There is an interesting "Cold War" season running on the BBC right now.  I was born in 1960, and grew up with the Stones on the radio and Vietnam on the TV - and undoubtedly in the shadow of the bomb.  Vulcan nuclear bombers roared overhead from the nearby airbase in my childhood, and all I ever wanted to do was fly one. Later, as a student, I  protested against the infernal things in Trafalgar square (primarily in pursuit of a girl I'm sorry to say).  But we '60s kids - the tail end of the baby boomers - also grew up under another very different cloud - a thunderclap in the western mind that has and will have a much deeper legacy than the cold war - we all grew up in the shadow of Auschwitz.

Of course, the Second World War touched us in many ways, my father's older brother was killed flying a bomber, and another uncle was wounded on the Normandy beaches. When my parents showed us photographs of their wartime childhoods it appeared as if they had inhabited a familiar and yet alien monochrome planet. Yet there was another dimension to all this nostalgia. My aunt Edith is Jewish.  She grew up in Prague and came to Britain as a refugee in 1938, where she met my late, lovely uncle Francis or "Fran", as we knew him (an architect who was always ready to 'freshen up" your drinks).  Edith is an expert cook - and we Fennell kids loved to spend holidays with their family and eat the fabled Wiener Schnitzel .  Her melodious and still-accented voice remains full of warmth and humour to this day.  Yet apart from her "moma", who gained sanctuary in Brtiain with her, all her family were murdered at Auschwitz.

There is a debate going on in academia about humanitarian action
. It concerns application of the ideas of an Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben.  Put simply, Agamben suggests that we emphasise different human identities to separate out people into those who are cultured and deserve life, and a form of basic uncultured human (a "savage" maybe) who is less deserving and can be treated as a second class citizen, or even killed without guilt. Agamben goes on to suggest that throughout much of history the city (or 'polis') was a technology of separation employed by politicians to achieve this end - urban people were more cultured and therefore deserved more of the benefits of society than the rural 'noble savage'. His big idea is that from Auschwitz onwards that technology has evolved to become the "camp" - a technology that could continue to separate people into the deserving and undeserving in an increasingly urbanised world. 

When applied to humanitarian action this theoretical framework is increasingly being used as a critique of the refugee or IDP camp - suggesting that these camps are used by politicians and operated by humanitarians as technologies for creating a new class of global citizen - one  less deserving of the benefits of society.  Given the political imperatives that have created long term refugee camps in places like northern Kenya, Iran and Pakistan, they may well have a point.  However, blaming the humanitarian movement for this state of affairs is misguided.  Humanitarianism is essentially a civilizing force.  Humanitarians attempt to ensure that the inmates of these camps are recognised and treated with equality and dignity; and ensure that these structures are temporary and people returned to normal life as quickly as possible.  While Agamben's analysis helps to make us aware of the political ramifications of supporting the concept of long-term refugee or IDP camps, it must not be used as an excuse to deny people on the edge of society vital humanitarian refuge. Without it my aunt Edith, and her children and grandchildren in England, Wales and the USA, would not be with us today.




 


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