Thoughts on Genocide

A Problem From Hell  by Samantha Power is one of those books that will change your life. It is the most comprehensive history of US intervention (or rather, lack thereof) in 20th Century genocides. After a cynical semester in a fantastic foreign policy class, I decided to reread Ms. Power to regain my overly-idealistic liberalism. It’s as haunting a read as ever. The cold language of “interests,” which has ruled the Pentagon for decades, has allowed mass murder time and time again. It started with the Armenians, then the European Jews, then Cambodians, next the Kurds, jumping back to Europe for the Bosnians, and of course Rwanda. Though not covered in Power’s pages, we must not forget modern-day South Sudan.

There is one passage in particular that grabbed me today. In April 1994, the US State Department held a press conference right as the Rwandan genocide was picking up its bloody steam. First to speak was Assistant Secretary Bushnell who lauded the successful evacuation of Americans. After her came a department spokesman who criticized foreign nations for censoring Schindler’s List. He declared: “The most effective way to avoid the recurrence of genocidal tragedy is to ensure that past acts of genocide are not forgotten.”

No one realized the irony for years.

I am an avid reader of Holocaust history and literature, and I feel confident saying that every book about the Holocaust – either in its introduction, afterword, or elsewhere – recites this same mantra in some way. That is, that if we do not remember our history, we are doomed to repeat it. I used to trust fully in that statement and even tried writing a Holocaust novel myself in its honor. I no longer believe remembrance is the key to genocide prevention. It is good and noble in its own right, but remembrance alone does not save lives.

If people do not want to see parallels with the past, they won’t. It’s a common theme in Power’s history that officials turn a blind eye to the facts. Oh it’s not like the Holocaust because it’s really more like a civil war or there aren’t camps or it we can’t trust refugee testimony, so maybe it’s not even happening. Hindsight is 20/20. We need to make foresight 20/20, too. That requires compassion and risk – two things the State Department won’t touch with a twenty-foot pole unless it means losing an election.

Maybe it’s because Americans are so desensitized to suffering. We turn on the news and how are we supposed to tell the difference between genocide and just another car bomb? We live in a violent world. I think more than that, however, we can blame the dark side of patriotism. Often, the only way to stop a genocide at its height is military intervention. We have to go blow stuff up. But as history shows, the risk of losing even one American soldier is not worth tens of thousands of foreigners. We place more value on a person who just so happens to have been born in the same general geographic area as us than on someone born far away. Tragically, it is that same loyalty to identity that makes genocide possible in the first place: I am better than you, so if I do anything it takes to protect my side and defeat yours, it will still be just.

The only way America will end its pattern of ignoring genocide and do what is right is if politicians believe they will lose everything if they don’t stop it. That means voters have to prioritize genocide over job creation, tax cuts, or any other promise a candidate can throw at us. And it means voters must be aware enough of world issues to know about genocide in the first place – no matter how officials or the media tries to blur the lines. Remembering past offenses just won’t cut it. It will only earn us more to remember.

Lesson of the day: read Ms. Power’s book. Then make a sacrifice for justice.

Everyday Racial Justice

“The Qu’ran? Yuck.”

 

Have I got your attention? Okay, stay there for a second while I mention a lot of qualifiers. I am very conflicted about writing this post because I draw a thick line between the personal and professional. I also, as Secretary Madeline Albright puts it, “do not believe in collective guilt.” This is one of those times I will take comfort in a low readership.

 

With my guilt mildly assuaged, I’ll tell you where I heard that: a German exchange student. I give tours of my college campus pretty frequently as a volunteer for our “ambassador” team. Yesterday, two German exchange students arrived unscheduled for a tour, but I was in the Admissions Office anyway, so I offered to show them around. They were pleasant enough, didn’t whisper in German so I couldn’t understand. Then about halfway through our walk, I explained how, at my school, all freshmen take a common course  in which we study many fundamental texts, including: Plato, Darwin, Confucius, and the Qu’ran.

 

As you can tell from the start of this post, the young man in the pair was not impressed. His face proved he wasn’t trying to be cute.

 

I’d heard about European “Islamophobia” on the news. Still, I’d never imagined it could be as bad as in America. In this country, you’re liable to get shot for wearing a turban or growing a long beard. People are terrified at the prospect that our president could be Muslim (he’s not, by the way; having a non-white name doesn’t make you a terrorist, which I know is what Islamophobes are thinking). I remember when me and my friends took that common freshman course last year, some parents got ticked that the Qu’ran was taught and not the Bible. I rolled my eyes during the whole affair.

 

Here’s where we get to collective guilt. I only met two Europeans yesterday, but they did a lot to confirm those news reports to me. His words were so candid, so… juvenile. Liberal college students like myself are convinced that Europe is socialist utopia where everyone eats fat-free love and rainbows for breakfast. Yet here I was, on the brink of calling a European a racist.

