Baccalaureate Address: Casey Beck (A'07)
Casey Beck, a senior majoring in peace and justice studies, is the recipient of this year's Wendell Phillips Memorial Scholarship Award in recognition of her speaking ability and devotion to public service. The award, established in 1896 in honor of Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips, is an annual prize given to a junior or senior from Tufts and one from Harvard. Beck will receive a financial award and speak at the May 19 Baccalaureate ceremony on a topic of her choice. While studying abroad in Mongolia, Beck made a documentary film on illegal gold mining. As a freshman, she co-founded the student organization Pangea, which raises awareness about issues facing the international community.
Good afternoon parents, professors and faculty, members of the Tufts community, and fellow graduating seniors,
"Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky." With this passage, taken from the novel The Plague, Albert Camus reveals how easily the plague permeated the affected town: the citizen's disbelief that something like this could happen to them. He continues, "Our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journey, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences."
> Watch video (Windows Media format)
Camus' book is a response to WWII: it is a chronicle of the way ordinary men act in unwanted situations. The plague is any crisis of serious magnitude that catches us by surprise and forces us to make a choice about ourselves, our role, and our responsibility to those affected. Our world, on all levels, is in the throes of such plagues. We live on a planet rife with war, corruption, hate, and injustice and the question is what we will do with these crises. Camus questions why some men, ordinary though they might be, had the courage to act in great ways during the plague—risking their own lives to help others, establishing hospitals, forgoing personal comforts to benefit the stranded community—while others slunk away from assistance in fear or even worse, used the pain of others for profit and personal gain. Neither the courageous nor the cowardly necessarily contemplated their actions: their choice to help or to hurt was automatic.
Though the The Plague is fictional, its implications are real. Ordinary people change the course of the world, often without realizing the impact of their decisions. We go through life on auto-pilot, as we are trained from childhood to follow commands, to submit to authority, to trust the "trusted" source. At times, we find ourselves at a crux of what should be done and what is done, and often we submit to the ease of following orders or traditions. But tradition should not validate the status quo as a superior's command should not excuse violence.
Over the course of 16 months in World War II, the 450 men of the German Reserve Police Battalion 101 were responsible for the massacre of 39,000 Jews and the deportation of 44,000 more. The battalion is the center of Cristophe Browning's book Ordinary Men. His intent was to "determine how a group of ordinary middle-aged men from Hamburg, some of whom had worked with and been friendly with Jews before the war, adapted themselves to the executioner's task." The men who participated were following orders, but the commander gave his unit the choice to opt out of the duty. Most did not. Browning's conclusion is haunting. While victims of historical circumstance, most men of the battalion killed to belong. The inference is devastating: that human nature dictates our desire to be part of the group, sometimes, at any cost.
People have also participated in acts of great violence merely because "it was the way the authority wanted it to be done." Such acts are not relegated to history; one needs to look only as far as the atrocities at the U.S. military police prison Abu Ghraib. There, the 372nd Military Police Company, and members of the American intelligence community followed their orders "to set favorable conditions for subsequent interviews"—which Seymour Hersh calls a euphemism for breaking the will of prisoners. Their self-directed tactics included breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; and threatening male detainees with rape. The acts were corroborated by the soldier's own photographs and videos, which leaked in 2004. When Staff Sergeant Ivan L. Frederick II, the senior enlisted man in the group, questioned their methods, he was told, "This is how military intelligence (MI) wants it done." Frederick's lawyer, Gary Myers, claims that Frederick was carrying out the orders of his superiors and, in particular, the directions of military intelligence. Myers said, "Do you really think a group of kids from rural Virginia decided to do this on their own?" Myers negates personal responsibility for his client implying he was part of a bigger problem, but where does a person draw the line of when to follow and when to step back?
We are all kids from somewhere, and while it easy for us today to scoff at our fellow man's actions: obviously, we would never do that, how many of us have participated in smaller, seemingly unimportant instances of violence or hate. These can be as simple as allowing a racist joke to be said unchecked, or even more simply to allow any one to feel isolated or targeted. How many of us have talked about a friend behind her back, because it was easier to participate than to stop such a conversation. How much have we abetted an energy crisis by driving to class? I myself am guilty of these charges. My thoughtlessness may have affected dozens of Iraqis, Venezuelans, and Nigerians I will never know. We do these things because it is easy, because we are careless, because everyone else is doing it.
