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Iris Chang on the Role and Responsibility of Bystanders

Iris Chang, Author, The Rape of Nanking

Not as responsible, but they are what we might call silent accomplices. I think while they can't be compared to those who actually commit these barbaric acts, those who could have maybe documented this, or maybe those who could have done something to help the victims and chose not to, or those who chose to be part of a system that feeds genocide, I think they do have to bear some kind of responsibility. But this is a very difficult question, often, to answer. I mean, you find many people in our society today who are often faced with the choice about whether they can help those in need, help those who are being tormented, or just stand by and do nothing.

And I think the reason why many people don't do anything is because of fear. I mean, it's like dealing with the Mafia. When you have small children, or if you're worried about your own life, you fear physical retaliation. But what people also have to realize is that if everyone showed more courage, then collectively, they would be able to conquer the power that many totalitarian regimes have on other people, which is to exploit this fear.

So, I think it really takes a courageous person to stand up against genocide, because, you know, the odds are that there's going to be a real price to be paid for this heroism. But, I think in every society and in every time, there are always a few people who do it, and they don't do it because they stand around thinking, "I'm gonna be a hero." I think they do it because it's impulsive. And we saw individuals who saved victims from the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, but we also have individuals who risked their own lives to save the Chinese during the Rape of Nanking. And I think that just as the impulse for evil doesn't know any national or ethnic boundaries, so is this impulse for heroism.

But, I do think in the end, that what a person is is how he acts, and it's not something that can even be planned. I think it's often a choice that is made under pressure, and at that very moment when you're faced with that choice, that is a snapshot as to who you really are, whether you are going to be a silent accomplice or a hero. I don't think it’s anything you could choose; it just pretty much is revealed at that moment.

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About Iris Chang