Warning: contains disturbing images
By Javier Herrera
HAVANA TIMES – A history teacher asked her students what they thought were the first traces of civilization that could be detected in history. Her students offered different ideas: the first primitive wooden tools, the use of language, or even the first rock paintings. After hearing all the different answers, she explained that the first evidence of civilization ever found was the thighbone of a man who had suffered a fracture and survived long enough to heal and continue his life.
She explained to them that an animal with a wound like that would certainly be condemned to die in the next few days. Given its inability to get food or move around, it would quickly fall victim to starvation or predators. The fact that this man had survived was a clear sign that he belonged to a group of humans who had been concerned for him, who had fed him and cared for him while he convalesced. And that concern shown by the group was based on empathy. If there’s one trait that distinguishes a civilization, it’s concern for the life of their fellows. Even in the most cruel wars, the wounded enemy is cared for and their life is spared.
Watching the news on Monday, November 21, I encountered the tragic story of a boy who lost his life in the waters surrounding the Havana boardwalk. Two kids who were bathing in the turbulent waters were dragged out to sea by a strong wave, one typical of this near-winter season. One of them managed to survive and get out of the water, but, unfortunately, the other drowned before the eyes of dozens of people who were recording the event on their cellphones.
In the video going around on social media, the two kids can be clearly distinguished in the water. It can also be seen how one of them struggles desperately to pull the body of his companion out of the water, while screaming for someone to please help him. You can also hear the voices of several men discussing how dangerous the situation is, and the imminent likelihood of drowning. One even says that if he dived in, he could avoid the tragedy. But in the end, no one did anything except to film the event and be spectators to a painful incident where a child lost his life.
Was there a way of saving him? Would the story have ended differently if the adults present had gone to his aid? Were those people who were filming and commenting on the incident as if it were a scene in a movie really human? Unfortunately, I believe the answers to these questions would be a resounding “yes,” but those watching lacked empathy, lacked civilization, lacked humanity. As in the Roman circuses the spectators merely commented. They were left with their memories of the tragic incident.
Just a few days before, a different social tragedy shook the township of Colon in Matanzas province. A man with a history of schizophrenia, armed with a spear, a shield and a knife, attacked and killed his mother. He later wounded an 86-year-old neighbor, who subsequently died in the hospital from her wounds. Finally, the man headed towards a nearby school, where they were celebrating the end of the year. There he attacked a teacher, who received only minor wounds.
During the attack at the school, the damage was limited, thanks to the intervention of several of the parents present and the teachers. These confronted him, and he had no option but to flee before the imminent arrival of the police. He took shelter on the fourth floor of a nearby building.
Following a short struggle with the police and the neighbors from the building, who attempted to neutralize him, the man jumped off into the vacuum and died instantly upon hitting the ground. The video shows an angry crowd encouraging him to jump and kill himself.
Once more, a thousand questions assault me. Mixed with those from the first incident, they confront me with powerful doubts. Why did the crowd want him to die at the scene, instead of being taken prisoner and tried for his acts? When was it that we stopped feeling empathy with another human being, in this case with a person who – beyond the murders he had committed – was clearly mentally ill?
These timely questions with no answers have spawned yet more doubts in me. When did the value of life drop so low that it’s more important to film a tragedy than to save a human being? At what moment did we go backwards to the times of the Roman empire, when the spectators watched Christians face up to lions and cheered for the lions? How can you sleep in peace, knowing you were witness to a life that just evaporated, and that you preferred to be a witness rather than lift a finger to save it?
What or who has damaged us so greatly? Are these situations taking place only in my country, or are they now common to humanity? What’s left of the human values, of the empathy that once upon a time allowed us to live and prosper as societies? Is the anthropological damage we’re suffering reversible, and if so, how long will it take, and what actions can we undertake to once again feel that the other is my equal and deserves help and protection?
And lastly, the most transcendent question: Will we survive as a species without caring for the life and protection of the peers surrounding us?