 

My internship at Disney World taught me how to keep smiling when people are rude. I held my tongue. Today, though, I realize that maybe I shouldn’t have. I don’t know. At what point and in what place do we each have a responsibility to confront intolerance? It isn’t the first time that I’ve sat idly by and let prejudice proceed. When I was 14, I was a weekday volunteer at my local library. Each year, the library has an outdoor festival with music, costumes, and books to celebrate the town’s (admittedly small) Hispanic population. I manned one of the booths, which had a great view of the meringue dancers. A middle-aged woman came up with smoker’s wrinkles –I realize now from her manner that she was probably homeless and mentally unstable. She began to pontificate to me about Mexicans who were “invading” our country and “polluting” the culture. She couldn’t believe the library had “let” them in. She did not use very polite words and I’m sure the dancers could hear her. She urged me to agree with her.

 

I was 14. I froze, I think I nodded with a frown. I had no idea how to respond. My white skin and Protestant faith wrapped me in a protective cocoon. I, evidently, was superior to my fellow library volunteers. I could dodge the bullet. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about it since; the shame was paralyzing. I was a child then, but I remember that homeless woman’s face clear as day.

 

If I had spoken up, I wouldn’t have changed that woman’s heart. Once hatred bites into the heart, it hangs on like a life-sucking tick. I respect the Boomers very much on this point: they came-of-age in a highly segregated America, but for the most part, have chased that out of their thinking. It’s usually not so simple. Racism is not undone because one teenage girl says she likes to salsa. But does that mean we shouldn’t fight? Does that mean we let our brothers and sisters be treated as “less than?” If we can’t eliminate racism in this generation, can’t we at least stigmatize it beyond forgiveness?

 

If we truly believe that your color, creed, nationality, gender identity, or ethnic group does not change your status as God’s creation, if we truly believe that we are all born equal in the eyes of Heaven, then our hearts would be ignited with passion in the face of prejudice. Internal belief results in external action. So next time, don’t let the racist joke or the slur slip by. We are called to defend each other. We must let the world know that there is no “other” in God’s family.

What are you doing Valentine’s Day?

Even the most clingy of girlfriends probably thinks April is a little early to make plans for Valentine’s Day. But when you’re fighting for freedom from sexual violence, it’s never too soon to start.

On February 14, 2013, V-Day International invites you, your family, your friends, your co-workers, everybody, to strike. It’s called One Billion Rising and it will be the largest human rights event in history. One billion people across the world will stop whatever they’re doing on Valentine’s Day to tell the world “the violence ends now!” No more rape, no more abuse, no more trafficking.

Why one billion? It’s not a random big number. It’s how many women on the planet have or will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. 1 in 6 people, 1 in 3 women. 1 in everyone would be too high.

I urge you to commit to One Billion Rising. You can sign up to participate and receive email updates at this link. Stand with –stand for– your sisters. Men, women, and children will all be needed to make this strike a reality. Finally, humanity will rise and say STOP. God willing, one billion voices will be too loud to ignore.

Water Poisoned at Girls’ School

Yesterday, over 150 Afghan girls were sent to the hospital after they began vomiting. Their water had been poisoned in an apparent attack on education for women. The Taliban, which virulently opposes girls’ education, is suspected.

Hope for Haiti

Thanks to my favorite health charity, Partners in Health, cholera vaccine has finally come to Haiti. International institutions have long opposed introducing the vaccine because there isn’t enough for everyone. Partners, however, took the starfish-on-the-beach approach and refused inaction. If you can, now is an important time to support Partners with your donations.

A Tale of Two Emails

I wonder which is a worse assault on human dignity: begging or being begged to. Since I was born a middle-class white American, I’ve only experienced the latter. When someone begs me for something (not in the “please, please, please can you spot me $5″ way), I feel embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, and powerless. It seems paradoxical that being in a position of power makes me feel powerless, but being begged of makes me remember that even if I can give this person what they need to get through the day, it won’t matter tomorrow. And how many others are out there who I don’t have the power to help?

That’s how I felt when I received an email yesterday from my Kenyan mama. For privacy reasons, I will call her Olivia.

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Petition for a Conflict-Free iPhone

Many of the minerals needed to make cell phones are found in eastern Africa. Unfortunately, these lucrative mines have led to civil war, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Join http://www.change.org in petitioning Apple to make an iPhone free of conflict minerals. Signing takes less than 2 minutes. We did it with diamonds. Now it’s time to make the thing we can’t seem to live without a conscionable product.

Muslims Afraid in France

Last month, a French-born Muslim killed seven people in Toulouse over 10 days. Now Europeans who wear hijab or turbans are terrified they will be assaulted in a backlash.

 

Our world grows more anti-Muslim by the day. The Communist in the closet has been replaced by an Arab man with a long beard. In each of our communities, we must continue to practice tolerance and love of all His children.

Sex Slavery comes to Spain

Spain has recently experienced an explosion in sex tourism. Instead of dance clubs or bars, men go to brothels for a night out with the guys. This has encouraged traffickers to trick even more Eastern European girls into sex slavery. The girls, usually teenagers or young adults, are promised service jobs such as waitressing. When the arrive, knowing no one, they are beaten until they agree to sell their bodies. In this story, one young woman sold intercourse for $40.

Eating Every Other Day in the DRC

The civil war in Democratic Republic of Congo has led to widespread poverty. In order to survive, parents feed their children on alternating days. Read more here.

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