Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine has sharpened two terrifying realisations. The first is that Putin does not function within the realm of the usual finely balanced checks and balances, sticks and carrots, that the west hoped would contain him and maintain an uneasy truce in Europe. The second is that decades of work since the second world war to learn from the mistakes of the past and fortify against them in the future have failed. Here again, we have not a civil war, but an invasion of a sovereign state in defiance of the rest of the world. Here again, we have images that are only known to us as historical reels, of frenzy and panic as thousands attempt to flee to safety.
But there is a third realisation that appears to shape the perception of too many western journalists justifiably appalled at the defiling of Europe. From the tone of much coverage, this seems uniquely distressing and more alarming to them because the lives of non-Europeans have less value, and their conflicts are contained, far away from us.
I thought it was just clumsy phrasing from a couple of reporters under pressure, but soon it became clear that it was, in fact, a media-wide tic. From Al Jazeera to CBS News, journalists were appalled that this was not happening in “Iraq or Afghanistan” but in a “relatively civilised European city.” One said: “The unthinkable has happened. This is not a developing, third world nation. This is Europe.” Another reflected: “These are prosperous middle-class people … these are not obviously refugees getting away from the Middle East. To put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine … They’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar.”
Ukraine’s former deputy chief prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, told the BBC, unchallenged: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed.”
Daniel Hannan, Telegraph columnist, former MEP, Lord Hannan of Kingsclere; put it more bluntly, writing that those suffering in Ukraine “seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking … War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.” It is, he said: “civilisation in retreat.”
This strange account of a history in which wars, conflict and dispossession mostly happened in “third world” and “remote” countries (remote from whom?) is a fiction that has come about as a result of a political and media climate that has stripped the humanity of those seeking refuge so completely it has become a fact, repeated with no self-awareness or shame.
An extremely generous view of these statements is that it is not, in itself, an unusual impulse to care more about, or be affected more, by events happening closer to home than farther afield. Perhaps what these people are really trying to say is something along the lines of “this has not happened in this patch in generations” in order to highlight the abnormality of this particular conflict. There is that.
But there is also much more to it. There is an acceptance that war is natural in other places but an aberration here. That war happens only to the poor and the uncivilised, not the well-off and stable. That the fates of refuge and uprootedness are the lot of others, and therefore less of an event.
These are beliefs that fall apart under the slightest of scrutiny to reveal a worldview warped by what has for too long been a popular, unchallenged discourse on refugees and asylum seekers. These opinions were shaped, concertedly and over time, in order to justify inhumane and often violent policies passed to block people from entering European lands. For these policies to become accepted, their victims had to be portrayed as threatening and undeserving.
The legacy of that is a western world hostile to all those in need, blue-eyed or not. As ever, when we avert our eyes from the humanity of one group of people, we end up building immigration systems that assail the humanity of all. A border of policies as high as the heavens now meets Ukrainians seeking to enter the UK, even as family members.
As the Ukrainian flag was projected on to Downing Street, the Home Office was hoisting up the drawbridge, posting on its website: “Ukrainian nationals in Ukraine (who aren’t immediate family members of British nationals normally living in Ukraine, or where the British national is living in the UK), are currently unable to make visa applications to visit, work, study or join family in the UK.” After a barrage of criticism, the government promised to ease these visa rules, allowing the grandparents, adult children, siblings and adult parents of Ukrainians who are settled in the UK to apply for visas under the scheme. Even those visa applications that are allowed will have to navigate an obstacle course of paperwork in the middle of war.
Exceptionalism means we are doomed to repeat the complacencies of the past, constantly comforting ourselves that it can’t happen here, because it only happens elsewhere to others whose pain is somehow different from ours.
But their wars are no less unthinkable, their uprootedness no less traumatic, their civilisation no less valid, than the thousands now leaving Ukraine. And in designing a world in which we are sanguine about other people’s war, we have ensured that we cannot anticipate when war will happen on our doorstep – and that when it does, we are appalled, but then find our humanitarian response systems hobbled, calcified in cruelty.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
Guardian Newsroom: the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Join a panel of journalists, including Michael Safi, Luke Harding, Julian Borger, Juliette Garside and Patrick Wintour on a livestreamed event on the Russia-Ukraine crisis on Thursday 3 March, 8pm GMT | 9pm CET | 12pm PST | 3pm EST. Book tickets here.