Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Elie Wiesel's The Perils of Indifference

Figure 1. Delay, Jerome. They're Walking.... Apr.-May 1999. HiWaay Information Services. N.p., 2005. Web. 5 Oct. 2010. .

Fifty four years after writer Ellie Wiesel was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp, Slobodan Milosevic ordered the genocide of Kosovo's Albanian Muslim population, leaving 90% of the country displaced, as seen in Figure 1. NATO and the United States had just sent troops to intervene in the conflict. Meanwhile, Ireland, Rwanda, and the Middle East were also plagued by violence. As part of President Clinton’s Millennium Lecture series, Elie Wiesel delivered his speech, “The Perils of Indifference.” Wiesel spoke about his own Holocaust experiences, and what he felt has lead to genocide, particularly in Kosovo, that has yet to be eliminated. The fact he is able to use a sympathetic tone to not only speak against violence, but relate to its’ consequences, causes Wiesel’s speech to be much more powerful.

Wiesel asks his audience, “How will it be remembered in the new millennium? Surely it will be judged, and judged severely… These failures have cast a dark shadow over humanity.” The use of the word “humanity” establishes that Wiesel’s speech isn’t directed specifically at the American people; the issues he addresses are much broader. He uses “bloodbaths in Cambodia and Algeria, India and Pakistan, Ireland and Rwanda, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sarajevo and Kosovo” to demonstrate how many had not learned from previous generation’s mistakes. Rather than point fingers, Wiesel blames indifference. He argues that “to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred.” By personifying indifference, Wiesel alleviates any notion that he is trying to judge the audience.

Wiesel uses a sympathetic tone to achieve emotional impact. Had he used a more accusatory tone, the audience would’ve become defensive, causing the speech to lose its emotional value, and ultimately, its meaning. Instead, he emphasizes words like “suffering,” “victims,” and “refugees” repeatedly. This enables the audience to feel compassion for the “victims,” making the speech more relatable.

Throughout Wiesel’s speech, comparisons are constantly being drawn from the Holocaust to Kosovo. In each situation, “when adults wage war, children perish.” Wiesel was a child himself in the Holocaust. He describes his feelings after liberation, claiming that “there was no joy in his heart.” Because Wiesel can relate to the horrors that go along with ethnic cleansing, his speech seems less like a lecture, and more like a personal narrative. When he says, “once again, I think of the young Jewish boy from the Carpathian Mountains. He has accompanied the old man I have become throughout these years of quest and struggle,” he emphasizes that even years later, he has not forgotten Buchenwald.

Wiesel’s speech contains a first person account of the consequences of violence, causing it to have a more powerful, emotional effect. He sympathizes with the victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide, so although he condemns violence, his tone and choice of words help him avoid appearing accusatory.

Works Cited
Wiesel, Elie. “ The Perils of Indifference." American Rhetoric. N.p., 1999. Web. 4 Oct. 2010. .

Works Consulted

NATO, comp. "NATO's Role in Relation to the Conflict in Kosovo." North Atlantic Treaty Organization. N.p., Sept.-Oct. 2010. Web. 4 Oct. 2010. http://www.nato.int/kosovo/history.htm.