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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

Listening for the humanity in the darkness of a faraway invasion

Protesters carried signs in multiple languages at a demonstration for peace in Ukraine.
Nick de la Canal
Protesters carried signs in multiple languages at a demonstration for peace in Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, in Charlotte.

There’s a dark rule of thumb that anyone in the news business learns pretty quick: The farther away people are, the more of them have to die for it to matter.

If one person gets killed in your town, that’s news. If it happens on the other side of the country, it might have to be five or 10 people. If it’s on the other side of the world, it’ll have to be hundreds. Or maybe more.

There are a lot of reasons to care about what’s going on in Ukraine right now.

There’s the political part of it, featuring, of course, our most recent ex-president, who called Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine strategy “genius” and “very savvy.”

As you can imagine, some of the debris in the ex-president’s wake took it even further. Steve Bannon praised Putin for being “anti-woke” and Candace Owens urged her followers to read Putin’s speech if they wanted to really know what was going on. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke at a white nationalist conference where the crowd cheered Putin’s name, although Greene said she had no idea what group she was speaking to, which, honestly, I tend to believe.


There’s also the economic part of it: Ukraine produces wheat, and Russia produces oil, and sanctions might drive up the price of both here and worldwide.

And there’s the military part of it — what we decide to do to push back against Russia, and whether we put American troops, our sons and daughters, at risk.

All those things are worth pondering, worth debating, worth caring about.

Sometimes in the midst of all that, we forget about the human beings who wanted no part of this but will suffer the most because of it.

One of the things that makes this phase of American history so hard to navigate is that so many people have lost a sense of empathy. Millions of people live their lives not trying to understand, or wanting to understand, what someone else’s life might be like. There’s a natural tension in the American experiment between the freedom to be yourself and the responsibility to work together. We’re tilted way too far in one direction.

Someone who doesn’t care about people in the wrong political party, or the wrong race, or the wrong sexuality is not likely to care about some Ukrainian on the other side of the world — except as a symbol of whatever outcome they want to happen.

Last week, as the Russian troops got ready to invade, a video journalist for the Washington Post captured a few moments of a young boy playing a piano in a hotel lobby in the city of Kharkiv, near the Russian border.

At first I thought the boy was playing Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata." It turns out he was playing a more modern piece from the soundtrack to a science fiction show. The show is called “Tales from the Loop.”

Somehow, that fits. We seem destined to live in this loop of danger and sorrow over and over. I don’t know how it ends. Maybe one way is by thinking of those people thousands of miles away, whoever they are, as not numbers or symbols but as human beings with loves and desires and dreams.

One by one by one. Count them in your mind, as slow as a waltz.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.