How to be good in this bad world - Keith Roulston editorial
Watching Afghanistan descend into chaos with the Taliban sweeping the country, I couldn’t help but think of the central character in Nick Hornby’s novel How to be Good.
The book tells the story of a doctor who spends her life helping people in pain and suffering. She thinks of herself as a good person until she’s forced to re-examine her life after her husband is influenced by a penniless visionary who feels that no matter how much you’ve given, you should give more. Not only does her husband invite the mystic to move in with them, but he gives away his children’s toys and persuades his neighbours to take in homeless kids, some of whom take off with their prized possessions.
So in Afghanistan, were we not as good as we wanted to be? For some, the devastatingly rapid collapse of the Western-supported government once the Americans said they would pull out their army proved we should never have interfered in the country at all. For others, that decision to leave betrayed all those who had believed Westerners’ words that they could build a new, more enlightened country.
U.S. President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump agree on one thing – that it was time that the U.S. got out of Afghanistan. Biden argued that the original purpose of going into Afghanistan had been accomplished. Then-President George W. Bush wanted to drive out Al-Qaeda, perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks, which used the country as its base. With Al-Qaeda gone, Biden argued one more year, or five more years of U.S. presence wasn’t going to change the country. The quick surrender of the Afghan army, even with its superior numbers and superior weapons provided by the U.S. seems to prove his point.
Canada followed the U.S. into Afghanistan 20 years ago because Prime Minister Jean Chrétien felt we had to support the Americans somewhere, but didn’t want to be part of the invasion of Iraq. Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought Canadian troops home in 2014, to the relief of most Canadians who were tired of watching the bodies of 158 soldiers paraded home along the Highway of Heroes.
On one hand, Westerners – particularly Americans – are blamed for getting involved in parts of the world where they are accused of having no place. On the other hand, we are indicted for being rich and self-centred for not caring what’s happening to those living in hardship in the rest of the world.
Whatever support there was for our involvement in Afghanistan was mostly for the plight of women. When the Taliban took over the country in the 1990s, they forbade girls from being educated. Girls were forced to marry Taliban fighters. Educated women were not allowed to practice their skills. Women could only be treated medically by women but women weren’t allowed to be doctors!
Religious police enforced edicts on dress code, employment, access to medical care, behaviour, religious practice and expression. Anyone found to be in violation of an edict might be subject to punishment meted out on the spot, which included
beatings and detention.
This, apparently, will be the world for the people of Afghanistan again now that the Taliban is back in control.
So how can we Westerners be good? Do we mind our own business or do we get involved? It’s been a point of debate particularly in the U.S. for decades. In the 1930s Americans, reacting to the terrible loss of life in World War I, turned to isolationism. Strange bedfellows from progressives to conservatives, business owners to peace activists together supported non-involvement in the affairs of Europe and Asia, even as Hitler and Mussolini invaded their neighbours and Japan expanded into China and dreamed of an empire. Later, when the U.S. was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war, the isolationist movement was seen as naive and plain destructive.
The argument can be made that Westerners should not get involved directly, but simply send their dollars and Euros to help disadvantaged countries. The problem with that can be seen in Haiti, the other distressing hot-spot on the weekend, where another earthquake killed hundreds. Earthquakes, hurricanes and general poverty have plagued the people there. Billions have been sent from abroad but too often corrupt politicians have siphoned off money to their own hidden bank accounts.
And how do we help the women of Afghanistan? Hardly by sending money to a government run by the Taliban.
So the challenge of how to be good remains. Certainly United Nations agencies and non-profit aid groups can make things better for thousands, even millions, but it all feels so frustratingly small compared to the world’s challenges.