20,000 civilians killed in Sri Lanka?

Recently, there have been reports about the killing of large number of civilians in the recently concluded military operations in Sri Lanka. Now, I have never followed Sri Lankan politics in any detail. So I cannot comment on which side (if any) is in the right. But that is not the purpose of the post. I am writing this post because I am a little surprised at my own reaction to this. Or rather the lack of reaction. I feel nothing at all. No sympathy for those killed, no anger or admiration for the fighters on either side, nothing at all. A single untimely death can be a tragedy but 20,000 just leaves me untouched. I believe in the benevolent universe premise and thus have a default good-will toward people I do not know, an expression of the idea that human life is valuable. Does the lack of reaction contradict this premise? Have I turned into a cynic?

To get atleast some minimal understanding of what the conflict was all about, I looked up LTTE on wikipedia. In a long article, the only reason mentioned for the cause of the conflict is this one line: “The Tamil Tigers claimed to be fighting to protect the country’s Tamil minority from discrimination at the hands of the successive Sinhalese majority governments that have ruled the country since independence”. That and the two maps in the same article indicate that the conflict is ethnic. An ethnic conflict is inconceivable to me in the sense that I cannot even remotely understand the kind of thinking that would motivate a person to participate in it. I have zero respect for any religion (never had any) or for tradition for its own sake. That people are willing to fight and kill for the sake of religion and/or tradition is inconceivable.

The conflict is not new. It has been going on for decades. What have all these “civilians” been doing while a civil war was raging in their country? Either they have actively supported it or they have ignored it even though they knew they would be caught in the cross-fire. Either way they have not demonstrated any respect for human life, not even their own. If they never cared much about their own lives, why should I? Anyhow, I don’t even subscribe to the idea that civilians should be exempt from military operations.

The first time I heard about the LTTE was when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. I was only a kid then. It is telling that in all the time since then (almost two decades) I did not even know what the conflict was about. I have never been particularly interested in politics but that does not explain it. I knew what the American civil war was about, for instance. I never knew what the conflict was about because in all the reports that I must have read or glanced at, I found no sensible reasons.

To sum up, my lack of reaction was because I did not care about these people at all, not because I did not know them but because I knew (only implicitly) that they were not acting sensibly. I still hold that “human life is valuable”. But human (in this context) is more than a biological description. And people who are willing to participate in ethnic strife or to live passively while it destroys everything around them do not qualify.

As I was writing this I remembered that Aristotle The Geek had recently written somehing about Prabhakaran (the LTTE leader). So I searched for LTTE on his blog and found these two posts. The first reveals that socialism was part of the idealogy of the LTTE. So the civilians who supported the LTTE are not just tribalistic but also socialist. The comments in the second raise another issue – how do collectives relate to individualism and should one recognize them? I will write about that later.


Via Bill Brown at The New Clarion, I came across this piece by David Brooks. The piece begins with

You wouldn’t know it some days, but there are moderates in this country — moderate conservatives, moderate liberals, just plain moderates. We sympathize with a lot of the things that President Obama is trying to do. We like his investments in education and energy innovation. We support health care reform that expands coverage while reducing costs.

Investments with whose money and whose judgement? But those are not questions that would occur to Brooks. He is after all a self confessed collectivist. He does voice some objections to the massive spending that Obama’s budget entails.

The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment. Yet the Obama budget is predicated on a class divide… The U.S. has always been a decentralized nation, skeptical of top-down planning. Yet, the current administration concentrates enormous power in Washington… [etc etc]

Note the nature of the objections. None of the objections are based on principles. They are merely appeals to tradition. And yet Brooks writes

We moderates are going to have to assert ourselves. We’re going to have to take a centrist tendency that has been politically feckless and intellectually vapid and turn it into an influential force.

The centrist tendency has been “politically feckless” and “intellectually vapid” because that is its essential nature. Moderation in politics is not the same thing as moderation in eating or spending or drinking. Political ideas – all ideas for that matter – are true or false. And once one has sufficient evidence to judge which of the two a particular idea is, moderation is just a euphemism for lack of courage and anti-intellectualism. While it is a virtue to have an active mind that constantly evaluates new evidence, adopting an anti-intellectual stance that treats every issue as perpetually open, regardless of evidence, is not. Moderates like Brooks necessarily have to appeal to tradition if they are to hold any position at all, a tradition set by people who were not moderates. Brooks’ centrist tendency is suffering from too much moderation.

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