Running from house to house in search of a place to hide, I reflected on how I had become the target of a genocidal hit squad.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were hunting me down. And not only were they known to kill, they were known to quite literally crucify their victims.
So, as I slipped away into the inner recesses of an abandoned house, I began to wonder if my hiding place would soon become my tomb. My body trembled with terror as I imagined all of the ways it might be dissembled.
Then, unlike so many others, I awoke from the nightmare.
Ours is the summer of hate. The world is now confronting the possibility of multiple, simultaneous genocides. Genocidal atrocities have occurred under the Assad regime, ISIS and in the Central African Republic. And significant war crimes have committed by Israel in Gaza, with talk of genocide amongst many Israeli leaders.
We need to more fully imagine what is happening here if it is to be stopped. But genocides are easy to deny—largely because they are so hard to believe.
It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to be the victim of a genocide. It is something most of us cannot even imagine happening to our own people. If we could imagine it, we would likely suppress the thought because it is often just too horrifying to sustain.
Each time a genocide broke out in the twentieth century, the people most likely to draw attention to it could not believe the reports. Word leaked out, but slowly, and millions died for lack of better awareness. Hence, the ability to imagine what it might be like to be a victim of mass murder can help to stop it.
But genocides tend to go unchecked largely because it is so difficult to imagine ordinary people carrying them out.
We cannot imagine the Hutus of the village assembled in a field to carry out the day’s killing. We cannot imagine the the face behind the mask of an Islamic State gunmen. Rather, when we hear about a genocide breaking out, we tend to drift into a haze of abstractions, counting the dead and bemoaning its senselessness.
But genocides need to be understood if they are to be stopped. So, it is also imperative we understand the process of committing genocide from the inside.
My own experience of mass murder may sound trite. It did not involve the murder of humans or even animals, but rather of colorful caterpillars that bled a luminous, green slime.
I was seven and had collected the caterpillars in the lid of a garbage can because they were so beautiful. But when the lid was full, I did not know what to do with them. So as they wiggled in circles, I began to smash their little bodies. And I can still recall my feeling of queasiness and my sense of remorse at destroying these lives that had so enchanted me just moments before.
Most genocides involve collecting human bodies. Often they will be moved from place to place without planning. The perpetrators want to get rid of them but murdering them is not always the first thing on their minds. Sometimes they leave their victims out in the open to die. Sometimes they are collected in concentration camps.
Yet, it is difficult to feed and shelter so many people, so as conditions worsen and bodies become emaciated, as they begin to smell of excrement and fear, the perpetrators start to see their victims as something less than human. At this point, it becomes easier to kill them. But once the killing starts, it feeds on itself, with each machete blow or shot in the head further dampening the killers’ conscience.
The Israeli novelist and peace activist, David Grossman, has written about an innocence that is lost when violence is used to break the skin. It is as if some line has been crossed that separates the abuses from that of ordinary affairs. Genocides often happen amidst the trauma of war. Something dies inside of those who have seen their friends dying all around them and who have themselves become killers. Soldiers are often seized by the terror of death, a sensation that most of us are able to suppress in our day to day lives, but which breaks into the open in the fog of war.
Because of the way it shatters the illusion of permanence, death can be enchanting and mesmerizing. And under the hypnotic trance of collective trauma, it simultaneously magnetizes and repels.
This explains the cheering crowds of Israelis, lined up on the border of Gaza. And it explains the popularity of war movies. But it also explains our inability to bring ourselves to peer into the mass graves. There is always a risk we will pulled under into the world of the dead, as if mobbed by zombies. War has a way of turning all social mores on their heads. But wars come with their own sets of limitations.
Genocides tear away the mask of social restraint. And in the process, they destroy victims and perpetrators alike.
Somehow, we have again ripped off the mask. The numbers of dead in both Gaza and the Central African Republic have been minuscule compared to the genocides of the twentieth century. Even the numbers of those killed by Assad and ISIS, while vastly greater, are still relatively small. But the killing in each of these places has appeared to some observers to be genocidal.
Part of the numbers’ paradox lies in the fact that, unlike in the twentieth century, the whole world is now watching. So it is possible that what we are seeing is a highly restrained form of genocidal intent. But it is also quite possible that we have become more sensitized to the death of strangers and learned to pressure those who would otherwise commit genocide.
Perhaps, too, those who might commit genocide have come to see themselves through the eyes of the world. There is an emerging global ethic of restraint that is appearing everywhere in times of war. And this ethic of restraint is beginning to be enshrined in an emerging body of international law. So the would-be killers do not only see themselves through the eyes of the world, but through those eyes turning toward the courts, and they fear for their futures.
Perhaps this time when we peer into the mass graves we will see not only the bodies of the individuals who have been killed, not only the faces of human lives now ended, but the very death of genocide itself.
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Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Sebastien Wiertz/Flickr