Blogs > HNN > Elie Wiesel on Darfur: Moral Authority and Moral Blackmail

Apr 5, 2006 9:37 pm

Elie Wiesel on Darfur: Moral Authority and Moral Blackmail

About twenty years ago, I was given the honor by my high school to attend a speech by Elie Wiesel at Kean College in Elizabeth, NJ and to ask him a question during the Q&A session after his speech. The occasion of the speech was Wiesel's just having won the Nobel Prize for Peace.

I spent a week perfecting the phrasing of my pre-approved four-sentence question, which asked for the Nobel Laureate's views on the propriety of imposing sanctions against apartheid South Africa. I remember having to stop myself from shaking as I rose to stand eye to eye with the great man. I remember wondering what I had ever done to deserve the honor of exchanging words with so august a moral hero. I vividly remember his having to brush the hair from his eyes as he answered my question.

I remember all that, but I don't remember a single word that filled Wiesel's platitude-laden speech, nor do I remember the answer he gave me. I just remember the inchoate and repressed sense of disappointment at the vacuity of both the speech and the answer. He spent about an hour during his speech to say nothing in particular. As for my question, he not only couldn't answer it, he wasn't interested in doing so. It was, I think, my first lesson in moral complexity. A man could be a Holocaust survivor, the author of a riveting book like Night, a Nobel Laureate, at some level a hero and moral exemplar—and yet have no significant moral advice to offer about contemporary life beyond a cheap and vacuous hash of platitudes.

That whole episode came back to me today on reading a letter to the New York Times on Darfur by David L. Phillips, executive director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. The first part of the letter criticizes the Sudanese government for blocking a delegation to Darfur. Fair enough. The second part of the letter quotes from a speech by Wiesel given in Washington last year:

In Darfur, humankind's center of suffering today, men, women and children are uprooted, starved, tortured, mutilated, humiliated and massacred and the whole civilized world knows it. And little or nothing significant is being done to stop these massive violations of human rights.

Who is guilty? Those who commit these crimes. But to the question, 'Who is responsible?', we are compelled to say: Aren't we all?
I'm" compelled" to respond that perhaps Elie Wiesel should drop the"we" and speak for himself. And if he's going to speak at all, maybe he should speak in declarative sentences rather than in the interrogative voice. While we're at it, a person who complains that"nothing significant is being done" might want to enlighten us about what he thinks ought to be done, how, and by whom. If he thinks we're"responsible" for Darfur, he has the responsibility of doing more than saying so. He needs to tell us why we are and what he means by"we."

Darfur is a moral catastrophe, but there is no clear sense in which"we" are"responsible" for it. Nor is it sufficient to note that Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, thinks otherwise. The appeal to the lachrymose is not an argument.

It needs to be said equally to anti-war advocates, anti-abortion advocates, anti-poverty advocates, anti-divorce advocates, Nobel Peace Laureates, etc. on the left, right and center: moral discourse is not a matter of throwing around words like"responsibility" and hoping that the hoped-for guilt will hit home. It's a matter of identifying one's principles, defending them, and arguing from them and about them. To the question,"Who is responsible for that?" the answer is: anyone who wants to persuade anyone of anything.

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More Comments:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I agree with the basic point you make in your first paragraph, but I balk at the last sentence.

You say, if the AU can't stop the atrocities, the UN should. Even if I granted that, I'd want to ask: why can't they? It's amazing that the incapacities of an entire continent should be an excuse for dumping the problem at everyone else's door.

As for the UN, there may be a legal requirement to act, but the institution is such a travesty that the binding force of its legal proclamations strike me as dubious. Once the UN begins systematically to default on its legal obligations to member states (as it is has), I begin to wonder what authority it has to say: "We need soldiers and you're obliged to send them."

As I wrote in a previous post, the ICC is committed to hunting down perpetrators, but if something must be done "now" about Darfur, the question remains, who is to do it? I would go farther than you. The point is not merely that there are degrees of responsibility but that the degrees are such as to absolve us, come what may for the people of Darfur.

John Edward Philips - 4/8/2006

I agree that just saying "We are all responsible" is a cheap cop-out. The government of the area is primarily responsible for enforcing the law, including international law, in the area and they must bear primary responsibility for whatever happens there. If they don't have sufficient power or will to enforce the law, they should make way for someone who does, preferably an African force. If the AU can't do it they should first ask for help in the form of funding etc. and if they still cannot do anything at all the UN is legally required to act.

Maybe the Weisel Foundation will hunt down the perpetrators after the fact, but in the meantime something must be done NOW to stop the atrocities. As you say, "The appeal to the lachrymose is not an argument." Neither is it a substitute for policy and action.