I spent the first week and a half of my fellowship in researcher training, where I was warned by colleagues of the occasionally graphic nature of work at Human Rights Watch, and how important self-care would be to a healthy work-life balance. I’ve always been drawn to intense issues—my first college papers and research assistant positions were focused on torture, PTSD, and killings by police—so I didn’t think much of the warning, and dove headfirst into the work anyway.
I used to think that people who work with these kinds of issues just become numb to trauma over time, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. At first, hours on end of reading about attacks on medical facilities in armed conflict hardly bothered me at all. But after the Ghost Ship in Oakland burned down in December, near where I lived before moving to Berkeley for college, descriptions of airships raining fire over injured civilian patients began to strike me more deeply. Seeing an image of an aid truck arriving to hungry people only half full, when there was no shortage of supplies in nearby cities, made me angry at the injustice of it all. Scrolling through before-and-after pictures of hospitals crushed by shells made even the roof over my own head seem so fragile. As I delved deeper into the work and began to better conceptualize the extent and ripple effects of the human and infrastructural damage caused by attacks on healthcare, each image became more real to me. Overburdened health centers stuffing four patients at a time into beds, the death of one doctor leaving thousands untreated; it was intimidating to realize, at an emotional level, how far removed the world beyond my safe little corner is from my daily experience. I knew from reading the news growing up that parties to armed conflicts are often willing to stop at nothing in order to gain an advantage on the battlefield, but the simpler, more terrible idea—that humans have it in them to be so ruthless towards other humans—was always abstract.
It is still abstract. I work in the Empire State Building, and go home every day to a small but beautiful Manhattan apartment, where I read about human rights abuses in books and briefs and never have to suffer through them myself. I am repeatedly surprised to find that people around me, who work in different fields than I do or aren’t as interested in these issues as I am, prefer not to hear the stories I learn about; the subject is too political, or too depressing. I respect their space because I understand how distant these issues feel to them, but internally I marvel at the fact that my peers and I even have the option of simply looking away. International issues, wars, and atrocities are real, and intense, and not going anywhere anytime soon, and it does no good to bubble ourselves off. I for one can’t; it makes me feel like I’m living life with blinders on. Maybe the urge to fight that feeling is what public service means to me.
Over time, gaining more exposure to and a better understanding of these abuses has only made me love what I do even more. My next professional goal is to get my feet on the ground, in a developing country or an emergency situation, to better understand how public service work in headquarters locations like New York translates into real change. I’ve always wanted to build my field experience, but the limits of my personal perspective have never felt this constraining. I don’t know what sector my next project will take me—humanitarian aid, development, human rights, or something else entirely—but I’m excited to find out.
I attended a talk last month by Anne Applebaum at the City University of New York, where she discussed the future of the EU, NATO, and the post-World War II liberal world order. She ended her remarks by commenting that perhaps peace and security just aren’t enough to satisfy people: perhaps the allure of far-right, populist, and other ideologies that push against liberal values and freedoms might lie in their ability to promise surging patriotism, shows of military might, and unity in a valiant struggle against some great existential threat. Perhaps, she suggested, there is a deeper satisfaction that comes from having an enemy to fight, and the challenge today for believers in the liberal world order is to come up with something that can match the emotional offerings of these ideologies.
The answer may be nearer than we think. We become comfortable in our freedoms, build up our bubbles, and forget that human rights and human dignity are under constant assault in every part of the world. Atrocities in the news are not as far away as we would like to believe; the rights we take for granted can fall away with one war, one bomb, or even one election. Our rights are also our responsibilities, and our freedoms disappear if we do not stand up for them. I am incredibly grateful to have gotten the opportunity to spend ten months at an organization on the front lines of the fight, and I look forward to continuing that work wherever I go next.