The Perils of the Perils of Indifference

Copyright (c) 2013 Graham L. Wilson. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included at this link: see my profile page.


As the last marked assignment before the final exams for the course of English 30-1 in Alberta, I was assigned to read a speech by Elie Wiesel, a prominent Zionist, on the topic of moral "indifference". A valid topic, to be sure, but I was not the least bit surprised to see in the end it was little more than a defence of military interventionism, in this case the NATO bombing of Serbia in the late 1990s. Upset by this, and reading the assignment requirements carefully, I came up with this response in which I outlined my opposition to such interventions. To the credit of my teacher, my rebuke received a full mark of 5/5. I then submitted it to the editor of the People's Voice, who had previously published my Rancher's Commentary, and had it run in the June 15-30 issue. Finally, I am putting it up here.


On April 12, 1999, before an audience of White House dignitaries including then U.S. President and First Lady Bill and Hillary Clinton, Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize laureate Elie Wiesel delivered an address titled "The Perils of Indifference". In this speech, he outlined his thoughts on the philosophy of indifference, describing it as "a strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil." He notes how indifference is "more dangerous than anger and hatred", because anger sometimes drives a person to do "something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses." He concludes finally that indifference is "always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor - never his victim." There is truth to these words, even in circumstances as seemingly mundane as a national election, where voter apathy and vote suppression is used to maintain domination by hateful and corrupt governments, which dodge hideous scandal after scandal by exploiting public apathy and the will to forget.

Wiesel then goes on to cite the example of the St. Louis, a cargo ship loaded with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, which made anchor on the shores of the United States, only to be sent back again. He questioned how President Roosevelt could have let this happen, given documentation showing American awareness of the persecution of the Jews by Hitler's government. He also lists instances of American corporations trading and engaging with Germany's fascist regime, such as American oil which powered the Blitzkrieg into France in 1940. He asks how it is that these agents could have remained silent despite their awareness - how they could have remained indifferent to the sufferings of the many trapped in the Nazi concentration camp system. On these counts, Wiesel is absolutely correct, correct in his assertion that everyone has a moral obligation to raise their voice to evil when apparent, and correct about our obligation to analyze the full results of our own actions.

However, in the concluding passages of his speech he starts to overstep the bounds of promoting awareness and activism, and falls into the trap of imperialist interventionism. He sings the praises of the "joint decision of the United States and NATO to intervene in Kosovo", which he feels to be "justified" as "a lasting warning that never again will the deportation, the terrorization of children and their parents be allowed anywhere in the world". While undoubtedly the violence that struck the area of the former Yugoslavia was horrible to behold, it is considerably ironic for NATO to have felt itself the region's knight in shining armour when it had been using and promoting religious and ethnic tensions in its effort to destabilize the former country's communist regime, which had presided over almost fifty years of relative peace.

Furthermore, the very means of the intervention left much to question, as NATO forces sought to protect, as Wiesel put it, "those refugees, those who were uprooted by a man whom I believe that because of his crimes, should be charged with crimes against humanity" through the large scale aerial bombardment of civilian areas, including factories and television stations, with the predictable resultant 'collateral damage'. Even worse was the particular types of armaments used, including cluster bombs and depleted uranium – many of which are still killing to this day, made yet more dangerous by the continuing lack of reconstructed infrastructure. Many have charged that NATO was simply experimenting with weapons while using the people of Serbia as mere guinea pigs, as well as trying to enhance their foothold into a region newly broken away from Russia's influence.

This was not a one off case either, the same weapons were again used in Iraq and Afghanistan, thus showing this to be the dark legacy of almost all the "humanitarian interventions" of the past decade. The latest in Libya has proved perhaps the most embarrassing for NATO forces, as the weak central government they set up in Gaddafi's place has failed to check fanatical Islamist elements, leading to the death of the U.S. Ambassador during the consulate attack in Benghazi during September 2012, and more catastrophically by the flowing of arms to Islamist terrorists elsewhere in the continent – most notably to northern Mali, where the response has been yet another intervention by the French military; who knows what the end result of that will be. If indifference innately denies our humanity, it must be checked by how often action is nothing more than inhumanity in disguise.

Again, Wiesel is very correct to note the actions of the United States and others in the build up of Nazi Germany, and right to note their partial responsibility for the horrors that followed. The message that he failed to grasp is that the solution to war and violence is peace and development, not force and bombing from another power. Respect for the sovereignty of nations and the rights of people to self-determination is not justified to be violated on the grounds of one-sided lists of abuses and crimes. The world is not black and white, and justice is not served by narrow-minded shots in the dark. This is the difference between peacekeeping and war-making, mediation versus conflagration. Thus this is not a call for indifference, but a recognition that the difference we make must be the right one. Sometimes it is better to do nothing than to do harm, but always it is better to do good than nothing at all. The trick is having the wisdom to avoid indifference by making the correct difference.

Graham Lawrence Wilson - May 23, 2013