Photo of a sign being held at an anti-war protest which reads "STOP WAR"
Protest to stop the war in Ukraine Credit: Markus Spiske / unsplash

Chrystia Freeland threads the needle. In a CBC interview with Rosemary Barton, deputy PM Freeland said, in her careful voice, “People who commit war crimes must be brought to justice. It is the only way to work toward a world where that stops happening.” Barton astutely responded, “I would suggest then that you don’t think a negotiated agreement is possible any longer, given the atrocities we’ve seen.” It made sense. How do you bargain with a documented fiend, including perhaps letting him and his minions off the hook?

That’s pretty much the U.S. position. Russia is an implacable, evil force that must be ground down implacably. So the U.S. is generous toward Ukraine when it is fighting its war, but won’t even show up for efforts to bargain peace. Freeland didn’t seem to want to buy that. Why? It would mean endless destruction there. So having neared the U.S. view, she backed off in a way both tentative and firm.

“I didn’t say that Rosie … we need to be really pretty humble when it comes to Ukraine … They are the ones who are fighting … who are going to determine the conclusion of this war.” I took that as a cautious demur from the U.S. stance. Barton was right; it didn’t really jibe with what Freeland said earlier, but strict consistency in policy statements is hardly the key thing when devastation, death and nuclear annihilation are crowding the stage of events.

When Vladimir Putin speaks the truth. Which, like any stopped clock or politician, he occasionally does. So the Russian president said that the West had been turning Ukraine into an “anti-Russian bridgehead … What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy.” That, IMO, is true. Then he got back to lying. “They just didn’t leave us a choice.” Wrong. It made the invasion a plausible option, even a tempting one. But not inevitable. There would be no crimes without temptations.

But enough about you, let’s talk about me, part umpteen. George Packer in The Atlantic: “Ukraine has done what nothing else … could do: shown the difference between right and wrong, heroism and barbarism, truth and lies, with such clarity that most Americans are in agreement.” Like any Great (sic) Power, it’s always about them: their interests, their mental health. You can be clever and try to use them to your advantage, but don’t kid yourself and always, as Freeland said, remember to make your own decisions.

Failure to generalize. The great mystery of humanity’s repetitive atrocities to me is how little our species manages to learn from them. I felt this about 9/11, when I stupidly thought Americans might use it to extend empathy to peoples who’d experienced U.S. savagery in Vietnam, Iraq, etc. But that’s rare. Even the phrase “Never Again” is often turned toward particular victims, rather than Never Again Anywhere. My point isn’t to minimize with “whataboutism” by saying it happens everywhere, or grow jaded and say, Right, so what else is new? It’s rather to generate more indignation, to widen the net of outrage.

Instead, reactions tend to narrow down parochially—not an inherently bad term—and focus on remembering and memorializing the particular, while neglecting larger implications like resolving to stop or reduce it in the future.

There’s something in the intense will to memorialize each disaster where memory can even become the enemy of insight, since it’s so emotionally potent and focuses so strongly on those immediately affected. Masha Gessen points at this respectfully in a current New Yorker piece on the staggering memorial to Babyn Yar still being constructed in Kyiv itself. It fell again to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to express such concerns, in the midst of his other tasks: “It is time to do everything possible,” he said, “to make the war crimes of the Russian military the last manifestation of such evil on earth.”

I take that as a careful generalization on his part. What a mensch.

This column first appeared in the Toronto Star.

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.