There is a scene in Richard Attenborough’s film “Gandhi” where rows of non-violent protestors face up to a platoon of soldiers, only to be methodically clubbed to the ground. Their wives and families then drag their broken and battered bodies away, another row advances and the sickening spectacle repeats itself, driven on by senseless logic. What was methodical becomes merciless. Anyone watching it is left bewildered, and then shamed, and finally angry, because such merciless behaviour is an assault on our notions of common humanity. An American reporter later telegraphs the following verdict to the outside world , “whatever moral ascendency the west held, was lost here today.”
Last week I was reminded of that scene, those feelings and that damning judgement when I saw the picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi, fully dressed, face down, slumped incongruously on a beach with his head submerged in the surf. I was jolted into the realisation he was dead, no longer a living, breathing boy, but merely a carcass, deposited there like flotsam by the ebb and flow of the tide. A violently uncomfortable anomaly in a political narrative, in which I was complicit. Any illusions about our claims to moral ascendency were again shattered, at that precise moment.
Like millions of others, I had watched the news, read the newspapers, and become desensitised to their tone, language, and value judgments. I had acquiesced to an official narrative that assumed that migrants, or refugees—notice how even the words are jealously fought over like territory—were a nuisance, if not a threat. And when the prime minister had likened them to “swarms,” an insidious analogy that links people to insects via a collective noun, the narrative gained the imprimatur of government approval.
But less than one week later, my despondency has lifted as the tone and rhetoric have changed dramatically and our government is now engaged in furious back pedaling.
Not since the Iraq war and its accompanying mass protests have “ordinary people”—a hopelessly anachronistic and patronising label in a modern liberal democracy—mobilised themselves so effectively. People without title, office, or status have established community groups or given to charities that provide donations, food, blankets, and necessities. Tens of thousands of signatures on petitions have multiplied into hundreds of thousands and the targets being set by charities and community groups have been overwhelmingly exceeded.
Medical institutions have been visibly absent. None of the gilded and ennobled of the medical profession has proffered any sage counsel in the face of the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since 1945. Utterly, utterly remarkable. But individual doctors have played their part; medical charities have been overwhelmed by individual offers of support, and one inspirational doctor in Cambridge began a petition enlisting all those who are willing to offer housing to refugees that has since collected over 5000 signatures.
Individual actions have prevailed over sclerotic and apathetic institutions. The shoots of common humanity have sprouted and shown us that moral rectitude lies not with politicians, the media, or our sclerotic institutions, but amongst the people.
Despite the dismal and abject failure of politicians to look beyond the product of their narrow, nationalist calculus, there has been some inspirational (not a word to be used lightly when describing the political class) leadership.
One person, in fact one woman, has recognised the crucial importance of the link between our treatment of refugees and what we in Europe risk becoming. It was Angela Merkel, speaking at a news conference two weeks ago about the plight of “die fluechtlinge” (the refugees), who stressed the crucial importance of ensuring that, “Europe’s values are built on the dignity of every individual,” because if, “Europe fails on the issue of refugees, this close connection with universal civil rights…will be destroyed and it won’t be the Europe we want.” Her courage and convictions suggest her voice and that of her country will rightfully be the predominant voice in the evolving European project, and my suspicion is that this unassuming and hitherto vastly underestimated woman of east German origins will be accorded a place in the historical pantheon of world leaders.
When so many institutions fail to readily act in accordance with widely perceived and proclaimed values, then we can at least have greater faith in the self correcting tendencies of democracy, if not always in democracies themselves. And as doctors, whose moral currency requires us to have a respect for life founded on common humanity, we can take comfort that our value systems are not just arbitrary gimmicks in some ghoulish charade. But our leaders would do well to recognise, as Gandhi once reminded us, that there is no principle worth the name, if it is not wholly good.
Rubin Minhas is a GP in Kent. He is an associate editor for clinical research at The BMJ and a member of the BMJ Ethics Committee.
Competing interests: None declared.