I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” ― Elie Wiesel

Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria, the international community has watched as millions became displaced both within and outside the country. The death toll continues to rise, currently estimated to be above 150,000. Social media (#syria) allows us to follow the events on a daily, even hourly, basis—and we know innocent people are killed during those same time frames. Yet, more than three years later, the situation seems unchanged. Syrians know we know the extent of the humanitarian crisis—and that not enough is being done. The question remains: why do societies and individuals remain idle in the face of human disaster? The words “never again”, spoken after the Jewish Holocaust as in Elie Wiesel’s famous quote above, often ring hollow.


Bystanders in everyday life

Many people are faced with situations where they become bystanders in some way. This could be witnessing harassment on a public bus, such as the numerous cases of gang rapes in India, or watching a classmate being bullied, such as that of young American, Anna Cymbaluk. Not everyone feels the need to interfere, or some want to but are afraid of the consequences. Why is this the case? In psychology, two major factors have been identified to help explain why we don’t interfere in such situations. The case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman murdered outside her apartment in 1964 whilst her neighbors did nothing, was examined by, among others, psychologists J.M. Darley and B. Latane.

In The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help (1970), Darley and Latane found two major factors which they used to explain why the neighbors did not intervene before it was too late. One, the fact that the presence of other people in the situation creates a diffusion of responsibility, and, two, that people are in general quite preoccupied with acting correctly. In other words, being part of a group makes us less keen to take responsibility and we worry too much what others will think of us. Darley and Latane presented their findings and, whilst being published over four decades ago, their work remains important for us today in understanding why people fail to intervene in situations.


Should states intervene?

Aside from personal responsibility, the question remains regarding what we as an international community should do in order to change the situation in Syria—or in any of the other major conflicts of the moment. Big power players, both states and international institutions such as the UN, have made efforts to help Syrians but have been largely criticized for not doing enough. This is not the first time the U.S in particular has been blamed for non-intervention in international nor national conflicts. Samantha Power made a name for herself as a critic of U.S foreign policy with her 2001 article, Bystanders to Genocide. Why the United States let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen, later publishing the Pulitzer Prize-winning book,  A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide Power argues that the United States’s response was a failure. This was mainly due to foreign policy being “a lifeless, bloodless set of abstractions,” where the protection of state interests is more important than the consequences for the people whose lives will be affected by decisions made. Foreign policy, according to Power, is dehumanizing and removes policymakers from the human aspect of the decision-making process.

In other words, it’s far too easy to sit comfortably in an office and decide the fate of someone far removed from you. Interestingly, in her position as current U.S ambassador to the UN, Power has defended Obama’s stance on Syria admitting to the limits foreign policy puts on state intervention in crises like Syria—therefore complicating her original argument.

At the same time, the ramifications of unchecked state and social intervention are highlighted in Jumuke Baloguns’s comment on why the #bringbackourgirls campaign could actually make things worse for the Nigerian people. As Baloguns, co-founder of CompareAfrique.com writes:

“Last year, before President Obama visited several countries in Africa, I wrote about how the U.S. military is expanding its role in Africa. In 2013 alone, AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) carried out a total of 546 ‘military activities,’ which is an average of one and half military missions a day. While we don’t know much about the purpose of these activities, keep in mind that AFRICOM’s mission is to ‘advance U.S. national security interests.

And advancing they are. According to one report, in 2013, American troops entered and advanced American interests in Niger, Uganda, Ghana, Malawi, Burundi, Mauritania, South Africa, Chad, Togo, Cameroon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Tanzania and South Sudan.”


Bystanders to the “Final Solution”

No group of bystanders have been more studied in detail than the non-Jewish population who, in some way or another, witnessed the “Final Solution” being carried out in Europe. For an insight into the minds of those who experienced this up close, Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah contains nine hours (!) of original material.

The film looks at four topics: the mobile gas vans in Chelmno, the extermination camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz, and life in the Warsaw ghetto. The interviews with those who lived close to the extermination camps are particularly interesting as they show that these individuals were well aware what was happening but were either indifferent or, worse, happy about the outcome.

Some have argued that under a totalitarian regime such as the Third Reich “normal” people can, with the right incentives, forget their morals and allow events they’d normally protest to occur right in front of them. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt argues otherwise; namely that a moral choice exists even under totalitarianism. Arendt uses Denmark as an example of how morality can survive even during extreme circumstances, as the non-Jewish Danish population refused to take part in the annihilation of fellow Danes. Instead, they helped hide and move almost the entire Danish Jewish population to safety in neutral Sweden. The Danes did not think twice about helping their comrades, and in the aftermath refused to take credit for their actions. Morality and dignity can survive even the harshest conditions, as shown by the Danes and many others. A beautifully written, yet incredibly sad account of daily life in Auschwitz is Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. In this stunning work, Levi writes “I am constantly amazed by man’s inhumanity to man.”

For more insights into the bystander effect, Raul Hilberg must not be forgotten. Hilberg is widely recognized as one of the great historians of the Holocaust, in particular with regards to bystanders. Hilberg’s essays on bystanders in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 reveals the grey areas between these categories, and is just one of the many great books he wrote.

In the end, we are reminded of the one of the greatest lessons for the bystander—as Primo Levi is quoted, “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.” Perhaps it’s even more frightening then that a 2014 global survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that, in places like Asia and the Middle East, an overwhelming number (41% and 63% respectively) believe the Holocaust to be “a myth of an exaggeration.” As The Atlantic reports, “Although the prevalence of Holocaust ignorance and denial was just one small aspect of the survey, it illuminates a powerful fact: As the memory of the genocide grows fainter, attitudes toward Jews—and Israel—are changing.”

Further Reading:

– Stanley Milgram conducted a very interesting experiment on obedience to authority figures in 1963: The Perils of Obedience

– For a take on U.S involvement in Vietnam, read Lake, A. and Morris, R., “The Human Reality of Realpolitik,” Foreign Policy, 1971

– Noam Chomsky provides further insight into state intervention in “For Reasons of State”

– Follow Samantha Power on twitter for daily updates on her opinions

– How altruistic are people really? Read Charles Batson’s Altruism in Humans

– One of the defining works about the Jewish Holocaust is Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews

Image credit: configmanager via flickr