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The feedback loop of barbarity
On the individual tragedies and enormous criminal scale of the invasion of Ukraine
A woman who was injured in the Russian bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital has died while undergoing a Caesarean section in which her baby died as well. Their deaths are added to those of at least three others at the same hospital. Behind the cruelty and heartbreak of her individual tragedy, there is a much larger cause for alarm.
■ In 1983, a Soviet air-defense officer may have single-handedly prevented a nuclear war. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel, was warned of an incoming missile attack from the United States. He concluded it was a false alarm using a combination of quick judgment and gut instinct, and in so doing likely prevented a catastrophe. The warning was a false alarm, and his decision to act as a circuit-breaker may well have saved millions of lives.
■ Petrov's story didn't make it out until the late 1990s. But it's rightly regarded as a case where good human judgment prevented a faulty system from creating an artificial disaster. Imagine if the world had fallen into nuclear winter just because some Soviet satellites were glitchy.
■ The Petrov story was a reminder that no matter how evil the Evil Empire might have been, there were still people involved who would make decisions to avoid the worst. These people were needed not just at the top, but elsewhere in the system. Mikhail Gorbachev was an anomaly in power: He was relatively young (so young that "Gorby" is still alive), and was notably less hawkish than leaders who had been in power before him -- a peaceful orientation he still promotes today. Level heads were needed up and down the line.
■ When we see a Russian military today that has been bombing hospitals and launching airstrikes against apartment buildings in Ukraine, it's sensible to worry that we may lack some of the guardrails that tempered behavior even back in the Cold War. The prospect is terrifying, and the world knows it's happening.
■ Russian forces used indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Syria, too. International law, of course, says that targeting civilians is a war crime, and expressly declares that "medical workers, medical vehicles and hospitals dedicated to humanitarian work can not be attacked". But even without the rules of war to prevent that behavior, basic human decency ought to deter it first.
■ In just one of too many examples, it is an act of utter indecency to bomb a theater clearly labeled with the word "Children" in letters large enough to be seen from the air. Yet that's what Russian forces have done. A choice was made to drop those explosive devices on an obviously civilian target. It was a choice that didn't require sophisticated intelligence to avert, either: Google Maps or OpenStreetMap could have offered the same information.
■ In effect, some of the people involved in Russia's invasion of Ukraine have been practicing making choices directly contrary to the most basic of moral principles. And that should be profoundly alarming.
■ When Norwegian television produced the series "Occupied", the Kremlin protested the representation because it depicted "a non-existing threat from the East". Yet the show told the story of a "velvet glove" invasion of Norway by Russia, in which bloodshed was rare.
■ Far from the sophisticated invasion of fiction, the very real invasion of Ukraine is marked by brutality and barbarity. It's not an inevitable consequence of conflict. Most people are good at heart, but a small number have a lot of evil in them. Others can learn to behave in evil ways, especially when trained by a system that encourages or rewards evil behavior.
■ It's hard not to be alarmed by what we're seeing from the system cultivated by and around Vladimir Putin. Whatever the prospects of peace talks might be, evidence of despicable cruelty is mounting. Just as good behavior is generally the result of good habits, viciousness and cruelty -- especially on a systemic scale -- also takes practice. There is too much practice underway by the invading forces in Ukraine, and the poisoned fruits of that practice aren't going to disappear easily.