Harvard School of Public Health
Commencement Speech, June 1994
A Call for
Five years ago a Harvard Ph.D., Francis
Fukuyama, working as the state department's prophet, predicted that the fall
of the Berlin Wall and victory of liberal democracy would end ideology. The
historic ebb and flow of national struggles would cease.
The world had found its natural end place:
free markets, free peoples, free speeches and freedoms. It was, he said,
"The End of History."
Fukuyama's musings spread from internal
government memos to capture the world's imagination. It was a time of
'Global Villages,' 'Peace Dividends' and 'New World Orders.' Remember
them? Never quite defined, these concepts gave a vision to a bleary world.
We now see history, bereft of ideology, has
begun to balkanize and cannibalize itself, as ancient tribes revert to
ancient hatreds. Communism (or the fear of it) was clearly an effective
suppressant of ethnic tensions.
The 'New World Order' proved to be
no order at all - it is anarchy born of the earliest and worst of human
diseases - hatred. The 'Peace Dividend' shattered into a hundred regional
wars. The 'Global Village' dispersed into a globe of tribal villages
seething with intolerance. Ethnic jealously and bigotry transcend even
Religious and ethnic tribes self
congratulate into a collective narcism, defying logic. Girls are now shot
in Algeria for not wearing the veil. American Christians kill doctors who
perform abortions. To ethnically cleanse, Christian Serbs rape Muslim
women. And, at the holy city of Ayodhya, my tribe, the Hindus, chanted
about a one thousand-year old history as they ripped apart a 600-year old
As Jonathan Swift lamented, "We have just
enough religion to make us hate but not enough to make us love one
Why are we so proud of our religion or
ethnicity? If I were Kashmiri could I be less proud of my culture? If I
were of any other race or religion, would I not still hold my head high?
"It is possible that our race is an
accident, in a meaningless universe, living its brief life uncared for, on
this dark, cooling star: but even so - and all the more - what marvelous
creatures we are!" Clarence Day wrote.
Zlata Filipovic, the 13-year old Bosnian
girl who wrote in her diary: "horrors are unfolding instead of days," has
been hailed as the 'Anne Frank of Sarajevo.'
WHAT?? An Anne Frank of Sarajevo? Will
there be an Anne Frank of Kigali, Juba, Belfast, Timor, Kashmir, or Luanda?
We promised no more Anne Franks. Never again, never forget. Have we
forgotten or are we mad?
Were our countries perpetrating
such genocides, we would protest. But we don't protest, we don't sing, we
don't start hunger strikes. We do nothing.
Could I have torn down that mosque? Could I
have gripped the machete that cleaved open that Tutsi face? Could I have
aimed my barrel on that unveiled Algerian girl?
Well, I do. I do hold the machete, I do
paralyze, kill and maim. We all do, every time we do nothing.
As Edmund Burke warned, "The only thing
necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
We should, can, and will stop the hatred.
But how? A comedian, after despondently
recounting the world's problems, said, "But what can I do? . . . I'm not a
As Public Health professionals, we see one
of the greatest challenges as the cause and cure of cancer. This quest
became more important for me when, last fall, I was diagnosed with this
illness. With no notice my life was confined to antiseptic hospital rooms,
tied to chemotherapy lines. On my journey to a miraculous recovery, I lay
in weakened state asking the question, "Why? Why me . . . why me?
But how much worse this would have been had
I known the reason for my pain was simply my color, my religion, my race or
my tribe?- characteristics a part of me, yet not really me at all. The
broken, the injured, the grieving, and the displaced do not ask "Why me?".
Compared to the bigots, drunken with hate,
who reside in the hills of Sarajevo, the jungles of Rwanda, the swamps of
Sudan, or sidewalks of abortion clinics, cancer seems almost benign.
Sectarianism is the worst
disease we face. Rwanda saw half a million hacked to death in less than a
month. No disease is that cruel, that uncaring, that unremitting. Even
doctors and nurses, who are not killed by the hatred must flee from it. Our
work, public health, becomes irrelevant when hate-filled strife becomes the
Finding the cure for hatred is in all our
enlightened self-interests. To paraphrase the holocaust refrain: when they
killed the Tutsi, I said nothing. When they killed the Bosnian, I did
nothing. When they killed the Dinka I did not protest. When they killed
the Kashmiri I looked away. When they come to kill us, will there be anyone
left to answer my cry?
Luckily, unlike so many of the diseases we
are fighting, a cure for strife exists. It is called education. As Willa
Cather told us, "there is no such thing as creative hate." Education and
creativity dissolve intolerance. The Harvard School of Public Health has
endowed us with these tools.
We leave Harvard with a great deal of debt -
not just financial! We also have a debt to this institution and society to
apply the tools of our trade. The world will respect those who have passed
through the doors of this ivory tower and challenged the world's killing
fields, no matter it be in Roxbury or Rwanda. Let us envision our Harvard
diplomas as not just decorated accolades of our academic achievements, but
rather a beacon to our commitment to social change.
So, let us start writing our
history, not ending it.