The need for empathy

Published: March 6, 2013
The writer is a Canada-based editorial cartoonist and his work has appeared in several international publications

The writer is a Canada-based editorial cartoonist and his work has appeared in several international publications

Years ago, I met the retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire at a gala. He had a quiet dignity about him — someone who has the utmost respect of many, for having exposed the ineptitude of our global response to the Rwanda genocide. Dallaire single-handedly marshalled Canadian, African and Pakistani troops to protect Tutsis hiding out in key urban areas even though his troops were substantially outnumbered and outgunned. Over 100 days, in 1994, 1.2 million Tutsis and their sympathisers were murdered. Dallaire’s individual actions are widely recognised of having saved the lives of over 32,000 people. He wrote in his book, Shake Hands with the Devil, “I know there is a God, because in Rwanda, I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him. I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists and, therefore, I know there is a God.”

Of the nine million Jews who once lived in Europe, six million perished at the hands of the Nazis. How could an annihilation of a people at this scale take place?  This happened because of the prevailing mindsets towards the Jewish population — biases that ranged from indifference to hostility. The non-Jewish populations impassively watched as former Jewish neighbours were corralled and executed — many benefitting by expropriating their properties. The final death count would have been considerably higher had it not been for thousands of non-Jewish rescuers, who risked their lives to save Jews from being captured and executed. These rescuers were honoured and were called the “Righteous Among the Nations”. Irrespective of faith, these rescuers regarded Jews as fellow human beings. This sincerity stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing public indifference and hostility that existed towards Jews at the time. Many rescuers acted out of ideological or religious convictions, while others were expressing humanity and compassion. These were ordinary humans who served as model citizens.

The adage goes, “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there”. Both Dallaire and the “Righteous Among the Nations” believed there was no difference between a Tutsi and a Hutu or a German and a Jew. They believed in a common humanity that ties us all together. What are the characteristics of those enlightened few people who are more likely to extend a hand to the persecuted? Is it because those who act are graced with a sense of empathy? Saving your neighbour should not be beyond the capacity of ordinary people — every person should have the ability to make a difference. Empathy is the ability to understand that someone else’s pain is as meaningful as your own.

On March 3, a bomb exploded in a predominantly Shia residential neighbourhood in Karachi, killing at least 48 people. Pakistan, where Shias are a minority group, has been a killing field these past several months. Four hundred Shias have been murdered at the hands of militants. Pakistan is in a state of crisis where citizens are having an extraordinary time mustering empathy to tackle militancy head on. The prevailing culture is more vocal about Palestinian rights than it is about protecting its own minorities. But this is dangerous. There should be no illusion that when each and every minority has been eliminated, the silent Sunni majority will suffer the same fate at the hands of the militants. Khalid Hosseini, in The Kite Runner, writes, “A boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up to anything.”

Pakistan has some considerable growing up to do.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Ejaaz
    Mar 6, 2013 - 11:57PM

    Shahid Sahib: What motivates those who are killing the Shias? Even the worst will provide a justification for their actions. What justifications are those killing in Pakistan provide? What ideology are they hewing? Is it because of their ideology that they are able to garner so much public support? Did we need to worry about empathy when we were putting Ahmedis in their place, or others before them?

    I suspect your arguments spring from a different civilisation. Your examples and your logic is unknown and unheard of by nearly all the people in Pakistan, while their words, their examples and their motivations resonate with the young and old alike. They offer Shahadat and the joys of jannat. What do you offer?


  • Yoghurt lover
    Mar 7, 2013 - 2:25AM

    “The non-Jewish populations impassively watched as former Jewish neighbours were corralled and executed — many benefitting by expropriating their properties.”

    Does it sound familiar?

    Yes. Kashmir. This is exactly what OCCUPYING MUSLIMS of kashmir did to Kashmiri Pandits. Even today, the occupying forces of muslims are enjoying the properties of Kashmiri Pandits.

    There’s an interview conducted by an expat pakistani Tahir Gora from canada. I appreciate that program a lot because it is conducted in a very free, open and honest manner. The video is available on Utube.

    Most Pakistanis won’t like these interviews because Pakistanis from Canada come and denounce the 2-nation theory in most of these interviews. There is a general consensus among the guests on these interviews (there are abt 80 odd episodes) that Pakistan is a failed state today because it was formed on the basis of an illegitimate theory (this will also answer the concerns raised by this author).

    However, I urge Pakistanis to watch this particular video concerning kashmiri Pandits.

    It tells how the occupying muslims systematically eliminated Pandits from Kashmir.


  • Yoghurt lover
    Mar 7, 2013 - 2:29AM

    “Pakistan, where Shias are a minority group, has been a killing field these past several months.”

    I don’t understand the meaning of this sentence. Are you referring to an increase in the attacks on Shias?

    Otherwise pakistan has been a killing field for all all minority (including Shia) for decades.

  • Scrambled
    Mar 7, 2013 - 10:31AM

    @Yoghurt lover: Your irrelevant rants have ruined the comments section. Everything is not tied to India’s ‘righteous’ rule of Kashmir and its people. The article is about Pakistan’s problems and public attitudes, stop trying to deviate every other column in the newspaper towards your fictitious theories of ‘Shining India’. India has enough problems to contend with as it stands, it would be best for you to focus on those.
    Gujrat riots, gap between rich and poor, killing of young girls and rape to name a few.


  • jssidhoo
    Mar 7, 2013 - 11:04AM

    If you are not tolerant you will always find someone” different enough ” to kill


  • raji
    Mar 7, 2013 - 12:02PM

    it all started with muslim and hindus being different nations..then ahmedis, balooch..bengalis, kashmiris…


  • kamal sapra
    Mar 7, 2013 - 12:39PM

    shahid ji, u said rightly, if we witness the injustice & cruelty on other humans silently or rather selfishly because it is not happening to us than one day we shall be in the line of injustice & cruelty.


  • AIH
    Mar 7, 2013 - 5:54PM

    great piece! Lessons are strewn all over history…if only we were willing to learn.


  • Stranger
    Mar 7, 2013 - 8:13PM

    I think Ind/ Pak and Bdesh should never have parted. We should have divided ourselves into smaller states .thats the real reason for all this.


  • Solomon2
    Mar 8, 2013 - 12:30AM

    It doesn’t seem possible to develop empathy as long as most Pakistanis, especially the political leaders, cling to the notion of Pakistan as “created for Islam” or “a nation for Muslims” rather than Pakistan as “a nation where mostly Muslim people live.” The former carry little sympathy for minorities whereas the latter envisions a land where all citizens are equal under the law regardless of religion or creed.


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