Western Passivity Is Expensive: It Costs Human Life

Olivia Lusala

Western Passivity Is Expensive: It Costs Human Life

To anyone who has ever said that they couldn't change the world

May 31, 2018

In only 100 days, hundreds of thousands of lives were claimed when the death of then-president of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, sparked a massacre of the Tutsi minority and some sympathetic Hutus. Some estimates say an additional 300,000 Rwandan citizens were displaced as they fled for their lives to neighboring countries, hoping to leave the horrors that they had witnessed behind.

The British Broadcasting Corporation places mortality rates for that particular instance of ethnic cleansing, which lasted from April to July of 1994, at somewhere around 800,000 individuals. This is not a number to be taken lightly. That means that 800 people were killed every day for 100 days, in a one-sided torrent of violence. The rest of the world watched in silence.

On Thursday, May 3rd, sophomore Cecile Bendera ‘20, who holds national ties to Rwanda, and whose grandmother lost a leg in the conflict, organized a viewing of the critically acclaimed movie, Hotel Rwanda in the Little Theater of City High. The shameful (yet unsurprising) part is that only ten people showed up to watch. Of those ten, seven stayed for the duration of the 122 minute film.

It may seem as though this senseless massacre of innocent men, women, and children happened in a different era. However, last month marked only the twenty-fourth anniversary of the start of the bloodshed that was the Rwandan Genocide.To put this in perspective, the extermination began in the same month as Kurt Cobain’s death. Despite the popular narrative, ethnic cleansing is more than just an ugly thing of the past, limited to (though still egregious and important to acknowledge) the Holocaust and the Nazi party. It is a widely ignored part of our present.

Today, Genocide Watch categorizes ten different countries (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria) as being in a state of Genocide Emergency, meaning that there is ongoing and widespread persecution of a certain people taking place in the status quo. Genocide itself is defined by international law as, “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

In a world where hours are spent scrolling through social media timelines, curating the perfect feed, and even just simply passing the time, it is inconceivable to me that people were unable to carve two hours out of their day in order to remind themselves that our world is not utopian, that the fungoid combination of hatred and anger, left to fester in the periphery can grow to espouse cataclysmic results. The only excuse would be that those two hours were already being dedicated to reducing the humongous number of terrible things in the world that I will refer to henceforth as The Suck.

We, in the United States, have spent so much of our time insisting that we are powerless to stop the horrors that we witness (some of them firsthand) from systemic violence to that of the gun variety, climate change to human trafficking, they all have one thing in common: we are inclined to turning a blind eye, sometimes even straight up denying that they exist. Many of us have even begun to believe the lie that we are powerless to stop what goes on in this world.

There is a scene in Hotel Rwanda where *SPOILERS* the main character Paul (played by Don Cheadle) has an exchange with Jack, an American journalist who has shot footage of the slaughter occurring outside of the Hôtel des Mille Collines’ walls. They are in Kigali, Rwanda, the focal point of the violence.

Paul articulates his gratitude, expressing his hope that along with the footage, will come a conclusion to the violence. Jack, however, responds with skepticism, summarizing in just a few words the nature of Western Passivity:

“I think if people see this footage they’ll say ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.”

The passivity with which you accept the things that you read in the news before turning back to the latest Netflix hit is the same passivity that enabled such horrendous events as the Rwandan Genocide  It’s the same passivity that will prevent Flint, Michigan from having clean drinking water until someone finally decides to get around to it. That same attitude will allow the intensification of the situations in Syria, Myanmar, and (insert preventable mess here).

The fact that we in the United States are simply able to choose not to act when something awful is happening is a confirmation of our privilege. Even when the necessary actions are written out for us, we insist that we are unable to perform them. I too, am guilty of buying into this feigned helplessness.

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, I made jokes about Drumpf not knowing that it was a part of the U.S. What I did not do was use my platform as a person in a position of relative power to amplify the voices of those experiencing crisis. I didn’t write, I didn’t raise money, I didn’t say or do much of anything. As a result, I was complacent in the extended suffering of Maria’s victims. I contributed to loss of life. To quote journalist, Activist, and Civil Rights leader Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party,

“There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”

If the quest to end world hunger were met with the same energy that some of us put into updating our Snapchat stories, no one would ever go hungry again. When you live in the most influential political state in the world, even apathy is a choice. Maybe next time that you scroll through your news feed shaking your head, before scrolling on, consider the role that you are playing in the continuation of the atrocities that you claim to denounce.

I am not trying to say that everyone needs to dedicate their lives to every cause,  but if everyone picked at least one significant issue to focus some of their energy on, countless lives would be saved and so many more improved. Choosing to do nothing is choosing to contribute to loss of life on a massive scale. Your inaction kills. Genocide can only occur in a world which chooses to tolerate its perpetrators. The same can be said for many of the problems present in today’s world. We must start to hold inactors culpable in the same way that we do actors.

The next time you say that you have nothing to do for the weekend or that you don’t know what you’re going to do this summer, consider campaigning to raise awareness for a cause. Volunteer with a local organization or find out how you can play your part in reducing The Suck. One good place to start would be checking out the websites of organizations dedicated to reducing the ugly.

Even if after all the points I’ve made, you still believe that you have little impact on the world, and therefore it doesn’t matter what you contribute, I leave you with this question: if everyone chooses to wait patiently for others to bring change, who is actually going to do the changing?


Get Involved

Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa

The Crisis Center of Johnson County

Domestic Violence Intervention Program

Rape Victim Advocacy Program

United Action for Youth

United States Institute of Peace

United to End Genocide

17 Sustainable Development Goals

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