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Other People's Atrocities: None Of Our Business?

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Events as disparate as the cruel, escalating violence in Syria and the congested, unnerving conditions where Apple's iPads and iPhones are made at the Foxconn assembly plants in China raise a recurring question:

When do a country's internal affairs become the business of the world? And when do we make that our personal business?

You can take that question back through atrocities, crimes and outrages of recent history.

Good people weep now when they see affecting motion pictures or read books about the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and ask, "How could we let that happen?"

But as someone who covered the war in Bosnia, I don't remember many Americans at the time who called on their country to intervene to stop that slaughter.

What I remember more is people saying, "What can you do? It's their business."

A lot of us may tut-tut and be touched to hear about harsh labor practices in China. But do we help change them if we denounce those practices in a Tweet sent on a laptop that was likely made by workers under the same conditions?

In the end, a lot of us worry more about economic competition from China than the Chinese workers who build so much of what we find necessary, dazzling or desirable. We decide that it's not our business.

Americans once boycotted grapes and lettuce to help migrant workers fight for better pay and working conditions.

But when we buy avocados, grapes or strawberries from Chile, Guatemala or Mexico this winter, do we know if the workers who pick our food work under conditions that would horrify us here? Do we care?

I once did a story in the rose fields of California's San Joaquin Valley. Workers had to get down on their chests on hard, scorching boards in hot fields, in a fog of pesticides, to prune rose plants. They were paid by the bush. So when a thorn slashed a finger — which happened every few minutes — they felt they couldn't lose the time to walk a mile to an infirmary or washroom. They would relieve themselves on that finger to sanitize the cut and just keep working.

I stopped buying flowers after that — for a couple of months. It's hard to keep your conscience always going full-boil.

Hollywood stars can avoid buying "blood diamonds," but how many of us can live these days without using cell phones or laptops, or affording strawberries in winter? How many of us see suffering anywhere and feel that it's our business to help?

But there might be times to ask ourselves not only, "What can we do?" but also "What happens if everyone does nothing?"

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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