The scene is the Donbas region of Ukraine.
It is an ugly scene in an ugly war on Europe’s doorstep, where, for six years, the Ukrainian army has faced off against the pro-Russian separatists of the self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk—and often against the Russians themselves.
I know more than I want to know about this war.
This winter, for Paris-Match and the Wall Street Journal, I traveled the 450 kilometers of its front line.
But this particular scene, because of what it symbolizes, is one of the most startling I have encountered.
The date is July 13. The place, Zaitseve, between Horlivka and the Mayorsk checkpoint west of Luhansk, which I visited in February.
A Ukrainian soldier belonging to a reconnaissance unit monitoring Russian infiltration into Ukrainian territory steps on a mine and dies.
His commanders negotiate with their Russian counterparts—through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which, in principle, is responsible for ensuring compliance with the ceasefire concluded as part of the 2014 Minsk Accords—a four-hour truce to allow a second unit to recover the body of the Ukrainian soldier.
But when the three members of this second team, all in white helmets bearing the Red Cross emblem, get within a few meters of the remains, the pro-Russians open fire. A Ukrainian sergeant is wounded. And when the unit’s medic goes to his rescue, all hell breaks loose in the form of a storm of grenades and heavy machine-gun fire. The medic is killed, as the sergeant dies of his wounds.
In a sense, this is just one incident.
And these deaths are just three more on a long list of others in a strange war that has already claimed 13,000 lives, including 40 killed or wounded in the past week alone.
But it is a violation of the laws of war which, since The Iliad, have offered man some protection from what he deems legitimate violence.
It is the transgression of a principle, as old as the battle Solferino, that the white coats of the Red Cross should never appear in the sights of a gun.
It is proof of a stony indifference to the work of the spirit that we know as international law, which applies even in wartime.
It is the spectacle of a great power, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, treating international law as if it were one of the “old, dead enormities” described by Arthur Rimbaud.
As a Turkish tyrant readies himself to commit a crime against universal harmony at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, it is a Russian tyrant-for-life demonstrating that his henchmen can treat men’s lives like toys and, when they see a medic crawling toward a wounded man, can calmly utter, on orders from Moscow or elsewhere, “Blow him away.”
And most striking of all is that the European and American news outlets on which I rely contain no real reporting on an event that, while very specific, has so much to teach us.
In Europe, all we can talk about is doctors.
For months, we have had eyes and ears only for their daily heroism.
In France, we hang on the words of Delfraissy and Véran to know how many layers our masks should have. In the United States, we cling to Fauci and Birx to learn the half-life of a respiratory cloud.
In the midst of which up pops Putin, who, like his clones Trump and Bolsonaro, could not care less about the pandemic.
Up pops that sworn enemy of Europe and its principles, who, with unadorned cynicism and in the great tradition of Stalin’s Ukrainian genocide of 1932–33 and its “extermination by famine,” is happy to watch the virus wreak its havoc.
He commits, or condones, a war crime, and a state crime as well, against one of the doctors we are busy sanctifying.
And the abomination is greeted with universal indifference.
We are deeply anesthetized by our pandemic-induced lockdown.
There is no room, none in the media, and none in our hearts, for other news, even news as momentous as Russia’s advances in Ukraine.
The fact is that the imperative of saving lives “at all costs” is not as categorical as it seems when dragged out over months of lockdown, reopening, and prophylactic, hygienic obsession.
Or perhaps we must conclude—and, unfortunately, this is the most plausible hypothesis—that we have entered into a strange new age, a final post-history, in which we no longer pay any attention to politics or to history and its casualties, but only to statistics, to curves, and to data on undifferentiated humanity henceforth dealt with blindly and in bulk.
The world wants nothing to do with three deaths that cannot be counted as part of COVID-19.
By turning in on ourselves, hunkering down, haunted, into our homes, we are showing that we have only one real fear: that of figures and statistics.
The figures of the contagion.
The statistics of the pandemic.
The daily inventory of the cases in Texas and Florida.
But a man killed by a bullet from another man’s rifle, a man—a medic to boot—targeted and struck down in a criminal shooting that should, in principle, force us to reflect and respond in a manner commensurate with the historical significance of the act—no thanks, we’re not interested in that anymore.
Humanity 2.0, come right in.
Welcome to the post-pandemic world.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is the author, most recently, of The Virus in the Age of Madness. (Yale, 2020).