A Little Problem of Genocide

So, last week was so full of special events that I still have two to mention. First, Ramadan began the evening of April 23. The 9th month of the Islamic calendar, it marks the month in which the Prophet Muhammad received the Koran from Allah. It is marked by fasting and communal prayer, and ends with a great feast and rejoicing. The other day to be noted is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year was April 21. It is a day set aside to recall the murder of 6,000,000 Jews by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. There are many things about this that are incomprehensible and horrifying. One wonders what kind of a person could find it acceptable to execute an entire class of people, and how they could be in a position to bring this disaster about? How could they organize such a mass murder? And of course, how could God let it happen? Mike says that his grandfather, Carl Cowl, who left Lithuania in 1905 with his mother and siblings (his father was already in America), completely lost his belief in God when he learned of the Holocaust. Yom Hashoah serves the important purposes of not only of remembering the dead, but also of reminding society of the potential for genocide to be carried out, and not only against Jews.

The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, an attorney, a Jew from Poland who fled the Nazis and came to America in 1941. He was horrified as a boy when he learned of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by the Turks during and after World War I. He introduced the term in 1944, and it was adopted by the International Military Tribunal  set up to try war criminals in Nuremberg. In 1946 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution making genocide a crime punishable under international law.

Interestingly, the term has been somewhat difficult to define, or to get various groups to agree on a definition. In 1948 the United Nations defined genocide as any one or more acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Acts included in the definition, in addition to murder, are measures intended to prevent births (forced sterilization) or forcibly removing the group’s children. Genocide is differentiated from another crime against humanity, “ethnic  cleansing,” which forcibly removes a group from a geographic area. Often both crimes are committed simultaneously. The international law went into effect in 1951, but was not ratified by the United States Senate until 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed it into law. A quick check on the internet, with Mike’s assistance, revealed a list of 53 instances of genocide over the last 1000 years, 35 of them occurring in the 20th century. I’m sure some people will quibble about whether this or that incident was really genocide, but two things are obvious: 1) genocide is a common occurrence; and 2) the 20th century was brutal. Of the 53 incidents of genocide found the low estimate for the number of people murdered is 23,300,000. The high estimate is 58,300,000. It is impossible to wrap one’s head around numbers like this. Nor is our world free of genocide as we write. It is going on right now in Mynamar against the Rohingyas, and Darfur is another example. Of course, some (the murderers and their allies) will deny that it is happening at all, and others would argue that what is occurring in Darfur is not genocide, but rather, “just” ethnic cleansing.

So, again, how can this happen? In 1996 Gregory Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch, presented a paper suggesting that genocide develops in 8 stages. The presentation was made to the United States Department of State not long after the Rwandan Genocide.

Stage 1 – Classification – “People are divided into ‘us and them’.”

Stage 2 – Symbolization – “When combined with hatred, symbols may be forced upon unwilling members of pariah groups.” An example would be the Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothing.

Stage 3 – Dehumanization – “One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases.” Such language referring to Jews can be found in Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” and earlier in the writing of composer Richard Wagner and others.

Stage 4 – Organization – “Genocide is always organized…Special army units or militias are often trained and armed.”

Stage 5 – Polarization – “Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda.”

Stage 6 – Preparation – “Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity.”

Stage 7 – Extermination – “It is ‘extermination’ to the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human.”

Stage 8 – Denial – “The perpetrators deny that they committed any crimes.” Holocaust denial is a real phenomenon, and is illegal in many countries.

Stanton also listed preventive measures that could be taken at each stage to try to prevent the process from moving forward. Regrettably, all too often the measures are either not taken, not taken in time, or prove ineffective.

M. Hassan Kakar has written: “For genocide to happen, there must be certain preconditions.  Foremost among them is a national culture that does not place a high value on human life. A totalitarian society, with its assumed superior ideology, is also a precondition for genocidal acts. In addition, members of the dominant society must perceive their potential victims as less than fully human: as ‘pagans,’ ‘savages,’ ‘uncouth barbarians,’ ‘unbelievers,’ ‘effete degenerates,’ ‘ritual outlaws,’ ‘racial inferiors,’ ‘class antagonists,’ ‘counterrevolutionaries,’ and so on. In themselves, these conditions are not enough for the perpetrators to commit genocide. To do that – that is, to commit genocide – the perpetrators need a strong, centralized authority and bureaucratic organization as well as pathological individuals and criminals. Also required is a campaign of vilification and dehumanization of the victims by the perpetrators, who are usually new states or new regimes attempting to impose conformity to a new ideology and its model of society.”

Sober reflection and consideration reveals that some of these stages and conditions exist in our American society right now. Our defenses include a free press, unbiased judiciary, organizations that are devoted to exposing and speaking out against hate groups, laws that forbid hate speech and the display of hate symbols, speaking out against hate by the clergy of all denominations, and legal protection from violence for those speaking out against hate mongering. It is vital also that as individuals we speak out against bigotry and disrespect for people of differing backgrounds and beliefs.The threat is real, and thankfully, thus far our legal and social institutions are working.

And on a lighter note (literally), I suppose, unless you really think about it, is the sudden rash of people presenting to emergency rooms after ingesting bleach following a statement during one of the president’s briefings in which he speculated on the possibility of ingesting a sanitizing substance in order to prevent or cure COVID-19 infection. It is shocking that any public official could say something so stupid, that anyone would agree that it is a good idea, that anyone would act on the suggestion, and that he would express no regret or culpability for the outcome of his remark. Mike says that his followers are so blindly loyal that the ones that live through their bleach adventure will probably vote for him again. I think that an over-arching principle involved in what I have talked about today is that people believe what they want to believe. Another principle is that complacency is our great enemy, the whole point of having a Yom Hashoah.

So, it is beautiful again today here in Happy Meadows, another day of breezes, sunshine, people walking their dogs, and kids riding their bikes in the streets. I hope it is beautiful where you are as well. Let’s all keep praying for better things for our society in general, and for all of us individuals in particular, whether of the 2-legged or 4-legged variety. Until next time, stay safe, be well, and love your neighbor. Au revoir!

Author: Black Magic

Black Magic is a handsome, charming, and self-absorbed cat who lives with Mike and Judy Gordon in Marietta, Georgia. He is about 7 years old, and he will remind you at every opportunity that his grandfather was Black Jack, that famous cat who wrote his own autobiography. Black Magic has a great many opinions, and despite his natural feline arrogance, he seems to be genuinely spiritual. But the reader can decide for him/herself.

One thought on “A Little Problem of Genocide”

  1. It is so illuminating to read these blogs which so often bring focus and fact to what is tucked away in my mind without tight adhesion. Many thanks! Again.

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