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What the Hell is Wrong with Me?

Tom Doran

dill 300x225 What the Hell is Wrong with Me?As I clambered awkwardly into consciousness this morning, I did my usual browse of the headlines and found myself immediately drawn to this story, about a dog belonging to US troops being captured by the Taliban.

I wasn’t always a dog person, but, like a repressed divorcee embarking on a late-blooming lesbian affair, became one when I was fifteen and we adopted Dill (pictured right). As a puppy, he fell asleep in my lap at the dogs’ home, and that was that. He’s still with us, distinguished and grey around the muzzle, a sage brown eminence with soulful eyes and a weakness for tearing apart dog toys to exorcise the squeak.

This is why I went a bit wobbly and unnecessary when I read the following lines in the news report (whose wording makes me suspect the reporter may also be a dog-lover):

Looking rather mournful, on a lead being held by a long-haired Taliban fighter, the small reddish-brown dog was paraded for a Taliban cameraman, reports the BBC’s David Loyn in Kabul.

No creature on Earth can pull off “mournful” like a dog. We humans are walking clouds of ambivalence, each emotion tempered by a dozen others, but dogs feel with their whole beings. When something brilliant happens – you coming back into the room after being away for nearly a minute, for example – they’re not just happy, they’re delirious, as if they’re trying to express the joy of six dogs through the body of one.

When something dreadful happens – like when you stand up and they get their hopes up for a nice walk, only to have them cruelly dashed when you sit down again – they enter a deep, Queen Victoria-style state of mourning. This generally lasts as long as it takes for the next brilliant thing to happen – chasing a ball? I love chasing balls! How did you know? – but is still a harrowing sight for the doggily inclined.

These are just the peaks and troughs of a normal canine day, so how it must be for a dog in true distress is painful to consider. Colonel – the dog’s name – doesn’t understand about war and hostage-taking and religious extremism. As far as he was concerned, he was living a life of adventure with his human pack leaders, making himself useful and loving it.

Now the friendly humans have gone and he’s alone in a strange place. While it’s in his captors’ interests to keep him alive and relatively well, going by the way the Taliban treat humans and how radical Islam feels about dogs, the poor chap can’t be having a nice time.

It was around this point that I began to feel disgusted with myself, because that wasn’t the only news story I read this morning. There was also this one, about a new UN report estimating around 10,000 children have been killed in Syria, with countless others tortured and abused. There was this too, about bombings in Baghdad claiming 33 lives in a single day, and another about the rise of lynching and other atrocities in the Central African Republic.

As I read each of these, I felt sad. Of course I did. But not even a fraction as sad as I felt for that dog, who is, apart from being a dog, still alive. Each of the three stories above – out of dozens of similar ones each week – contains suffering on a barely imaginable scale: lives destroyed, families bereaved, societies torn apart. But I can’t feel it, not in my heart and bones, not like that bloody dog. What the hell is wrong with me?

Perhaps the words “barely imaginable” provide the clue; maybe some kinds of pain are too vast for the human brain to comprehend, while small-scale sorrows are something we can grasp. There’s something in this, but it feels too convenient to me, too self-serving. Apart from being horrific, the other thing each of those three stories has in common is their location: very far away, in countries mainly full of brown people.

I don’t mean to say it’s as simple as racism, but it’s a fact that some international disasters impinge on our consciousness in ways others don’t. We’re so accustomed to hearing horror stories from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East that, while our mouths form the familiar words of shock and compassion, a part of us simply files it away under “the sort of thing that happens in that sort of place”.

Some might argue that tragedy on our doorstep is just more relevant to us, that we can’t hope to care equally about every part of the world with perfect proportion. I didn’t support military intervention in Syria and remain unconvinced it could’ve helped, but let’s not deceive ourselves. We don’t care about Syria, or Iraq, or the CAR or any of the rest, because we have mentally divided the world into people who matter and people who don’t.

I think I’ll leave it there. It’s time to walk the dog.

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