Recently, I was eating dinner with a few friends, with the news playing on the TV in the background, when a segment about Syria came up. I voiced my opinion that peacekeeping troops should be sent in with a mandate to protect civilians.
X: We should just leave them to kill each other.
Me: You can't be serious.
X: Yes I am.
Me: But a few days ago, 49 children under the age of 10 were brutally murdered, some with their faces sliced off.
X: And if they grow up they'll be no better.
The conversation continued a bit, but didn't progress anywhere. I was too horrified to be able to construct much of an argument. I felt ill. I knew, in an abstract sort of way that there were plenty of callous, heartless people out there, but this was someone I knew, someone I liked, who openly said that it was a good thing that children were being brutally murdered, because of the part of the world into which they had been born, and who they might become.
It's taken me a few days to be able to rationalise this out, to move past the complete revulsion to understand that X is not a bad person, he just has some very bad ideas. He has lead an extremely privileged life, and is unable or unwilling to imagine himself living life in a less privileged part of the world. Having said that, my opinion of X has changed. Unless I see evidence of a change of stance, my new understanding of his character will cast a permanent shadow over our relationship.
If you find yourself agreeing with X's position, I challenge you to watch Hotel Rwanda, or even better, read An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, on whose story Hotel Rwanda was based. Understand that behind the conflict (and poverty) statistics that we see on TV are human lives with no less value than our own.
No, we cannot help everyone. That does not mean that we should not bother to help anyone. Nor does it mean that the death of a child in a far off part of the world is any less tragic than if it happened here.