Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Maybe Never Again!

How does one prevent genocide? That’s a good question. Despite the efforts of diplomats, scholars, and human rights organizations, we haven’t been able to figure this one out. Even predicting a mass murder is tricky business, let alone the international resolve to do something about it once it’s underway. Genocide, it appears, requires a confluence of events and developments, and the idiosyncrasies of a specific region or regime might entail some of these events and not others. Typically, ingredients for a genocidal cocktail include a history of ethnic animosity, a dictatorial regime, a postwar culture of victimization, censorship of the press, hateful propaganda, the creation of scapegoats, the formation of paramilitary militias, and so on. The international community isn't going to intervene just because a minority group is suffering from discrimination or because the regime has censored the press. Besides, we must recognize that certain things are beyond our control, try as we might.

In a way, taking on the factors that can ultimately lead to mass murder involves going against the dictates of human nature. As social psychologist Neil Kressel writes in his book Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror, “a large percentage of every population seems ready to obey authorities, conform to peers, and subordinate moral principles to personal self-interest or the wave of the moment.” The prevention of genocide seems too presumptuous and utopian when you consider the number of genocides since the Holocaust and the creation of the United Nations. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to lessen the impact or decrease the duration of a genocide.

The potential deterrents to genocide that scholars and activists have come up with include education, democracy, prosperity and justice. Giving more and more people access to education across the globe is a noble enterprise, but while it might give individuals a better life economically and culturally, I’m not so convinced that education will deter genocide. Teaching independence of thought and regard for other ethnic or religious groups is difficult and over time it can devolve into a sinister form of social engineering. Anyway, educational programs that do this sort of thing presuppose that one can appeal solely to reason. I don’t think they adequately appreciate the dark side of human nature.

For many, democracy is the panacea for the world’s problems. The conventional wisdom is that democracies do not war against one another, but this is more of an assertion than an indisputable fact. But more to the point, democracies, like the United States and Britain, are not immune from dirty wars and colonial massacres. While political parties peacefully changed the government every four or eight years (thereby testifying to our great democratic ideals) U.S. troops, ranchers and farmers slaughtered North American Indians, placed them in internment camps, obliterated their culture, and raped both their women and land. The deterrent of “prosperity” says that if you give a society or culture economic stability it will less included toward ethnic hatreds. Too many questions arise here. Even if the wealthier nations of the world are willing to pour their largesse into these impoverished countries, who’s to say that the money will go where it’s intended and not remain in the hands of dictators, their cronies, or a host of other middlemen? Trying to build up a region with wealth and prosperity could just as easily sink a country into the abyss of hate and bitterness.

Justice as a deterrent has merit, but heretofore the international community has not put enough bite into it. Why? Countries with human rights have sat on the UN Security Council, and they’re not about to sign off on any measures that would constrain their hand. But that’s only part of the story. The real problem is finding these people and using force, if need be, to bring them to trial. Still, a regime would think twice about committing acts of genocide if the United Nations had a strong record of punishing these murderous thugs. The indictments of Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor, Omar al-Bashir and the Hutu ringleaders mark an advance in international justice, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

Let me end on a positive note. One year ago Iran became center stage on the news programs, as protestors unhappy with the rigged presidential election took to the streets. The Tehran regime had cracked down hard on protestors in the past, and this time was no different. However, daring souls exposed their government’s barbarity via Twitter, email, and cell phones. The Supreme Leader, the president, and their minions could not control the information highway. Genocides will occur in the future, but it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to carry out mass murder in secret. With just about every act of genocide exposed, whether through iPhones or satellites, only the resolve of the world community to take action keeps us from obliterating this scourge from our midst.