Most people who have heard the term genocide don’t really understand what it means. Intellectually, they’ll probably be able to tell you the definition that you could find in a dictionary. They might know the roots of the word. They might even know about the UN’s CPPCG, but none of that really helps you understand what genocide is. Trying to understand what genocide is by looking at the definition is like trying to understand a cube by drawing it on a piece of paper. It gives you a basic understanding of its shape, without truly allowing you to understand the depth of it. Genocide is a deep and powerful field of study that, unfortunately, touches on almost every era of history.
Genocide studies should be a necessary part of every school curriculum. The only real way to prevent such horrors as the Holocaust in the future is to make sure that everyone knows that it happened, and that they understand how and why it happened. Events like these do not happen in a vacuum, and they cannot happen except by the will of the people. Genocide is by its very nature democratic. Through the use of propaganda and systematic oppression and prejudice people are taught to hate. They decide, each step of the way, that these ideas are ideas worth remembering. They decide as a society, or as part of a society, that another group of people aren’t really people. Then they decide to kill them. No one can be forced to kill 12 million of their fellows. It simply cannot happen. You cannot force a nation of angry, shamed, and armed people to do anything. What you can do is convince them to choose one truth over another. When that truth comes wrapped in a shifting of the blame, then it becomes all the more enticing. Suddenly it’s not your fault that your country’s economy is in shambles and you have more shame than valuable currency. Suddenly it’s the fault of the Armenians, or the Jews, or the Tutsi. Then no one has to be forced to kill them. Suddenly they want to, and the choice becomes easy to make.
It is always a choice. The Pyramid of Hate* is often a slow progression. Nations can spend generations on the first two levels, simmering that low level of hate and scorn. It’s just words, and especially in countries that boast freedom of speech, you can’t stop people from saying what they want. You certainly can’t stop them from thinking it. People will believe what they want to believe. They will believe what they are shown. Like children first learning to speak, they will imitate the sounds they hear until they utter their first word. If your government and your society speak in a language of hate, citizens will absorb that language. They will marinate in it for years, never even noticing how it seeps into their skin until they utter their first slur.
It would be easy to say that the most powerful weapon nations possess is the atomic bomb. Every developing nation and wannabe super power wants to have “the bomb”, but to say that would be to speak incorrectly. The most powerful weapons that any nation, president or dictator wields are words. An atomic bomb, for all its terrifying force and ability to destroy, never killed 12 million people. An atomic bomb never inspired a nation to want to destroy every trace of the Jewish people from the face of Europe. Words did that. Language and the way we use it. The most terrible weapon in the arsenal of hate and genocide is also the only way to beat it. Where governments and demagogues spout hate, it must be answered with love and equality. It must be answered with the message that all people are people and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
*For those unfamiliar with the Pyramid of Hate, more information can be found about it on the Anti-Defamation League’s Website.