Beauty and the Beast was the first of many Disney movies that have taught me valuable lessons that have helped to shape my life. Over the years, I have learned that true friends will always be there for me “to infinity and beyond,” that when life gets us down, all we have to do is “just keep swimming,” that everything is better “under the sea,” that taking chances opens up “a whole new world” of possibilities, that if I am afraid of what others will think of me, I should be proud of who I am and merely “let it go," and that “if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” Although all of these lessons sound cliché, there is one message in particular that has truly altered my outlook on life. In The Lion King, as Simba debates whether or not to return to the Pride Land years after he has run away, he says, “I know what I have to do. But going back means I'll have to face my past. I've been running from it for so long.” Rafiki, his spiritual guru baboon, then smacks Simba on the head. Simba asks him, “what was that for?” to which Rafiki responds, “it doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.” Simba replies, as he rubs the sore spot, “yeah, but it still hurts.” Rafiki concludes, “oh yes the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.”
You can either run from it or learn from it. How simple to say and how difficult to do. How often do we find ourselves doing the same thing over and over again without a thought to our past? Whether it’s at school, at work, in relationships, our minds are focused in a linear perspective. It’s as if we are horses with blinders on, focusing only on the future, too afraid to look behind us at the track we’ve already completed. As much as humanity today strives to live in the now and think only about our future, our mindset is flawed. Our past experiences offer so much insight, and if we neglect them, we might never be as successful as we could have been otherwise.
Countless times, if our world leaders had listened to Rafiki’s message, we might have prevented the deaths of millions of people. After the crimes of the Holocaust became internationally known, the world vowed it would, as Elie Wiesel coined, “never forget,” and never allow something of this magnitude to ever happen again. But as history since 1945 has shown, the international community has stood by, again and again, as genocide unfolds. As the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan declared at an event to the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, “rhetoric comes easily. We rightly say 'never again.' But action is much harder. Since the Holocaust, the world has, to its shame, failed more than once to prevent or halt genocide." It’s difficult to fathom, but gauged by what the United Nations defines as acts of genocide, scholars have identified thirty-seven incidents since World War II that could be considered genocidal. Thirty seven times the world has stood aside as people have been brutally murdered because of their political beliefs, religion, class, or ethnicity. Whether it was the Tutsis being killed by the Hutus in Rwanda, or the East Timorese being killed by the Indonesians in East Timor, we are still struggling with the same problems our elders promised would never happen again. As much as we say, never forget and never again, and as much as we promise we won’t let any more innocent individuals be murdered time after time again, can we ever make “never again” a reality?
In Syria, what started as a peaceful protest challenging the dictatorship in charge has turned into a massive civil war threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals. With close to 130,000 deaths, two million refugees in neighboring countries, and more than five million internally displaced victims, there are many reports of crimes committed against humanity, which have caused this conflict to evolve to a level many are calling genocide. What makes this tragedy more problematic than a civil war is that the vast majority of those affected are civilians who comprise the ethno-religious Sunni Muslim majority. The international community has taken a stand against the actions in Syria and required that the government turn over their chemical weapons last fall, but did that solve the problem? Unfortunately not. People are still dying and being killed by cluster bombs for their beliefs today in Syria and in other parts of the world.
Within the past month, Adama Dieng, the United Nation’s chief special adviser on genocide prevention, admitted that the Central African Republic was at a “high risk of crimes against humanity and genocide.” There is widespread conflict between the Muslim and Christian militias there, as the Christian militias are carrying out violent attacks in attempts to ethnically cleanse Muslims and eliminate Muslim residents from the country. According to the BBC, there are indiscriminant killings and massacres, shocking brutality and inhumanity, and thousands of people are fleeing the country for their safety, with no place to go. Is this the world we want to live in? With people fleeing for their lives, living moment to moment, not knowing where they’ll be tomorrow, while we sit here wonderfully blessed and fortunate to live in a stable community. It is difficult to think about, but we can’t just read and forget about these things happening half a world away.
Even this past week, a United Nations panel accused North Korea of human rights abuses comparable to those of the Nazis. There’s apparently a vast network of secret prison camps where hundreds of thousands of people have already been killed through starvation and execution. Michael Kirby, one of the men on the panel, said, when you see “bodies being burned, it does bring back memories of the end of World War II, and the horror and the shame and the shock … I never thought that in my lifetime, it would be part of my duty to bring revelations of a similar kind.” It’s barely been seventy years since the Holocaust, and we have already forgotten about the eleven million individuals who were killed. The eleven million people each with their own unique stories, dreams, and aspirations, forgotten from memory, and the people of Syria, the Central African Republic, and North Korea, now destined to share a similar fate. Does it hurt when we hear survivors speak of their experiences escaping from concentration camps and surviving only by pure luck? Does it hurt to look across the dinner table at holiday meals and realize more people would be surrounding us if genocide never existed? These thoughts pain the heart, but does that mean we should run away and forget about them and hope things will work themselves out without our help?
It is our responsibility to remember and learn from our past as we continue forward. Many times we have been told that history repeats itself, and it so often does. However, it is what we do with that history that will determine our future. Will we try to run away and attempt to forget about a terrifying past? Will we continue to have the same problems we have seen over and over again? Or will we look to our past and learn from our mistakes? It is what each of us decides to do with our own lives and how we look at the world that will alter and shape our futures. As we sit here striving to do well in our classes in the hopes of getting into college, it’s easy to be caught up in the daily routine. However, I challenge you to take a step back and see where you’ve come from. See where you’ve made mistakes in the past and try to learn from them and fix them in the future. Our past, whether it is our own personal past, our family’s past, or the world’s past, will guide us as we embark on our journey into the future. Although we may not be able to solve all the world’s problems today and completely eliminate genocide from this earth, we can try, and most importantly, we can care. Care about the millions of people who have been killed over the past hundred years because of the inhumanity of others who wanted them to perish. Care about those relatives you would have had in your life had their lives not been destroyed. Care about those still suffering today, people whom you can help and make a difference in their lives. Because, I believe, as we continue forward, if we remember where we have come from, and what we have done before, we can learn from it, and we can change our future. Thank you.