Why Do We Mourn for Parkland but Ignore Genocides?

Ghouta CC 3.0 Qasioun News Agency.jpg

By Andrew Quist

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has sparked a nationwide debate about how to keep students safe from school shooters. Giving interviews on mainstream news outlets during the week after the massacre, appearing angry and upset yet poised and articulate, students from Douglas High captured our attention and inspired many of us to take action by lobbying our elected representatives to change gun laws and improve school safety. We empathized with these students and felt their anguish.

If a tragedy resulting in the deaths of 17 young students can so shock and motivate us, why is it that we care so little about violent assaults on humanity in other parts of the world?

Recently more than 500 people in eastern Ghouta, Syria were slaughtered by the Assad regime. The regime also bombed 26 medical facilities. Syrian forces continued to bomb civilians even after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution mandating a cease-fire. Syrians—who are pleading for the international community to enforce the Geneva Conventions—feel abandoned by the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, 900,000 Rohingya refugees wait in refugee camps, afraid to return to their home country, Myanmar. In August 2017, Burmese government forces accompanied by Buddhist civilians began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, murdering the men, raping and killing women, torturing children, and burning down entire villages. Despite the horrific nature of these atrocities, the international community has done little to pressure the Burmese government to end this genocidal assault and allow the repatriation of the Rohingya.

Why are we ignoring the atrocities in Syria and Myanmar and failing to take action to help these victims? Due to the psychological phenomenon of psychic numbing, it is difficult for us to empathize with people suffering in far-away places. Moreover, as death tolls mount (more than 400,000 people have died in the war in Syria), individual deaths become statistics, and our ability to empathize is further reduced.

Also, we often feel overwhelmed by complex problems like a foreign civil war. Due to another psychological bias called pseudoinefficacy, we resign ourselves to inaction when no easy solution is apparent.

But meaningful action is possible, and it is the same action one can take to mitigate school shootings: lobby our elected representatives. The U.S. should sanction Assad’s allies and establish safe zones in Syria, or in the case of the Rohingya, pressure the Burmese government to allow safe repatriation of refugees and restore their citizenship. Additionally, citizens should push their representatives to pass the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which has been stalled in committee since May 2017.

Although we are physically separated from Syria and Myanmar by thousands of miles of land and ocean, we bear witness to the plight of their people through news reports and technology. With awareness comes responsibility to act. As Professor Rebecca Hamilton writes in her book, Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide,

 “Our world is getting smaller. A generation ago, television brought the lives of those outside our borders into our homes. Today, the pace and quantity of information continues to increase; more and more people at different ends of the earth see and interact with each other, in real time. As has always been the case, a sense of community can arise from relationships built over the course of repeated interactions, but no longer does physical proximity dictate the boundaries of these spheres of obligation.”

Our obligation to prevent needless violence certainly extends to the children in our schools.  Should it not extend as well to Syrians suffering in Ghouta, and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh? Shouldn’t they be protected, not ignored?

The above photograph is of Arbine village, Eastern Ghouta, Syria, on February 27, 2018. CC 3.0 Qasioun News Agency