I was going to write about how the overwhelming response to the earthquake disaster in Haiti gives us clear evidence that empathy is alive and well in the human population. We see millions of people suffering enormous loss, and we must respond, millions of us in return. We are compelled to help people we don't know at all, just because we can put ourselves in their place and imagine how awful it must be. Compassion is the empathetic response to bad things happening to other people, even people we will never meet.
And this is true, but...
Nicholas D. Kristof writes in the New York Times today about the humanitarian crisis happening in east Congo now, and contrasts the outpouring of support for the suffering people in Haiti to the indifference the world exhibits to the genocide and atrocities happening in Congo. He says that the civil war there has claimed 30 times the number of lives as has the earthquake in Haiti; he describes in vivid and sickening detail the savage murder of parents in front of their children, the kidnapping of young girls to sexually service the rebel soldiers, the rape of children. Extremist Hutu militias (remnants of those that committed the genocide in Rwanda) are brutally destroying the country and its people, and the world is, apparently, indifferent.
--It's too alien, too far removed from our own experience here in the U.S. Natural disasters we know, we understand. We have tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes. We don't have roaming bands of lawless thugs breaking into our homes, eviscerating our husbands in front of our eyes, raping our wives as we are forced to watch, and carrying off our screaming 12-year-old daughter. (Although I write this from the safety of my suburban home. I acknowledge that people who live in our worst slums are subject to terror from gang members.)
--We don't see it. We see the Haitian disaster on TV, and it's a lot easier to respond with empathy to what you can see. Maybe if Steven Spielberg made a movie about Congo, we'd respond.
--Tribal warfare in Africa seems endless and unsolvable to most of us in the West. There are solutions to earthquake damage. The remedies are concrete: dig people out of rubble; send doctors; send food; send tents; send money. But what is the remedy for genocide, for rape on a massive scale? Send in our troops? Not going to happen. Send money? To whom? World wide awareness and outcry? Important, but will it make any difference in actually stopping it?
--One disaster was caused by natural events; the other by the most extreme human evil. We don't like to think about how evil we as a species can be. We want to distance ourselves from it, but in doing so we distance ourselves from the victims as well.
I wish I had some insightful answer. I don't. But I am highly grateful to Mr. Kristof for speaking up for the ravaged Congo people.