Life had been reduced to a stack of flashcards in the past week. The green ones contained information on United Nations peacekeeping missions: mandates, areas of deployment, challenges. The blue ones referred to peacekeeping doctrine. The orange ones summarized relevant legal citations. At the top of the flashcard stack rested a question: “What is the legal status of the Responsibility to Protect?” Affectionately dubbed R2P, this refers to the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. The questions of whose responsibility this is, how to uphold it, and where it fits on the spectrum of legal duty or interpreted responsibility are complex and controversial.
Last night, at his speech upon being pronounced the winner of the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama articulated a different set of responsibilities, both on the part of leaders and of citizens. Among the many issues he touched upon, one stood out to me: his articulation of the responsibility to love and to serve. There is something refreshing, and new, and inspiring about the responsibility to love being framed as a duty in a speech on election night. At a time of prevalent cynicism, it is an exhale to hear a call for a triumph of compassion over cynicism. The inclusion of these words, and the lifestyles and ideologies they inspire, elevates them. It renders them necessary.
In my eyes, cynicism is easy. Compassion is a difficult practice. It is exactly that: a practice, a muscle that needs to be exercised. It is a stretch to be compassionate towards those who look different than we do, who behave differently than we do, who hold different values, whose ideology rests on different principles. But that is where empathy lies: in being able to extend compassion not only to those we already care about, but to those whom we do not know and whom we are not already programmed to love.
I am a foreigner in the United States (and everywhere?). A “non-immigrant”, as my visa states. A “non-resident alien.” I could not vote, though I do not consider the casting of a ballot the only way to formulate and articulate opinions that give one a stake in her own community. I have already handed in a midterm with many misgivings about whether “R2P is a legal duty or ‘just’ a responsibility.” I woke up this morning, however, with no misgivings whatsoever about my responsibility to love.