Commentary. The Sultan Erdogan has raised the stakes and unleashed the desperation of refugees, weaponizing it. And we are doing nothing but watching. That’s something much more serious than ‘a concern for us.’ In fact we are complicit.

The epidemic of our time

Not even the verses of the ancient poet Sappho—who also suffered as a result of being thrown into exile—would do justice to Lesbos, her native island, now transformed into a living hell. 

There are the Nazi-Fascists of Golden Dawn attacking the refugees who arrived as desperate runaways fleeing the war. There are the Greek Coast Guard and police who are firing rounds at migrants who dare to cross the Turkish border. There are children who either drown in an attempt to land or—in the face of such Mediterranean “hospitality”—are attempting self-harm, while the right-wing government of Greece is crying “invasion” and suspending the right of those who arrive to even apply for asylum.

Everyone is saying these events “concern us” directly—but perhaps there is much more to the story than that.

Because not even the visionary John Belushi would have imagined that his plea for forgiveness in the cult film The Blues Brothers, in which he tried to placate the wrath of the woman he had abandoned at the altar (played by Carrie Fisher), would be enacted as a dramatic collective reality a few decades later: “I ran out of gas! I got a flat tire! I didn’t have change for cab fare! I lost my tux at the cleaners! I locked my keys in the car! An old friend came in from out of town! Someone stole my car! There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Locusts! IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!”

“It’s not my fault,” we all say—and beside running out of gas, earthquakes and plagues of locusts, we might add to the list the real calamities of nowadays, not Biblical but simply part of contemporary reality: war—i.e. our many Middle Eastern wars—global warming and the end of the energy model based on non-renewable sources.

These are all issues for which it’s not enough to say that “they concern us,” as seems to be the fashion—as we are reminded, for instance, by reading the Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica, newspapers that have never missed an opportunity to applaud a conflict when framed as being in defense of Western interests. We must instead admit that they are our fault, and that we are far from innocent in the role we have played.

It is the Middle Eastern wars in particular that lie at the origin of this particular chain reaction of horrors. The West has been promoting them and setting them off over the last 30 years, invoking various rationales for them— from Afghanistan to the nonsensical project of getting “revenge” for Sept. 11, to the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003, which ended up not existing at all; and from the successful support for the revolt against Gaddafi and the successful destabilization of Libya, to the even bloodier unsuccessful one in Syria.

Another of our tactics is to sweep them under the rug, like the central issue of the Palestinians. Most importantly, however, they are still there whether we acknowledge them or not. Much like our strategic interests to continue our current development model unimpeded, based essentially on exploiting the “black gold.” And this—the failure of all those war enterprises launched in pursuit of these bankrupt objectives—is precisely the origin point from which an uninterrupted flow of millions and millions of desperate refugees has now arrived.

Let it be clear: we haven’t merely waged these wars by proxy—on the contrary, we have often done the dirty work ourselves, with political coalitions like the Friends of Syria (the European countries, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates), and directly on the battlefield or from far up in the sky, in the form of “humanitarian” aerial bombardments. We pretended not to see the disaster all of this was causing on the human level. Sometimes we did it by using others as instruments, for instance using a dictator who happened to be an ally for the occasion to bring down another dictator who suddenly became the enemy. And in the end, we didn’t delegate, but rather bribed someone else—in this case, Erdogan’s Turkey—to keep the refugees away from Europe, and likewise the Libyan militias, whatever banners they happened to be marching under, so that they would lock away in their prisons the refugees fleeing from the miseries of Africa—a “rich” continent, but only in terms of the riches it delivered to us.

And now, the Atlantic Sultan Erdogan, whom we chose to involve in the failed campaign of destruction waged in Syria and who then turned his attention to Libya, now finding himself in difficulty on both of these military fronts that we opened together with him, has raised the stakes and unleashed the desperation of the refugees, weaponizing it. And we are doing nothing but watching. That’s something much more serious than “a concern for us.” By turning human rights into a dead letter, as Europe is doing, we are not only watching, but we are fully complicit.

In the era of the coronavirus, we might recall Che Guevara’s unwavering passion, which led him to go for a swim in the leper colony in Peru, as recounted in the film The Motorcycle Diaries, inspired by his travel diaries. Only such passion might be able to bridge the space that separates us, not only from those infected with the coronavirus, but—what is even worse—from those who are being cast off as lepers by the diseases of our times: populist xenophobia, arbitrary borders of nation and race, racial supremacist hatred and the constant presence of the virus of war. We don’t have any hand sanitizer good enough for that one—and trying to wash our hands of the whole thing only leaves us dirtier than ever.

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