Over on The Telegraph, Dean Nelson wonders why we don't care about Sri Lanka.
Do we have favourites when it comes to civilian casualties? Do we care about some peoples’ suffering more than others?
To answer the second question first the answer is yes. Sorry about this, but the suffering of people in my family, my friends and community is something I care more about than the suffering of someone in some remote outpost - like Barnsley.
When it comes to civilian casualties I "favour" those who were deliberately targeted rather than those who were accidental victims. That might sound a bit harsh - every death of an innocent civilian is a tragedy - but you have to draw a distinction between those killed deliberately and those who are killed in the crossfire. Thousands died in the Twin Towers - that's murder. Hundreds of thousands died in the liberation of Europe - that's war.
An estimated 50,000 are trapped inside a tiny strip of Sri Lanka’s north-east coast by rebel fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who will shoot them if they try to escape, and the army, which may shell them if they don’t.
Really? The Sri Lankan army are going to deliberately shell civilians if they don't leave?
I don't think so. You see, people like Nelson can't see that subtle difference. The LTTE will deliberately shoot civilians trying to flee the zone, but the Sri Lankan army are not shelling the civilians - they are trying to shell LTTE positions which, thanks the actions of the LTTE, are surrounded by civilians. I'm sure the Sri Lankan army would much rather the civilians all left and they could get on with engaging the remnants of the LTTE, but the LTTE are preventing that.
The thing is, Nelson actually hits on the real issue later on.
It’s a race against time: The Tamil Tigers need the world to be so moved that its leaders force Colombo to stop its assault, and the Sri Lankan government wants to keep out the media until the LTTE is finally crushed and it can tell the story on its own terms.
How long has this conflict being going on? Thirty years or so? How many civilians have been killed in that time? I don't know, but what is apparent is that if we let the Sri Lankan government get on with it a few hundred or so civilians will probably die, but it will be over in weeks. But if people like Nelson get their way the world will be "so moved" that the offensive is called off and the LTTE can continue their campaign for another 30 years and thousands more will suffer and die.
Too often, in my opinion, we allow sentiment to get in the way of cold reality. Far too often, in my opinion, the principles of humanitarianism actually prolong and amplify the suffering of the very people it is supposed to be helping. Sometimes this is due to aid, sometimes due to sentimentalist reporting.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is to allow a conflict to run its course. It's tough in the short term, but in the long run it is often better for the vast majority. If we applied the principles of Nelson during WW2 the world would have been so moved by the suffering of the people of Caen the Allies would still be hunkered down on the beaches of Normandy today.