Elie Wiesel was 15-years-old when he was imprisoned in and eventually liberated from German concentration camps. He has subsequently spent the next 70 years with one main mission: warning the rest of humanity about the dangers of complacency. That was the central theme of his April 12, 1999, speech at the White House, The Perils of Indifference, part of the Millenium Lecture Series that featured eminent individuals from myriad fields and walks of life. Wiesel has born witness not just to the greatest display of human cruelty in history, but to the numerous examples of human cruelty that followed. The epitaph of the Holocaust has long been “Never Again.” Never again will the world stand idly by while autocratic regimes systematically exterminate entire peoples. In his April 1999 speech, however, Wiesel sought to draw to the world’s leaders’ attention their abject failure to abide the admonishment against allowing another mass slaughter carried out on the basis of ethnic or religious differences. It is for this reason he included in his speech the following recitation of the world’s failures during only one century of humanity’s existence:
“We are on the threshold of a new century, a new millennium. What will the legacy of this vanishing century be? How will it be remembered in the new millennium? Surely it will be judged, and judged severely, in both moral and metaphysical terms. These failures have cast a dark shadow over humanity: two World Wars, countless civil wars, the senseless chain of assassinations -- Gandhi, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Sadat, Rabin -- bloodbaths in Cambodia and Nigeria, India and Pakistan, Ireland and Rwanda, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sarajevo and Kosovo; the inhumanity in the gulag and the tragedy of Hiroshima. And, on a different level, of course, Auschwitz and Treblinka. So much violence, so much indifference.”
Having listed the most recent instances of mass slaughter, some of which resulted in millions of deaths, Wiesel then begins his discourse on the nature of ambivalence or indifference:
“What is indifference? . . . Is it a philosophy? Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one's sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?”
In The Perils of Indifference, Wiesel is appealing to the world’s conscience. The emotion to which he is most directly appealing is guilt, guilt over the repeated failures of the world’s major industrialized nations to eschew genocidal policies and to take those steps necessary to prevent them. The debate over whether the United States could have done more to impede Germany’s ability to carry out the mass extermination of Jews and others will likely continue for years to come. Those examples of genocide that followed, however, allow for no similar uncertainty. The world knew what was going on in Cambodia, Nigeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ethiopia, and other locales where ethnic conflict and government abuse was going unaddressed or was allowed to continue longer than warranted by any exigent circumstances. Wiesel’s appeal to the world’s conscience by addressing its moral ambivalence about so many instances of mass slaughter was aimed directly at the concept of guilt.