One of the common features of deep-rooted conflicts – when even the middle class, media, police and others who should know better come to support the strategy of peace through greater and greater violence – is that it surely but steadily erodes the moral fibre of society.
So perhaps no one should be surprised by the story that a child, believed to be “mentally retarded” (he threw stones at passing vehicles) and with a Tamil name, was filmed and watched by many as he drowned.
But what else can happen to a society that has supported, justified or just tried to blank out the reality of human rights abuse on a vast scale, war crimes, collective punishment and ethnic re-engineering? If the moral fibre stayed strong, this wouldnt be possible – so its erosion is a necessary pre-requisite.
And so violence outside the north and east becomes the norm. So Lasantha Wickramatunga was perfectly right to quote Martin Niemoller who warned the Germans of why Nazism was not only wrong but also a threat to all Germans.
But there is another way to see this type of event – namely to use the frame of “by-standers”. It is a less moralistic frame and one that lends itself to being of practical help to those who want to stop the epidemic which is now sweeping Sri Lanka (but also other countries in lesser ways).
At the core of the bystander frame is the view that power rests with the majority who choose to sit on the fence and do nothing. These people assume some else is responsible. This is not unique to countries like Sri Lanka. Indeed there is a famous US murder in the 1960s where many neighbours watched the prolonged killing of an unarmed woman by an assailant who returned several times.
Sri Lanka has now become a bystander society. That is what should worry all its citizens, whatever ethnic group. The prospects for their children are not good and no amount of economic wealth can insulate them from such a dysfunctional world. Indeed, bystander mindsets also erodes business success.
Bystander behaviour is context dependent. NY today is less violent than it was in the ’60s. Changing the context is what individuals and organisations must work on before Sri Lanka becomes a failed state from the bottom up as well as top down.
Who is best placed to challenge the epidemic of bystander behaviour? It is UN agencies, international NGOs, religious communities and international businesses. If they don’t, they and their reputation will suffer the most.
The good news is that if they do chose to act, a new “tipping point” can be created.