the Communist Party refused to denounce Russia’s invasion when it came up for a vote in Parliament near the end of February. Its spokesmen, João Oliveira, echoing Abbott’s sentiments, said that the United States was responsible for the war and “was ready to sacrifice every last Ukrainian and European in order to promote it.”  

Over the past weeks, Oliveira, Abbott, and many other politicians and commentators across Europe have done their best to transform Putin into a reactive pawn manipulated by NATO, the United States, Ukrainian President Zelensky, and the European Community. They somehow manage to overlook the fact that his entire dictatorial career has been based on an insatiable thirst for domination and power – and often characterized by acts of perverse cruelty. 

No, at this time, while war crimes are being committed in Ukraine – while parents are writing their children’s names and addresses on their skin in case they soon become orphans – I do not hold that Ukrainians are “unworthy victims” or that they were “asking for it.” Putin had alternatives to war and is responsible for each and every death – just as he is responsible for the imprisonment of thousands of courageous Russians who have voiced their opposition to this immoral war. There will be plenty of time for offering insights into what Ukraine, the United States, and Europe could have done differently once the conflict is over and the dead are buried. But this is not the time. This is the time for compassion and solidarity – and for actively helping the Ukrainians as they fight for their own survival. 

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