In Search of Our Dignity

Almost 11 years ago, an Indian Ocean earthquake produced a devastating tsunami that was responsible for roughly 23,000 deaths and 100 millions displaced. Something like $5 billion was needed to provide assistance; $1.8 billion was pledged in emergency aid; and corruption, bureaucracy and nationalism hampered that humanitarian response on the ground and around the world.

Not long after it was clear that the Middle East had moved from unstable to incendiary. Sectarian conflict had been exacerbated, ethnic rivalries had become sharpened, and economic constraints following war in Iraq and sanctions in Iran raised anger as well as vulnerabilities. Once again tens or even hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and millions have been displaced. The birthplace of civilization and many of its most important features from ‘0’ to ‘Z’ is being destroyed in in an enormous and ironic gesture of psychotic religiosity. Criminal destruction and sale of antiquities and brutal human trafficking are taking everything from individuals and from the whole of humanity. Ethnic and political conflicts are being exploited in the turmoil surrounding the Syrian/Iraqi free-for-all. Meanwhile, people are robbed and killed by the truckload, babies are drowned and washed ashore, women are given for rape and abuse as religious rewards, and the world largely stands by, slaps a few hands, drops some more bombs, and argues about how it’s a neighbor’s responsibility.

When did we lose our humanity? Humanitarianism is the highest form of human dignity: the belief that we never have too little to share with those in need; a hallmark of humanity. In Guatemala in 1999, a family living in a single room home with little more than the clothes they wore and the tools they worked with offered me, a comparatively rich American, a meal. Theirs was an act of gracious dignity. In France last week, we prided ourselves for awarding medals to three men who jumped to the defense of a train car full of strangers, yet within a week, train cars full of refugees and migrants are being herded like cattle into camps in Eastern Europe. If we recognize dignity, why don’t we recognize indignity?

Perhaps our humanity was never real. Perhaps it was just a carrot, dangling at the end of a stick before our eyes. We are never more than a few steps away from attaining humanity as we trudge along the treadmill of history, reliving one inhumane absurdity after another. We struggle, or think we struggle, to get ahead and prosper, and we confidently accept that destruction, despair and death is the lot of others and must simply be understood to be part of life in this world. These are the words of an egocentric and cowardly fool. There is no guarantee that disaster and strife will not strike any of us. When that happens, will we expect the humanity of others to come to our rescue?

I hasten to add that there have been many, I don’t know how many, who have individually stepped up to provide the help they could in whatever ways they could. It keeps my hope alive. I direct my words at those who have mistaken empowerment for leadership. These are the times when we can distinguish those who are good leaders from those who simply wield power. Those who have stepped up to help I would mark as showing good leadership.