Illustration by Luis Grañena of a posh couple having dinner with their backs turned on a TV screen showing victims of war
© Luis Grañena

I once interviewed an Israeli who, as a child, had survived the Holocaust in Romania. In 1947, he and 500 other starving children were invited to recover in the Dutch town of Apeldoorn. “We arrived in Apeldoorn at lunchtime,” he told me. “They gave us bread, we ate all the bread, and they said, ‘Don’t eat it all, because you are getting potatoes and meat.’ If you are starving, and you come into a free country, with no Germans, where the people are nice to you . . . ” and he trailed off.

I’ve been thinking of this man while watching Aleppo die. Military intervention in Syria is now hopeless because of the mass of meddling powers, but we could at least try to save Aleppo’s children — or house the unaccompanied migrant kids now living rough in Europe. Our refusal to do so is not simply because most of these people are Muslims or black Africans, and therefore branded the untouchable Other. More than that: we westerners have changed.

After the Holocaust, Europe and the US tried to make up for having let it happen. “Never again” was the slogan. Postwar Europe housed and fed millions of Internally Displaced People in camps.

The “Never again” impulse then remained dormant, until it resurfaced after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. President Bill Clinton later said that he felt “a lifetime responsibility” for having let the killings happen. Around the same time as Rwanda, Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List — about a man who saved thousands from the Holocaust — had Tony Blair “spellbound”.

The west then realised that with Russia newly acquiescent, it could intervene to stop horrors. From 1995 through 2000, western countries ended wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. When Blair decided to help depose Saddam Hussein, he was driven by narcissism and false beliefs about Saddam’s weapons but also by liberal humanitarianism.

Many westerners at the time felt a moral superiority: we have the best system, and we help foreigners. This feeling was partly delusional but it gave westerners a proud shared narrative.

That’s now gone. After the 9/11 attacks, lots of westerners stopped seeing Muslims as fellow humans. The Iraq war and later our Libyan intervention discredited the case for action abroad. The financial crisis of 2008 focused the west on its own problems. Anyway, by that time Russia had returned to stymie our foreign plans, and Barack Obama gave it space. Next the refugee crisis became the latest enactment of western elite failure: TV screens showed crowds of people trying to barge across borders while western politicians bickered in meetings. That’s how we got to the point where a four-year-old girl in Aleppo has her body smashed by a cluster bomb and dies in a bloody hospital, and few westerners even notice. After Aleppo was mentioned in Sunday’s US presidential debate, there was a surge in Google searches for “a Lepo”.

Many westerners do want to help, notes Tim Dixon of the activist organisation Purpose. Polling by Tent Tracker shows that even after last year’s Paris attacks, 71 per cent of people in various western countries were willing for their country to take in refugees. But the populists have won the argument — notably in the countries most responsible for messing up Iraq and Libya.

“I think Britain comes out of this story terribly,” says British human-rights lawyer Philippe Sands. “It’s terribly embarrassing to be British.”

It’s fun to mock anyone who wants to help refugees as a naive metropolitan elitist. However, if that’s your position, you then have to own the death of a kid on the Aleppo hospital floor. You have to say to his parents, “We could have saved him, but we didn’t want to.”

Many westerners now argue that we are too poor to help others. The rise of populism is taken to prove this — even though the median household income of Donald Trump’s primary voters was $72,000, according to the statistician Nate Silver, while most Brexit voters were middle-class, according to the Oxford geographer Danny Dorling.

Clearly, western countries can afford to help. The inhabitants of Apeldoorn in 1947 would have gaped at today’s average westerner, with his income of €30,000, his life expectancy of 80 and a computer in his pocket powerful enough to launch a moon rocket. The UN Refugee Agency’s shortfall on its budget last year was $9bn — or about half what Europeans spent on pet food. We’ve simply chosen to keep our money and pity for ourselves.

The decisive issue when you look at a refugee is not the price tag but whether you think, “That could have been me.” Few westerners today feel that the dead child in Aleppo could have been their own. That detachment is probably a consequence not of western misery, but of western comfort after 71 years of peace.

“Never again” was just a phase we went through. Obama will be left feeling a “lifetime responsibility” for Aleppo, but he isn’t the only one. Twitter @KuperSimon

Illustation by Luis Grañena

Get alerts on Syrian crisis when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section