Another bloody century

Lubna Abdel-Aziz , Tuesday 17 Oct 2023



Watching the atrocities unfold on our TV sets, we were convinced this was an old war movie or perhaps a documentary on the 20th century. 

This is the 21st century, or is it?

For days we have been paralysed, saddened, stunned by the senseless bloodshed and destruction, by the incredible grief of broken hearts and homes.

How happy we were to be rid of the bloodiest century in the history of humanity, mired by two world wars, which alone killed 60 million people, not to mention horrendous genocides, plagues, conflicts and other 20th century tragedies gnawing at the heart of man.

With great relief and delight we welcomed a new year, a new century, a new millennium, with renewed hope that lessons have been learned and peace and prosperity will now bless our lives.

However, were we to take a satellite view of our planet, it would reveal that the globe remains in the dark, ignorant of man’s achievements in the last two millennia. While those achievements have unequivocally afforded us an advanced degree of sophistication and refinement in all matters technical, aspects of the emancipation of the heart, remain woefully lagging behind.

Technology has pampered, entertained, and informed us. It also gave us weapons of mass destruction hastening the demise of humanity. Do the negatives cancel the positives?

Are we paying for our technology with our humanity?

The manifestation of the rarity of human compassion is being masterfully displayed by the relentless bombardment and siege of Gaza.

If a small group of extremist terrorists commit heinous, horrific crimes against innocent victims, should responsible, legal, civilised governments respond in similar fashion?

What then is the difference between the two?

Prejudice and intolerance, the cerebral expressions of modern man, remain as much a part of his human makeup as do the more rudimentary instincts of cruelty and violence. Such residuals of his ancient fears and insecurities are basic instincts that remain etched in our brain since our primeval ancestors hunted and killed for the survival of the species.

Are we still savages, hunting and killing in a tremendously inhospitable environment?

This is the 21st century. Were we not able to implement a more amenable environment among ourselves? Obviously not. Our compassion takes a backseat to our baser instincts.

With a hardness of heart we still sit and watch the heartlessness, shaking our heads, maybe shedding a tear, but doing nothing.

We heard the voice of the United Nations asserting that such crimes will never happen again, so they swore, “but, were they sober when they swore?”

Since Cain killed Abel, mankind inherited a licence to kill. Man kills on a whim, for greed, revenge, power. Even a pretty face “has launched a thousand ships”.

Animals have better motives to kill than man.

Wars have been waged for little rhyme or reason. Genocide is no relic of the past. The Hitlers of the past are the Netanyahus of the present.

Does history teach us nothing? Do we simply learn “from the mistakes of the past to make new ones”?

In every year of the 20th century conflicts existed, killing 187 million humans from 1900 to the present. Three per cent of the world population disappeared in the two world wars.

Is a third war on its way in this century?

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

No weapon has ever been invented that did not have a defensive counter element except for the nuclear weapons. So far, the fear of the unmentionable “nukes” has been avoided, but they were used in the past century. Will humanity be saved from the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

At present, 15 countries are at war, 32 countries in conflict, like Sudan, Congo, Yemen, Tunisia, and Ukraine. 

Looking into your crystal ball there are wars in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, even though they assume such names as uprisings, rebellions, insurgencies, and others. War may have changed its character, with new military strategies — air power, cyber war, weapon precision systems. They all kill humans.

Political theorist Francis Fukoyama wrote: “It was believed that the 21st century humanity would be a globalised post-conflict society moving in deterministic concert towards collective peace and prosperity.” So far, the century has not brought global peace.

Although we have seen a greatly reduced battle death rate when compared to the last century, 470,000, it is the duty of the historian to keep the past alive. Should we not study the past to divine the future?

The century is still young and has already been traumatised by atrocities and catastrophes. Can we help but fear what lies ahead?

Philosophers show little faith in the ability of man to learn from history. 

We lament the inaudible voice of the useless body of the United Nations. What was not to happen again happens daily somewhere amongst its member nations.

Singing our mournful songs, with the soft, sad breezes of October, we are reminded of the best of times and the worst of times.

As the aching sorrow settles permanently in the heart pit we reflect on the future of mankind. 

Will right and might still be fighting on opposite ends?

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that History has to teach.”

  Aldous Huxley (1890-1963)

* A version of this article appears in print in the 19 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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