What is puzzling to me is this apathy, this lack of involvement and the indifference to the suffering of “others.” This apathy is dangerous, and you can see it creeping into many other aspects of our lives.
A baby girl curls up next to her dead mother’s body. An elderly man refuses to leave the rubble of his bombed home searching for his missing son. A young boy shakes and chokes after a chemical attack. These are a few of the countless images coming out of Eastern Ghouta, Syria, in recent weeks, evidence of the collective failure of the world community to stop what one U.N. official has called “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.”
What is even more disturbing is the fact that these images are neither the most gruesome nor the exception but are rather a common occurrence in this brutal conflict.
The Syrian conflict, uprising or whatever you want to call it is entering its seventh year and, hopefully, for the sake of human life, its final chapter. It is a very brutal conflict which has resulted in the death of more than half a million people, the uprooting of half of the population of the country and of unprecedented destruction reminiscent of bombed cities from World War II. Massive atrocities have been committed by all parties involved, including the systemic torture and execution of detainees, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, targeting of medical facilities and the repeated use of chemical weapons.
There is an argument to be made that what happens in Syria is important to our national interests in that region in the world. There is also a stronger argument that we as a country should have been much more engaged and involved at a much earlier stage of the conflict in order to prevent it from spiraling down to this level. Most of us would agree that this involvement, although it occurred at a late stage of the conflict, has produced positive results culminating in the defeat of ISIS. Yet ISIS, with all its brutality, was not the biggest perpetrator of these atrocities and human-rights violations, but rather it is the Syrian regime which keeps on committing these atrocities unabated.
The late Stephen Hawking wrote, “What’s happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance. Where is our emotional intelligence, our sense of collective justice?”
It is difficult, after seven years of seeing these images and hearing about these gruesome atrocities, not to become desensitized, not to become cynical, and not to lose faith in humanity. We take solace that these atrocities are not happening close to us, and we pretend that it does not affect us. But on the contrary, it does affect us, and it should affect us.
These atrocities, whether they occur in Syria, Myanmar or Yemen, ought to make us mad, very mad. They ought to enrage us because they are an assault on our collective humanity. In this day and age, we are becoming one big community. A world community which is more interdependent on each other than at any other moment in human history. If we, as a world community, are still unable to deal with this issue, are we going to be able to deal with more existential issues such as climate change?
Politicians and leaders are rarely inclined to spend any political capital and take a clear stand on issues such as human rights, particularly when they don’t get any direct benefit from it. The onus is on us, the individual, the people, to exert pressure on them and to tell them that these issues matter to us.
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What is puzzling to me is this apathy, this lack of involvement and the indifference to the suffering of “others.” This apathy is dangerous, and you can see it creeping into many other aspects of our lives. It starts by the apathy toward the “others” in faraway foreign land, then it creeps toward the “others” in our country. Those with a different color, religion or language. This is also the same thought process which results in the lack of involvement in civic society. It is the reason why we as a nation end up with someone like Donald Trump for a president.
The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, during World War II, described this apathy and lack of involvement in his poem “First they came …” Let us raise our voices and speak against injustice, against oppression. Let us advocate for the voiceless. Let us not wait, as Niemöller wrote in the poem’s final line:
“Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”