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  • Writer's pictureArmstrong Williams

Taking Sides in the Face of Tragedy

December 7, 2023 |

In times of great tragedy and moral turmoil, there has always been a peculiar strain of moral equivocation that can be as troubling as the events themselves. It’s a sentiment that suggests an evasion of responsibility, an attempt to retreat to the comfort of neutrality and a refusal to acknowledge the stark realities of history. Today, as we grapple with the weight of our past, it is essential to address a rather disturbing inclination: the reluctance to take sides during moments of profound human suffering.

History bears witness to the grievous consequences of those who chose to stand on the sidelines when confronted with profound injustices. During the era of slavery in the United States, there were those who argued for “neutrality,” claiming that they wished to remain uninvolved in the moral and political conflicts of their time. Such neutrality, however, was tantamount to complicity in the perpetuation of a system built upon the brutal oppression and dehumanization of an entire race. To remain neutral was to side with the oppressors.

Similarly, the Holocaust stands as a stark reminder of the cost of neutrality in the face of evil. In Nazi-occupied Europe, millions of innocent lives were systematically extinguished while the world watched, and some chose to remain silent. A refusal to take sides, even in the face of such grotesque and undeniable horrors, was nothing short of a moral failing.

In the context of Irish history, particularly during the Troubles, some chose to maintain an apathetic stance. The conflict in Northern Ireland was characterized by violence, political turmoil and religious tensions, and some chose to simply wash their hands of the matter. But in doing so, they overlooked the suffering of individuals on both sides of the conflict, perpetuating a cycle of violence by refusing to engage with the complex realities on the ground.

In all these cases, the inclination to avoid taking sides is often rooted in a desire to escape discomfort or controversy. It may be tempting to think that neutrality represents a higher moral ground, but it ultimately falls short of the moral courage that these historical moments demanded. It is not enough to merely bear witness to tragedy; one must actively engage with it.

Tragic events and moments of moral crisis call for us to take a stand, to speak out against injustice and to support those who are suffering. This does not mean blindly choosing a side without consideration for the complexities of the situation, but it does mean that we must not be passive observers. We must be willing to confront the difficult questions and grapple with the harsh realities that confront us.

It is crucial to acknowledge that we continue to face numerous challenges that demand our engagement and advocacy. The refusal to take sides persists as a troubling inclination, especially in a world marked by divisive politics, social inequality and human rights abuses.

Consider, for instance, the ongoing global refugee crisis. Millions of people are fleeing their homes due to conflicts, persecution and economic hardship. They seek refuge in foreign lands, often facing hostility and indifference. Some argue that they should be left to their own devices, that they are not our concern. But this is an inadequate response. When we fail to take a side in favor of helping these vulnerable individuals, we perpetuate their suffering and the callousness of our own hearts.

Moreover, within our societies, we confront issues like racial discrimination and systemic inequality. To say, “I don’t want to take sides,” is to disregard the pain and struggle of marginalized communities. When we turn a blind eye to these problems, we perpetuate the injustices they face and effectively side with the status quo. Inaction in such instances is a passive endorsement of inequality.

The refusal to take sides is not solely a matter of political ideology or personal comfort; it is a question of moral responsibility. It is an evasion of our duty to stand up for what is right and to confront the wrongs that plague our world. To shy away from taking sides is to betray the principles of justice and compassion that ought to guide our actions.

This is not a call for unthinking partisanship or a rush to judgment in every complex issue. It is an appeal for thoughtful and informed engagement. To take a side does not require one to abandon reason, critical thinking or a nuanced understanding of the situation at hand. It means recognizing that, when confronted with moral dilemmas, we should not retreat to the hollow sanctuary of neutrality.

We must consider the enduring lesson of history: that inaction and neutrality can have devastating consequences. When we abstain from taking sides, we relinquish the power to affect positive change. The moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice on its own; it requires our active participation.

In conclusion, the reluctance to take sides during tragic events is a failure of moral courage and a betrayal of our responsibility to make the world a better place. Whether in the context of historical atrocities or contemporary challenges, neutrality is often a thinly veiled excuse for inaction. It is a choice to look the other way and ignore the suffering of others. History has shown us the consequences of such indifference, and we must learn from those lessons.

As George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We must remember the past, not just as a matter of historical knowledge but as a guide for our moral compass. When faced with tragedy and injustice, we must have the courage to take a side, to speak out and to stand up for what is right. To do otherwise is to perpetuate the very injustices we should be working to eradicate.


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