I started off Monday in my usual hurry off to human rights class down by the river in Cambridge, Mass. It's one of my favorites this semester, although it is often an emotionally draining 2.5 hours focusing on recognizing various global human rights atrocities and determining what — if anything — policymakers can do about it.
This particular class was on the atrocities unfolding in Syria. Instead of the usual lecture our professor began with a hot-off-the-press video from Human Rights Watch representatives who have snuck into Syria in recent weeks, revealing footage of horrific bread-line bombings, children dying in explosions, and a father burying his mother and daughter. Forced in a small room unable to escape the sights and sounds, I tried to look away several times. "This is the reality in Syria," our professor quietly interjected as the jarring sounds of explosions and sirens came to a halt and the video shut off. "And this is our reality," he continued, putting up an image of the recent U.S. newspaper headlines, where any updates on Syria are scarce.
"It's not that we don't care," he explained. "Many of us fervently care, and not just here at the Kennedy School. I remain confident that people are wincing at these images across the country. But what can we do?" He asked our class of young policymakers clearly affected by the footage. We thought international institutions—the ICC, the Genocide Conventions would fix this, but atrocities press on at full speed as the international communities stands back. "Many of you will go off and do good work as a financial adviser, maybe at the World Bank," he continued, noting that not everyone is going to be able to save the lives of the suffering despite the degree to which we may or may not care. The problem, he said, is that we tend to let ourselves forget. "Just don't forget," he said, as the class meandered into a more dispassionate discussion of Security Council politics, the laws of war, international criminal procedure, and the developing "responsibility to protect" principle.
As I gathered my belongings trying to erase the images of small children bleeding in the streets in Aleppo to head off to my next class, I began to receive images on my phone of the carnage 15 minutes downtown in Boston. Students at Harvard's Kennedy School gathered, unsure of what to do, as officials tried to clear the area and evacuate our buildings as precaution. I frantically shot off messages to friends and family downtown to ensure everyone was safe and glued my eyes to my twitter feed. Bombs were in Copley Square, and they were unsure if others remained across the city.
As every student in the Harvard community came to grips with the available information, cell phone service began to cut off across the city, subway service stalled, and ambulances whizzed through the streets. Harvard students lingered in the square curious if they would be able to give blood to help victims. The images of the once quiet, peaceful sanctuary of small-city charm in Copley square littered with blood and tears were horrifying to any Bostonian.
It was from this perspective that I began to see the range of commentary across social media. Sadness, despair, anger. But most poignant to me was several reactions to the tune of "Everyone is all worked up over #Bostonmarathon, while 42 people were killed and still hundreds wounded in #Iraq today ..." some peers wrote. These types of "get some perspective" outcries did remind me of the earlier video footage I saw that day. They did not, however, come as welcome commentaries despite my own recent reminders of global tragedies.
Of course the closest to home any senseless violence becomes, the more visceral the reaction tends to be. It is human nature. This was my city, my friends were in that area. I think if anything, the lesson I took away was "not to forget" the pain of any senseless murder — big or small. A large statistic does not necessarily trump a small one, each deserves careful reflection as our generation observes countless senseless murders across the world, individual tragedies scarring human history. As my classmates winced at images of people dying in the streets of Syria we winced again at the blood on Newberry Street. We are torn up, shaken, and we do care. But what can our generation do about it?
To extent we can stomach it, "never forgetting" the atrocities unfolding before our eyes inside and outside of our borders is the best way to move forward as millennials eager to see an end to the terror and murder we are growing increasingly accustomed to. We face difficult choices in policy solutions moving forward, to be sure. But we need to remain sensitive to the stories we are living through, and “remember to remember” each tragedy our generation faces — big and small.