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kevbo's avatar

Of what value is it take on the archetypal role of witness to large scale atrocities (such as war or genocide)?

Asked by kevbo (23355 points ) February 6th, 2009

I just finished watching this documentary about UN General Romeo Dallaire who was basically hung out to dry by the western world (as was Rwanda) during the genocide of 1994. While he was not physically threatened, he suffered personally and greatly due to his being set up to fail but did his best to save who he could and serve as a witness to the rest. (While we’re on the subject of Africa, Darfur also has many witnesses.)

Similarly, this documentary trailer about a famous war photographer makes a sincere attempt to answer the question.

Lastly, this book attempts to turn over the stone of the Russian gulags, which systematically killed millions, during the time of Stalin.

It is obvious that these witness accounts do little to stop atrocities in their progress, and they do not prevent future atrocities from happening. The best they seem to do is to provide some assurance of the truth of the event for anyone who happens to care or was involved, but seem to be of little utility for anyone who is not directly affected. Most consistently, it seems, these witnesses do it to give themselves solace or for idealistic notions of change, which often do not pan out.

Personally, I believe all these events are wrong and evil and would prefer they not happen. Still, I get entranced by their mind-boggling scale (for example, pondering how an entire nation could perpetuate the imprisonment and forced labor of 20% or more of its citizens for multiple decades and how it was so pervasive that citizens kept a backpack at their front door in preparation for their inevitable arrest), and I also find myself somewhat enamored with storytellers such as Dallaire, Nachtwey, and Solzhenitzen.

Is witnessing a fool’s errand? Is its value limited to those who experienced the event more or less directly? Is it a better use of one’s time and energy to focus on something other than the episodic steamrolling of humanity?

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3 Answers

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Siren's avatar

I don’t think witnessing is a fool’s errand. I don’t personally think anyone made a conscious effort to be at that place and time when atrocities were occurring. Furthermore, I believe the people witnessing these atrocities were victims themselves, who will most likely be forever be haunted by what they saw and heard.

It is understandable to be a cynic nowadays, what with all the current and historical wrongdoings by humans onto humans. But, unless someone can prove it actually happened (and to what degree), even more injustices would occur unpunished and not brought to light. Regardless, of the outcome, my firm belief is that it is our duty to witness and record and tell everyone about them, because it can only help to set the wheels of justice in motion. And without justice, we have chaos and anarchy. Whether justice prevails in the end is another matter.

galileogirl's avatar

Of course, with the exception of reporters, being at the scene of atrocities is not a CHOICE. And what would be the purpose of surviving a genocide and then refusing to be a witness. Like any event, being a witness does not stop it from happening, but don’t we want witnesses to robbery, an accident or even murder to tell what they saw. The more important the event, the more important it is to know what happened.

As a history teacher, I know that knowledge of events can diappear in a generation. I am teaching children born in 1990–1994. They often have no concept of why things are happening in the world that affect their lives. They only know that people who oppose the actions of the US are bad guys. They learn what happens but have no idea of why. When they come into my class they often believe we went to war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein caused the destruction of the WTC or was planning the destruction of the US or to save the Iraqi people from a dictator. Even though most teachers disabuse them of that propaganda, without the written testimony of witnesses the facts and truth would disappear.

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