“Should we consider the deaths of 40,000 people a tragedy?”
If I were to pose this question to every member of the Amherst College community, I would be hard-pressed to find someone who answered in the negative. Yet this week, when 40,000 human beings died, this campus did not mourn or recognize their deaths. By and large, this campus did nothing to aid the global humanitarian effort to help ensure that this staggering number does not continue to grow. This campus was so unmoved by this devastating loss of human life that not even one collective thought or prayer was spared for the deceased and injured.
I am, of course, alluding to the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria that claimed the lives of at least 40,000, a number that will undoubtedly grow as more bodies are recovered and the victims succumb to their injuries.
There is a striking disconnect between this reality and the level of empathy felt at Amherst. With the exception of a brief mention in the weekly email from the Amherst Association of Students (AAS) reporting on the activity of the Budgetary Committee, there has not been a single public acknowledgement of the tragedy, event honoring the dead, formalized fundraising effort, or a Turkish or Syrian flag raised in solidarity since the earthquake struck last week. And while I don’t believe that activism via social media is always effective, it is an apt indicator of the stances that are perceived to be virtuous by the larger community at a given time. Even in this relatively trivial regard, Amherst has failed.
In the face of such a monumental calamity, the absence of basic human compassion displayed by the Amherst community is not simply benign apathy. It is a political statement that says that the lives lost were so meaningless that they do not even warrant a false show of compassion. Why these deaths in particular are of such little consequence to our community is not a mystery to anyone paying attention: The individuals affected were Muslim people of color. The Amherst community is not alone in this lack of compassion. The Western world is so desensitized to death and destruction in the Middle East that even such a tremendous disaster has barely captured its attention. (While Türkiye is not in the Middle East, the West does not make much of a distinction.)
It would be convenient to bring these charges only against the white community, but the truth is that leaders of student spaces intended for communities of color have been almost equally silent on the issue. With the exception of the the Middle Eastern North African Association (MENAA) and the Muslim Students Association (MSA), large and well-established affinity groups such as the Black Students Union (BSU), La Causa, and the Asian Students Association (ASA) have not bothered to hide their indifference to this tragedy.
It’s true that any formal response to the earthquake is outside of the scope of their respective missions. However, I believe that solidarity among communities of color is an ideal to which the Amherst community should aspire, and the lack of response in this situation is especially egregious given the magnitude of the disaster. Regardless, the silence from these communities will make any future plea for solidarity among communities of color or cross-cultural activism a bitter pill for me to swallow. Parenthetically, it should be noted that Syria and Türkiye are Asian countries, and so a response from the ASA is a reasonable expectation.
Others might retort that Amherst College has no control over natural disasters and very little ability to contribute to relief efforts beyond fundraising. So why does its response matter? A population’s response to a tragedy is indicative of its humanity. The lack of response to the fatalities and destruction has revealed a heartless, racist, and uncharitable Amherst community, which includes its students, faculty, and administration.
It’s difficult not to compare this callousness to the energy that brought the community together following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The myriad ways that Amherst united to express solidarity with Ukraine, in a situation they similarly had little control over, are too many to enumerate here. A few are worth mentioning, however: A letter from former President Biddy Martin was sent out to the Amherst community; a public statement was made on social media; a vigil was held for the victims of the war; the Mead Art Museum put together an impromptu exhibit; and panel discussions of the implications of the crisis were convened. The Amherst community rallied compassionately around the Ukrainian students on campus, recognizing the tangible ways that the tragedy was touching community members. More generally, there was a sense on campus that something bad was happening in the world, and that we ought to care.
None of the same can be said amid the crisis in Türkiye and Syria.
Of course, the comparison between the invasion of Ukraine and this earthquake is not perfect. The former is a geopolitical issue with consequences involving NATO and involves the perceived oppression of a group of people. The latter is a natural disaster without an instigator or clear military repercussions.
But the lack of complexity of an earthquake, the absence of sides to be taken, ought to make a compassionate response easier. In my view, it makes such a response all the more mandatory. Additionally, during any discussions of the war in Ukraine on campus, there was always a sense that the community was not only invested in the geopolitical consequences as an intellectual exercise; there was an intangible sense of empathy that accompanied these discussions. Such empathy is what is missing from campus in this critical moment.
But it would be unfair to say that the college doesn’t care about the suffering of Muslims and people of color at all. When their suffering upholds Western notions of female oppression and repressive Islamic regimes, Amherst is quick to voice its sympathy and draw attention to the topic. Such was the case last semester when nationwide protests erupted in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. Such a response was appropriate and well-executed on the part of the college.
But the fact that this event, which upholds Western ideas about the Middle East, garnered such a response throws into stark relief the lack of attention the earthquake and its aftermath have received. One shouldn't take it as a coincidence that this event, which can't be leveraged for these ends, has been ignored.
The college’s cold-hearted indifference to this disaster is not at all surprising. Nor will I demean myself by begging Amherst to act like it cares about the brown-skinned, Muslim lives lost — I know it does not. This past week has left me bitter and angry. And while this lack of response was expected, I am deeply disappointed in my friends, my professors, and my school administrators.