The Challenge of Libya in the Face of Japan's Nuclear Disaster

The Libya situation presents a challenge to us as a people and as human beings.

Only last week we were frightened and concerned, wanting to do something to help the brave rebels. Today, as is typical in our neck of the planet, our attention has shifted elsewhere. True, the Japanese earthquake was horrific, dramatic, attention grabbing. But the events unfolding at the nuclear reactor are what are hogging the limelight now, despite the fact that we in North America will be unaffected -- even in a worst-case scenario -- and despite the fact that more Libyans are dying this week than Japanese have and will from a reactor meltdown. More Libyans are in imminent danger of not only losing their lives in the immediate battle with Gaddafi, but also if he wins, in the inevitable "cleanup."

Before the earthquake and before the irrational fear of all things nuclear took hold, the public was calling for a no-fly zone in Libya. Britain and France still are. These are the same two countries who in previous similar situations grew tired of the whole thing and told the US to take over completely. And this is the same part of the world who join with us in deciding that the fighting in Afghanistan has gone on "long enough." If we institute a no-fly zone in Libya, won't we then have an obligation to stay until Libyans are on their feet and safe from the likes of Gaddafi? There's always some greedy, aggressive human who knows how to exploit and choke a people while they're still weak from fighting and still finding their way to freedom and democracy.

Once we invaded Afghanistan to rout the Taliban, once the West invaded Iraq to rout Saddam, then we had an obligation to stay until both men and women were safe enough to live, to work, to learn, to celebrate.

But in neither country has that happened.

Still, we want to leave because it's been "too long" already and we don't like seeing our soldiers coming home in rectangular flag-draped cans, forget the human cost -- the woman cost -- our leaving will create. Only in North America or the West do we expect conflicts to have a due date, as if human greed and aggression should just go away and people should instantly know how to live as a free and civil society. It is too boring to have to focus on the same people, the same conflict for so long. It is too wearisome to have to fight for decades, though we did it for ourselves in centuries past to gain our own freedom and release from oppression.

Perhaps that is the key: we must let peoples of other lands go through the same grinding process we did, though our hearts break over their deaths and suffering. When we have intervened in past civil wars or conflicts, it has lead to an impasse with a divided border (Cyprus, Korea) or us growing restive about leaving already.

But what of the women?

We know that leaving Afghanistan means that women and girls will once more be locked away, once more have to secretly get an education, once more be subjugated, beaten, and murdered solely because of their gender. Is that worth staying and fighting for? Apparently not. For time is up. So how would it be any different in Libya? They too are a society unused to democracy and freedom and, like all Arab countries, unused to treating "their" women as equals.

Fortunately for Gaddafi, the ground shook under Japan, a wall of water shut down the diesel backup generators at one of its nuclear plants, and his actions have become a small, middle story on the news, or swept off the front page altogether for, like, it's so yesterday's news. Our sense of brotherhood (not sisterhood or fellow-hood) is no longer being poked into an uncomfortable feeling and making us watch Gaddafi. A few humans, the one who always cry for social justice, continue to demand a no-fly zone. But as a people we've quietened down in our demands and our attention.

So who are we as a people if our compassion has an expiry date? If we are so easily distracted away from unfolding tragedy by other news? If we are unwilling to sacrifice our time, money, and lives over years and decades, like we once were, to give another people a chance at freedom from oppression and arbitrary torture and death?