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Empathy in the face of tragedy

Last weekend, I volunteered at the Duke Coalition for Preserving Memory’s annual Name Reading ceremony to commemorate the victims of the seven United Nations recognized genocides. During this event, hundreds of students and community members recited the names of individuals who were killed in these crimes against humanity for 24 consecutive hours on Abele Quad. As I read aloud the names of people who lost their lives in the Armenian Genocide, many thoughts went through my head. Why hadn’t I ever been taught about this? How could I read posters describing genocides as “ongoing” and not be enraged? What does “Never Again” mean if horrendous acts of ethnic cleansing continue to take place?

During my first year, I took a class called “Human Rights and World Politics” through the Kenan Institute of Ethics. Despite completing the course two and a half years ago, I continue to be disturbed by one of our readings. Samantha Power, who later became the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. under President Obama, wrote about the Clinton Administration’s failure to take action to stop the Rwandan Genocide despite being aware of the crimes against humanity occuring. President Clinton chose not to send in troops because of the calculation made than an American life was worth 85,000 Rwandan lives. As the names and locations of killing targets, members of the Tutsi minority, were projected over the radio, the United States failed to even disrupt the airwaves. National leaders must have figured that the American people would not deem engagement in such a “far away internal conflict" worthwhile. By the end of the genocide, over 800,000 Tutsis had been brutally murdered. I was so angry learning about the U.S. decision, not just because of its deadly implications, but also because it demonstrated how easily the lesson of “Never Again” can be swept aside.

As I walked around the display at the Name Reading Ceremony, I became more and more disturbed. Beginning in 1915, the Ottoman Empire began rounding up, deporting and executing ethnic Armenians. According to the organization “United to End Genocide,” the combination of massacres, forced deportation marches and deaths due to disease in concentration camps is estimated to have killed more than 1 million ethnic Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. However, the Turkish government denies this genocide ever occured, and I had barely heard anything about it.

During the Holocaust, the Nazis brutally murdered over 6 million Jews and five million non-Jews. Had the Nazis accomplished their goal, I wouldn’t be alive today, and you would only be able to learn about the Jewish people in history books. Yet, according to an article in The Atlantic, two thirds of the world’s population do not know the Holocaust happened or deny its gravity. The United States is not immune from this phenomenon; according a report completed in 2010 by a student at Harvard University, millions of Americans continue to deny the Holocaust. 

A couple days after the Name Reading ceremony, I decided to Google search “current genocides.” I found a headline from an article written in 2017 titled “5 genocides that are still going on today.” How is this possible? As someone who feels a responsibility to ensure “Never Again,” I was horrified to realize that five genocides are still being perpetrated: the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Nuer and other ethnic groups in South Sudan, Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic, and the Darfuris in Sudan. I began to wonder why these crimes have not received the public attention they deserve. 

In recent days, there have been countless articles about the Notre Dame fire. I definitely understand how saddening this event is because of the religious and historic significance of the Cathedral, which I was fortunate to witness when visiting Paris last year. However, the indiscriminate slaughter of human beings simply because of who they are or what they believe is even more reprehensible, yet these event have not gotten nearly as much publicity.

The lack of attention may be due to two unfortunate reasons: ignorance and indifference. Because many of us are unaware of these ongoing events, it’s less likely for them to come up in conversations. This is definitely due, in part, to the media’s lack of coverage of these issues. But, as newspapers profit from providing content that people want to read, the absence of articles about the genocides underway suggests the second reason: indifference. If more people felt a greater sense of connection or responsibility to stop atrocities taking place across the globe, media outlets may be more inclined to cover them. 

Just as some people dismissed the Rwandan genocide as people far away killing each other, similar sentiments persist today. Individuals may feel that their voice won’t have an impact because of these events occurring beyond America’s borders or the lack of societal activism considered necessary to generate change. I understand the strength of this pressure, and I’m not immune to it—when I had planned to post on my Facebook about the Rohingya, I refrained from doing so. I was worried that many of my friends would be indifferent. Perceptions like these help explain how we are sitting idly by as genocide is occuring.

What should we do about this problem? I believe the answer is feeling a greater sense of empathy for people across the globe. We should feel deeply concerned for people being persecuted for their identities, as they are human beings just like us. Ignorance is not bliss; we should strive to learn more about what’s going on in the world and speak out for people’s rights. We should bring these tragedies up with our friends to make them aware, post on social media, and call our members of Congress. These actions could lead to a domino effect, as others will become more informed and choose to do what they can to spread the word. 

As members of the Duke community, we are all familiar with the ideal of “Knowledge in the Service of Society.” I can’t think of a better way to serve society than standing up for those whose lives are being targeted simply because of their identities. We can do our part to make “Never Again” not just a slogan, but a reality for people across the globe. It starts with us.

Elliott Davis is a Trinity junior. His column, The Optimist, usually runs on alternate Fridays.


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