We can’t feel sympathy for all the suffering in the world. There’s just too much of it and too little room in our heads and hearts. Despite that we do feel the pain of some, which is good. Others we choose to ignore, which is less good.
Take last week. A young Indian woman called Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital. She was 17 weeks pregnant and she died, her husband said, because the doctors refused to perform an abortion to save her life. The grief of her husband, faced with the double tragedy of the loss of a spouse and child, is deep and dark. You can see why people took to the streets carrying placards saying ‘Ireland’s shame’. You can see why Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme dealt with the question four days in a row.
Five other women died on Sunday last. Not in a hospital, where doctors and nurses, even in Galway, strive to keep patients alive and restore them to health. These five women died without doctor or nurse. They didn’t die alone - eight children died with them. And their deaths didn’t happen because someone in a hospital didn’t do the right thing. They died because bombs had been dropped on them by the Israeli air force. In recent days over a hundred Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fighter-bombers.
No four-day Joe Duffy discussions for these people. Newly-elected American president Barack Obama spoke about the Middle East deaths but he did it in a way similar to the way the Troubles here were once reported: from behind police or British army lines. So Obama chose to speak of the conflict in the Middle East but it was suffering of Israel, subject to rocket attacks from the Gaza strip, that he drew attention to. He didn’t mention the names of the Palestinian women who died. He probably didn’t know them. Neither do I.
There’s a reason for this selective sympathy. Savita Halappanavar was an individual about whom we learnt a lot. We saw her picture, we heard from her husband, we watched a spokesman for the Indian government speak critically of what had happened. All around the world, newspapers carried headlines painting Ireland as the country which let a helpless woman die. She was an individual.
The Palestinians - they’re just an amorphous mass. Uneducated, excitable, far away. And so Barack Obama presents the situation as one where Israel, surrounded by enemies, must strike out in self-defence, and most of us accept that. We think of what the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis and, squashing a sense of uneasiness, we sympathise with Israel.
The United States sympathises with Israel too. In fact it goes beyond sympathy. Between 1996 and 2006, Israel was given $24 billion in financial military aid by the US. In August 2007, a new Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries, guaranteeing Israel $30 billion in military aid over the next ten years. Americans, you might say, have put and are putting their money where their mouth is. Just as the Jews were incarcerated in concentration camps, so the Palestinians are virtual prisoners on the Gaza strip: a piece of land 25 miles long and some 5 miles wide is home to 1.7 million people. It’s on these cooped-up people that the Israelis drop bomb after bomb.
Several decades ago, Christy Moore sang a song about the American role in the assassination of Chile’s president, Dr Salvador Allende.
“It’s a long way from the heartlands
To Santiago Bay
Where the good doctor lies
With blood in his eyes
And the bullets read ‘US of A’ “
In Gaza today, you don’t have to alter too many words to hear the same old song.