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From here to Syria, the question haunts: Am I my brother’s keeper?

Countries need to be able to settle their issues without intervention from other countries, particularly when their differences involve religious beliefs. But when shouldn't we stand by?

Several weeks ago, I went for dinner at a favorite restaurant. As I waited to pay the tab, a family with a boy about 4 years old was leaving. The father roughly grabbed the little boy by the arm, jerking him off his feet. I said to no one in particular, “poor little boy.” The man’s back was toward me, so I wasn’t sure he heard me. But the little boy’s mother quickly scooped the little boy up into her arms, where he buried his head in her shoulder.

Elizabeth NagelElizabeth Nagel

How many times have we seen someone mistreat a child in a harsh manner in some public place? Do we turn our backs? Do we give the parent “the look” of disapproval? Do we risk a scene that might make the situation worse? If a child is treated this way by a frustrated parent, what happens to that child at home? Do our responses make any difference?

The phrase “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has run through my head since that brief encounter in the restaurant. It comes from the story of Cain’s response to God, after Cain killed his brother. When asked by God where Abel was, Cain’s retort was, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This scripture passage is a basic ethical premise of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (in the Quran, Cain and Abel are referred to as the sons of Adam, rather than by name).

Question extends to the political, social, economic realms

The question of whether I am my brother’s or sister’s keeper is about more than our individual encounters with others. It extends to ethical and moral responsibilities in political, social, and economic issues within our country – and responsibilities we have to other countries.

Genocide is an obvious heinous crime. The use of chemical or biological weapons compounds the evil committed when one faction seeks to eradicate another. Yet, dynamics of genocide are complex and responses other countries might make are equally complex.

After the Holocaust, in which Hitler sought to cleanse his kingdom of Jews, Gypsies, and other groups of people who did not fit his idea of white or Aryan superiority, the world’s reactions of horror continue to this day. Many are determined that such horrendous crimes are never repeated. Thus, when our sisters and brothers are being slaughtered, we struggle with the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Countries need to be able to settle their issues without intervention from other countries, particularly when their differences involve religious beliefs. Settling such issues may extract enormous costs of bloodshed. But do we stand by when such differences spiral into genocide?

Rwanda, Yugoslavia

Two decades ago, the international community was confronted with ethnic genocide in Rwanda. During the horrendous slaughter of whole communities, the U.N. and individual countries hesitated. Similarly, when Yugoslavia began to break up and slide in ethnic chaos, Europe and the United States could come to little agreement about intervening in the affairs of another country.

Now I listen to global conversations about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Chemical and biological weapons have been prohibited in armed conflicts by a series of treaties that began with use of chemical weapons during World War I. There seems to be general agreement that this ban has not been honored in Syria and that sarin, a lethal nerve gas, was used in rebel neighborhoods in Damascus. It is the options about what to do that range widely.

Protests by some people and organizations against engagement in any war go beyond American or European weariness with war. This anti-war position opposes engaging in war under any circumstance. We just celebrated the 1963 March on Washington, where nonviolent civil disobedience was seen as the way to effect social change. It is an approach worthy of addressing any injustice. But when the “other side” does not play by the rules, we are faced with complex ethical issues.

Are we are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper? Is the question a simple statement to guide our lives? Or is it a very deep moral and ethical prescription in situations where sometimes there seem to be no solutions?

When should we stand by — or intervene?

Even more far-reaching, when do we stand by and let people work out their disagreements? And when, as our brother’s keeper, should we intervene in discrimination of any kind, address disparities between those who have and those who have not, work to end violence in our neighborhoods, or intercede on behalf of children being mistreated? Or intervene in mass protests in countries where governments generate responses of rage?

Since I reacted to that family several weeks ago, I have wondered what happened when the family got in their car. Or when they arrived home. Did they make peace with each other? Explain to their son what behaviors they expect in restaurants and other public places? Was what I said helpful for a dear little boy, whose behavior was no annoyance to anyone but his father? 

 Elizabeth Nagel is a local published writer and fine arts photographer. Her writing can be read at her blog essays of the heart or at the blog nagelandnagel that she shares with her husband and writing colleague. She teaches writing at Banfill Locke Center for the Arts and other community organizations.


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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Mike Downing on 09/06/2013 - 05:20 pm.

    The answer is yes and no…

    “Are we are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper?” has indeed been the question whereby our answers separate liberals from conservatives. Liberals believe it is government’s role to take care of our brothers and sisters. Conservatives believe we as individuals, our Christian Churches and Jewish Synagogues are responsible for our our brothers and sisters here in the U.S.

    From this point of view Conservatives are like our Founding Fathers who left England/Europe. Whereas, liberals are more like Europe.

    Regarding Syria, the U.S. can no longer financially afford fighting evil throughout the world if the rest of the world no longer cares about evil.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/07/2013 - 09:51 am.

      Actually, our Founding Fathers

      if you mean Washington, Jefferson and company, they were born in what would become the United States.

      And the original settlers of New England left England (not Europe; just ask a Brit) so that they could become the dominant religion and suppress other religions (read about Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island).

      And Europeans seem to be doing a better job of taking care of their brothers and sisters; better social and health ‘safety nets’ — they live longer and are better educated.

      And half of the money we spend on misleading medical advertising (which would be illegal in most of Europe) would pay for fighting a lot of evil. We can afford it; it’s what we chose to spend our money on.

      Finally, if you are consistent as a ‘Conservative’, I assume that you want to end the tax deductions for charitable spending, since that deduction means the ‘the government’ (really the rest of us) pays you for the care of your brothers and sisters.

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/07/2013 - 02:08 pm.

    Why would the world want convert to democracy?

