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When beliefs falter

Alex Coccia | Monday, September 20, 2010

I propose one overarching question, for which I hope that the Notre Dame community may have the answer.

Elie Wiesel said in his speech while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 that we must “take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” It seems to me that the key here is that it is of utmost importance not to be indifferent. As a monument outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. states: “Thou shalt not be a victim; thou shalt not be a perpetrator; above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

Now, I am a pacifist (See “An Argument for Pacifism,” 9/6/10). I believe that all situations can be solved through diplomatic means. I believe in being my brother’s keeper. I agree when Wiesel said to Richard Heffner in “Conversations with Elie Wiesel” that we cannot be brothers to everyone in the world, but even if “we can tell a story about a brother who is looking for a brother and finds one,” that is enough. I think that although we may not succeed in being everyone’s brother, we can try.

I feel that my beliefs on non-violence are firm. It sickens me, though, when events that have occurred in my lifetime cause my beliefs, which I firmly believe to be morally right, to falter, even if only slightly.

On Oct. 27, 2009, a 15 year old girl in California was gang raped on her high school’s property as people stood by and watched. She was left naked and unconscious under a bench on the school grounds. The horror occurred over a period of two hours, and no one notified the police, who were inside the school monitoring the homecoming dance. Richmond, Calif., has been shaken. America has been shaken. I and my beliefs have been shaken.

Police reports have said that more than 20 people stood by and watched over the two hour span. Because the girl was 15, by California state law, the bystanders were not legally responsible to report the rape. This is only the beginning of the problem. I believe those bystanders, who refused to report the rape, who watched, and took pictures and video, are equally as responsible as those who have been arrested by the police as perpetrators. When incidents like what happened to this poor girl occur, my profound response is to want the perpetrators and bystanders to suffer as physically and emotionally and long as she did and will. As a pacifist, how can I reconcile this? What world do we live in, in which people watch others gang rape a girl, videotape it and take pictures, and do nothing to stop it? How can non-violence be an answer to the atrocities multiple men have committed against a 15-year-old girl?

It is sickening to me, and surely to all moral citizens of this world, that people could do such a thing, and others could stand by, probably with smiles on their faces. It sickens me that this has become a danger in our world. It sickens me that because of people like these who can have such an effect, I question my own views on the non-violence. But how can people stand by and do nothing? Do screams not matter? Do the pleas of a 15-year-old girl not matter? What kind of world is this? Seemingly, it is one that would be safer without people such as these perpetrators and bystanders living in it.

Many believe that it is the killers who must be punished. Are not those who stand by and do nothing also killers? I do not know how to reconcile my beliefs when instances like this occur. I may never know. There may, as Wiesel has said, always be exceptions to beliefs. But what punishment should be given to the bystanders?

This is my question to you in search of a solution, Notre Dame community.

Alex Coccia is a freshman. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.