But there is hope. As easy as it is to unthinkingly enable violence, it is just as easy to promote peace and to enact change. In Le Chambon, France, during World War II, 5000 Christians harbored Jewish refugees for the duration of the War. They started small, with each family taking in one or two Jewish children, but by the end of the war they had collectively saved 5000 lives. It was Le Chambon that inspired Camus to write The Plague. French president Jacques Chirac recently added to the town's fame by choosing to deliver an address there in 2004 calling upon the French to react against anti-Semitism and intolerance. He said, "Le Chambon chose courage, generosity and dignity. They chose tolerance, solidarity and fraternity." But the people of the town don't understand the fuss because risking their own lives for the lives of an alleged enemy happened so naturally. They lived lives completely aligned with their code of morals. They saw it as obvious to uphold these values even in the face of personal danger and didn't question such actions. Emma Heritier gave a definitive response when asked why she and her husband harbored Jews throughout the war. She said, "We were used to it."
So for good or bad, the curse of the status quo is that it is easier to accept than to change. But think of all the good that could come in the world if we simply became accustomed to acting in ways that promoted peace, understanding, and tolerance. Think of the difference that could be made in stopping global warming if we were used to walking to work and turning off the lights when we left a room. Imagine if we were used to a world in which Africa was viewed as a neighbor, an equal. Think of the influence on global peace if we were used to accepting others' religious beliefs as different but as legitimate as our own. The impact could be limitless in all aspects of life if we simply became accustomed to the ideas of global equality, peace, and sustainability. These ideas might seem ludicrous now, but no more ludicrous than a French Christian helping a French Jew in the 1940s. All that is required is a decision to stand up, to commit to change.
Today, on the eve of our graduation, after four years of higher education, we are in a position to begin to challenge the status quo. Camus alleges, "The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding." In the following few days, we will leave Tufts and our time spent here. We leave with skills of negotiation, analysis, of writing, and articulating our ideas, of functioning on little or no sleep, balancing work and play and most importantly of understanding that we are members of a global community.
The temptations of the world, the lure of the easy path, do not diminish with education. Our education, in fact, will make the decision to stand up to bigotry, injustice, and hate even more difficult because it takes away the excuse of ignorance and places upon us the responsibility to influence others. This road, the easy path, offers a narrow view: one that obstructs compassion, understanding, and altruism.
You may be wondering how you will know what is right or wrong or when someone has crossed the line. Our charge is to define this line. Our greater challenge is to change the line where it has already been drawn. In 2006, musician John Mayer gave his opinion on our generation in the song "Waiting on the World to Change." In it, he sings, "Now we see everything that's going wrong with the world and those who lead it/ we just feel like we don't have the means to rise above and beat it/ so we keep waiting waiting on the world to change." I have seriously considered writing Mr. Mayer to ask him why he would spread such a miserable message about our generation's capacity to enact change. We have the means—our hands, our voices, our knowledge—to beat the injustices of the world today. I, for one, refuse to wait on the world to change, as I know that we are the ones who will change it.
We are responsible for breaking down the wall between "us" and "them." Throughout history, decisions to murder, to hate, to torture have been made by ordinary people. Their greatest capacity to hurt is when they are in positions of power. Imagine then, how great is our position to enact peace and to promote love and understanding when we are appointed or elected to those same positions. Already, as ordinary people, we have done extraordinary things. To realize this one needs to look only as far as the array of organizations founded or co-founded by members of this class: Central American Peace Process, Exposure, Tufts Collaborative on Africa, Energy Security Initiative, Democracy Now, Hype, Pangea, Physicians for Human Rights chapter, the Tufts Traveler and Required Reading magazines, Major Undecided, Face AIDS, and many many others. Still, we have just begun to flex our talents and our power in the world.
Our mission is to expand these organizations and to start others, to think about what we are doing, even if we think it is inconsequential, and to begin to broaden our horizons. Already, we are privileged to attend a school with an inspiring worldview. However, to really find our commonalities and to acknowledge our responsibility in the global arena takes an effort to open ourselves up to the remarkable linkages that exist around us. We need to begin to see ourselves not as human beings but rather as inter-beings. We must be intimately concerned with every phenomenon in the universe, realizing that we are connected to each.
To erase enemy lines, we need to first realize that "enemy" is a human context. We have the capacity to stand up to this label and countless others by simply saying no. For war, hate, and prejudice to cease, we need to understand our common ground and to connect with our enemies. I had the opportunity to read Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, in one of my classes last year. In his book Peace is Every Step Hanh claims that peace is not the goal. Rather, peace is the way. He writes, "Peace work is not a means. Each step we make should be peace. Each step we make should be joy. Each step we make should be happiness. If we are determined, we can do it. We don't need the future. We can smile and relax. Everything we want is right here in the present moment." There is a cure for the plague: it is us. We have the capacity to free ourselves from the pestilences permeating this world. The first step is awareness, the second is understanding. Mike Boehm, a Vietnam Veteran who has since returned to Vietnam to build Peace Parks spoke in this same class last semester. He told us this: "I looked into the eyes of my enemy and saw myself. To kill him would be suicide, to love him, salvation."
Photo by Alonso Nichols for Tufts University
This story originally ran on May 19, 2007.