    Take a congress that is absolutely bent on working against the president, a president who is a very poor salesman, a congress with an approval rating down near snake belly, a public that was repeatedly lied to by the Bush Administration so they could check “war” off their bucket list, a part of the world that has been at war for thousands of years, a United Nations that isn’t worth the ground it stands on, and a public that is war weary. It’s no wonder the public doesn’t have any desire to be our brothers keeper. We can’t even manage our own politics thus there is no reason for the rest of the world to want to convert to democracy.

  3. Submitted by David Frenkel on 09/07/2013 - 01:09 pm.

    War is not liberal or conservative

    Ask anybody who has served in combat, there is no talk of conservative or liberal, just survival.
    As my uncle who was given the bronze star for valor during WWII, when I asked him if had brought any souvenirs home from WWII he told me he was the souvenir.
    The US military is stretched thin both morale and financially. Until the US goes back to a selective service draft that makes the whole country feel the pain of war we need to stay out of other peoples wars.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/07/2013 - 03:16 pm.


      Anybody who’s ever served will tell you that you don’t want to have to depend on people in battle who’d rather not be there.

      Despite what you’ve heard from your sociology professor, the U.S. military is a cross-section of America. I served with rich kids and poor kids, white and black, male and female. The only thing they had in common was that they had volunteered to be there. Because it was the right thing to do.

      This allowed other people to stay home and pontificate on the wisdom of having such a force.

  4. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 09/07/2013 - 03:40 pm.

    an intervention

    Using the analogy of the little boy and the rough man, suppose you couldn’t intervene yourself and had to rely on someone else to do the intervening. Suppose the intervener already knew the little boy was being abused in earlier incidents but didn’t act. He didn’t seem interested in the man or the little boy, and you suspected he wasn’t interested in your opinion about them either.
    The intervener dithered and delayed until finally the other people in the restaurant raised an alarm about the little boy. Reluctantly, the intervener puts together a foolish and dangerous plan, a plan that not only put the little boy at risk, but also you and the other people in the restaurant. The man had many dangerous friends who would likely retaliate.
    The people in the restaurant were afraid of the man’s friends and objected to the plan. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to intervene, they didn’t trust the intervener’s plan or resolve.

  5. Submitted by Mimi Jennings on 09/07/2013 - 05:55 pm.

    Am I my sister’s keeper?

    Am I My Sister’s Keeper?

    Yes, unequivocally, as she is mine. The poignancy of this realization is the accompanying understanding that there are things I can’t do to help her, nor that she can do to help me. No way is it possible for us to deploy bombs in her country in the hope that they will miraculously kill only the truly evil and will leave no unintended collateral consequences.

    Once we take the bombs off the table – but, importantly, not the interdependency clause – we do, however, have options. They can even take on the aura of “Noble.” We go from door to door, nation to nation, looking for allies, spokespeople, proxies in our humanitarian cause; we express dismay; we cry out in outrage; we take our case public if that would help, and work behind the scenes if that seems more appropriate; we push hard but keep our imperialistic tendencies in check – all this is termed “diplomacy.” We don’t underestimate the effect our influence has, since we ourselves do not use such barbaric means — oops! Oh, dear, I guess we have some high moral standing to recoup…

    This is not our war. Our war is to clean up our own act, to resort to international pressure, courts and treaties, to use our power for good, to use our wealth to care for refugees from conflicts we can’t resolve, to back off when we’ve overstepped, to develop compassion for all human suffering, and to treat other countries as capable of doing likewise, especially when getting a nudge by well-respected fellow nation-states. More just isn’t available to us, even if we are one another’s keepers.

  6. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/08/2013 - 10:01 pm.

    Our biggest opportunity to stop the killing of innocents…

    …is to stop the killing that WE are doing.

    See for a review of the deaths that OUR wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused. Most Americans would be shocked to see the numbers, because our public have been put to sleep and numbed by a river of propaganda that pretends otherwise, that has never told the truth about what we’re actually doing.

    After we’ve stopped OUR OWN murderous ways, then and only then would it be appropriate to consider intervening in others’ similar campaigns. And in the process, we’d have stopped most of the state sponsored, organized killing of humans currently taking place on the planet.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/09/2013 - 08:51 am.

    Intervention in Syria

    There is always personal risk when you intervene in a violent situation. There is always a choice, whether to intervene or not, and if yes, how.

    Let’s assume that the investigation confirms that the Assad regime gassed more than 1000 of its own people – innocent civilians. That is clearly a war crime, and the person who ordered it a war criminal. Let’s look at WWII and the Nazis and see how the US reacted.

    First, being still weary of WWI and dealing with a depression (not all that different from current conditions), we wanted no part of any conflict in Europe. As we developed natural sympathy to what Hitler was doing to other European countries (more than the Jews), we started to provide secret and more public aid. Only when we had an actual attack (Pearl Harbor), did we declare war against Japan, and actually German was the one that declared war on us, making our challenge much more difficult. When Jews started to flee Germany, we and the international community provide some refuge, but certainly not to most of Jews who were living in Europe. On at least one occasion, we turned back a ship filled with Jews headed to America. We ended up fighting the war, winning it at great cost with an international coalition and after it was done, rounded up all the war criminals and put them on trial. Even today, we continue to find a few more very elderly war criminals and put them on trial.

    Apply this lesson to Syria. The key fact is that war crimes have occurred and those who committed them need to be brought to justice. Syria is involved in a civil war, that doesn’t seem to have many “good guys,” but that cannot excuse inaction when it relates to bring Assad to justice. Whether or not we take military action against the country, we should be working with the international community to turn the current investigation into criminal charges against those who ordered the genocide – and that should be our policy whenever genocide occurs.

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