When the late Nobel Laureate and noted Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reflected on the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, he found the reason for such evil was not a preponderance of hatred. Rather, Wiesel said, atrocities such as the Holocaust are allowed to occur because of a lack of empathy, and an overwhelming prevalence of self-interested and cowardly indifference.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” Wiesel tells us. It is the indifference of good men and women that facilitates genocide.
I had a chance to ponder Wiesel’s words this week while preparing a brief reflection on Genocide Remembrance Day, which was Wednesday.
Genocide Remembrance Day is named for the Armenian Genocide, 1915 to 1923, when the Ottoman government murdered upwards of a million minority, predominantly Christian, Armenians. In 1918 former president Theodore Roosevelt described the Armenian Genocide as the greatest crime of the First World War — a significant claim for a war that took roughly 17 million lives.
But, the Armenian Genocide was not the beginning or end of humanity’s grossly efficient inhumanity. When the Mongols swept through Europe in the 13th century they killed roughly five percent of the world’s population. The Crusades — launched in the name of Christ — killed more than a million people (some estimates go as high as nine million). European invaders and colonial powers — often, again, under the banner of Christ — decimated and sold into slavery untold millions of indigenous people across the Americas, Australia, Asia and Africa. The Holocaust claimed more than 6 million lives. Stalin killed anywhere between 3 and 20 million (without bothering to keep count), and in the 1970s Pol Pot killed 1.8 million people — one in five Cambodians. These are but a few examples.
In each of these cases, governments — motivated by greed, nationalism, racism, perversions of faith and more greed — were allowed to murder millions of people because of the general indifference of humanity. This wholesale murder did not occur all at once. It occurred one bloody act at a time, one act of cold indifference at a time.
I first realized this in the spring of my senior year in high school, when I picked up a copy of the New York Times one morning to learn of the Rwandan Genocide — the murder of about a million Tutsis, about 70% of their population, at the hands of the majority Hutus.
I’d never considered myself naïve, but this atrocity caught me off guard. It surprised me, because I’d allowed myself to believe we’d conquered genocide. I’d watched the documentaries about the fall of the Third Reich and the liberation of the concentration camps. And, I’d allowed myself to believe that was the end of it.
But, of course, genocide wasn’t just a horror of the past. There it was, in black and white. I was shocked by the scale of the killing. And, I was shocked equally by our society’s collective and wantonly callous indifference — the same indifference that allowed the Holocaust to take root.
Again, it would be comforting to believe we learned something from our abject failure to prevent that atrocity. But, just as the Holocaust didn’t keep us from being indifferent to Rwanda, Rwanda hasn’t kept us from being indifferent to genocide since then.
Beyond Rwanda, we’ve seen the Bosnian genocide, the killing of more than 2 million Christians and members of traditional African faith groups in Sudan in the late 90s, the ISIL genocide of Christian, Shia and Yazidi populations in Iraq and Syria and the systematic murder and exile of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Today, more than 56,000 Yemenis have died and hundreds of thousands face starvation in a U.S.-backed Saudi war, while more than a million Uighar Muslims are being held in concentration camps in China.
We’ve remained largely indifferent and mute over these atrocities. And, the less those suffering look, sound and worship like us, the more indifferent we are. The plight of the Rohingya has had fleeting coverage in Western media, and even predominantly Muslim nations have been hesitant to risk lucrative Chinese business interests over the mass imprisonment, torture and killing of the Uighars. And so, the cycle continues.
We only break that cycle when we collectively begin to experience true empathy for those who are unlike us — when we truly embrace our shared humanity. We only end, rather than simply move from one place and time to another, the mass killing of our neighbors when we begin to value their lives as much as our own, and more than corporate profits, cheap nationalism and fear.
Continued indifference will only ensure more carnage, more innocent victims, for the next generation.
“We must take sides,” Wiesel tells us. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted … that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
We must take sides. We must, as individuals, as a society and nation, decide whether we side with the oppressed and suffering, regardless of their race, religion or identity, or side instead with the power structures that continue to oppress and murder the innocents.
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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.