The callousness of the moment

There is an occasional consolation in being sick. Yes, extremely unusually for me, I am sick, apparently due to having breathed too much of the ammonia in Patches’ urine when she soaked my clothing.[1]

More precisely, the consolation comes from being on the mend. My sinuses are finally clearing and my cough is productive. And I was awake at around 2 a.m.

I caught up on email and perused social media, stumbling on a Google+ post by Robert Hansen. His writing here is raw (often, I think, the best kind) as he recounts a visit to Bergen-Belsen in Germany in his late teen years (he notes being “eighteen and know[ing] nothing of Jewish burial rituals” as he added a small stone to the pile on the memorial to Anne Frank). It is, from his account, the site of at least one mass grave (2000 dead) and the memorial to Anne Frank.[2]

I encourage you to read the whole thing. Hansen’s main point, apart from a descriptive narrative that’s well worthwhile, seems to be about the arbitrariness with which some of us are alive and some of us are not. Be sure also to read the comments; Roger Stenning usefully clarifies some details and adds his own impressions of the site.[3]

I’ll leave Hansen’s main point alone; I think the question he poses is partly philosophical and I have no particular insight to offer.

But not all deaths are arbitrary. Hansen, whose main thrust is on the Holocaust, notes the Rwanda massacre that occurred shortly after his visit.[4] Reacting to that, I noted—also on Bill Clinton’s watch—that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had told “a television interviewer who asked her about the [estimated half million] deaths of Iraqi children caused by sanctions, ‘This is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.’”[5]

Albright later apologized for that remark,[6] but it seems to me that the callousness of the moment says much more than subsequent regrets.

We can say generally of genocides, wars, sanctions, economic disruptions, and pogroms throughout history that there seems never to be a shortage of reasons to kill people. David Rieff quotes several former officials who defend the Iraq sanctions as the least awful available option.[7] What’s missing here are reasons to protect human and non-human lives.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “About Patches,” Not Housebroken, June 10, 2018,
  2. [2]Robert Hansen, [untitled], Google+, June 10, 2018,
  3. [3]Robert Hansen, [untitled], Google+, June 10, 2018,
  4. [4]Robert Hansen, [untitled], Google+, June 10, 2018,
  5. [5]Madeleine Albright, quoted in David Rieff, “Were Sanctions Right?” New York Times, July 27, 2003,
  6. [6]David Rieff, “Were Sanctions Right?” New York Times, July 27, 2003,
  7. [7]Madeleine Albright, quoted in David Rieff, “Were Sanctions Right?” New York Times, July 27, 2003,

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