Author’s note: This is the adapted introduction to my new book, The Holocausts We All Deny. If you enjoy the article, I’d appreciate if you’d check out the book.
It may seem as though we fear nothing more than being murdered at the hands of another member of our own species.
But most killings are more a kind of murder by neglect.
The greenhouse gases each of us emits today will likely kill someone somewhere tomorrow—and yet few of us allow this to get in the way of our comfortable drives and plane trips.
The meat on our plates more often than not represents the brutalization of untold millions of sentient farm animals—yet it is the rare individual who once-and-for-all stops eating meat altogether.
There are all manner of holocausts, each with its own concomitant sense of denial. But ours is an era increasingly characterized by the collective traumas of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and their vast intergenerational repercussions as they unravel in the present.
The Jewish Holocaust has become emblematic of both the evils humanity might commit and the astonishing capacity we possess for denial.
Somehow, the world remained silent as perhaps the most dramatic and murderous event of its history unfolded. And somehow, ordinary people in perhaps the most developed nation in the world not only excused those killings but often engaged in them willingly and enthusiastically.
But even as the vast bulk of humanity denied the Holocaust as it was happening, when it was over, Holocaust denial was somehow enshrined as a sin more egregious in some circles than murder itself.
Somehow, it has become more inexcusable to deny a Holocaust that is receding into the distant ocean of memory than those that are washing up on our shores today in Syria and Yemen.
What is it about the imponderable violence of genocide that makes it so difficult to approach in the present?
Over the course of the late 20th century, the Jew became both an archetype of the eternally oppressed and a symbol of survival.
As information about the Holocaust slowly filtered into mainstream awareness, fighting Nazis in defense of Jews became the cause célèbre of seemingly every political neophyte and lazy justice warrior, and nothing quenched the thirst for justice like the Jews who fought back.
The phrase “never again” became emblematic of their struggle. And while it may not have originated with the Jewish religious extremist, Meir Kahane, he turned the phrase into a rallying cry for militant Jews everywhere.
Whenever swastikas appeared on the sides of buses, someone somewhere would be sure to thunder “never again.” Whenever some obscure professor suggested the number of people killed in the Holocaust had been exaggerated, the phrase would echo across the media, like some primordial call to justice.
Yet for many of us who grew up with the expression, “never again” was more a slogan for ending genocide per se. Never again would we allow a whole people to be destroyed without speaking out. Never again would we allow the great atrocities of the 20th century to be visited upon yet another defenseless and vulnerable minority.
Hence, when we found the phrase and the monumental sense of resistance it implied being used as a justification for attacks on Palestinians, we were stunned.
How was it that the victims were transformed into perpetrators and the horrors we committed ourselves to never again allow became a justification for yet more oppression?
The confusion seemed to lay partly in the power of the phrase. Much like the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which was later used as a template for countless anti-colonial struggles, the phrase neatly and forcefully encapsulated a whole ethos that could be applied to collective trauma everywhere. It was the quintessential call to resistance.
The transferability of the slogan mirrored the transference of the trauma. A powerful meme had been generated in response to the ultimate human tragedy and worked its way through the collective unconscious of humanity.
Everyone seemed to be steeling themselves against another cataclysm like the Holocaust, but as the phrase was adopted by different groups in different places it came to assume different purposes.
How was it such a wide array of groups generated a common response to commonly experienced horrors and yet used it for their own purposes?
Despite the power of the phrase and the forcefulness with which it was articulated, genocide continued to appear—from Bangladesh to Cambodia, Rwanda to Bosnia, Darfur to Syria.
And in several instances, like that of the Rwandan Hutus and the Serbian Chetniks, the genocide they perpetrated was largely inspired by their own commitment to never again suffer the horrors of genocide.
If genocide continued to flourish it was thus often not in spite of the commitment never to witness its awesome destructive powers again, but tragically and ironically, because the commitment itself was so prone to inspiring preventive genocide.
Sometimes, the antidote is much the same as the poison itself.
Hence, the same role reversal in which victims become perpetrators can be witnessed today on the border of Gaza, where the perennial Jewish victims of genocide in Israel have shot over 7,000 mostly unarmed Palestinians with live ammunition and rubber bullets over the last two months alone.
They speak of being invaded, when no one has crossed into their territories. They speak of feeling threatened, when they injure several thousand Palestinians for every one Israeli who is hurt. It is a case of collective trauma breeding outsized fears, which are then used to excuse wanton violence.
Just as we failed to face up to what was happening in the Holocaust, we have continued to bury our heads in the sand.
Every time another holocaust has unfolded, the media seemed to arrive on the scene too late, the heroic cries of never again rising to a crescendo only with the closing scenes of the play. It is as if we could not wrap our minds around events as they happened and mobilize for action until it was too late.
Genocide not only continued to flourish throughout the 20th century but may actually be making a sort of comeback in the 21st. Genocide is arguably being committed against dissident Sunnis in Syria and millions of starving civilians in Yemen. The Burmese military is committing it against its minority Rohingya and Isis against the Yezidis.
Genocide usually refers to the effort to kill off vast portions of a population—whether it be racial, ethnic, religious, or political. But it also often refers to the tactics—commonly deployed in genocides—of mass starvation of whole cities and countries that has a tendency to destroy those populations whatever their intent.
There is simply no other expression so powerful as genocide to denote the repeated perpetration of crimes against humanity committed against a targeted minority.
There is something elusive about genocide. Seldom do we find ourselves condemning a genocide in the present and seldom in a place we know well. Rather, genocide tends to happen in the distant past in exotic and inaccessible locales, like East Timor or Rwanda. This can make pious talk of never again appear less a commitment and more a salve to ease guilty consciences.
Genocides tend to happen under the jurisdiction of collapsed states, where the rule of law has broken down and civil war broken out. Not only do such territories tend to be inaccessible and dangerous, they are also often bewilderingly complex.
It is hard to sort out what is happening in a place like Syria or Yemen, where countless states are intervening and several rebellions are happening at once.
Experts on the region tend to be scarce and reporters must risk their lives to enter. Hence, it is not easy to pin the blame on anyone in particular in a place like the Congo, where several million people died as a result of fighting among a dizzying array of militias at the turn of the century.
Most of us do not want to think about genocide.
We simply do not know what to make of the effort of some group to wipe another out.
We cannot imagine the horrors of hacked up and tortured bodies, and when forced to look we cannot sustain the gaze. We comfort ourselves by turning away.
We fall back on platitudes about it being too complex, take up the line of the oppressors, fault the activists for bringing it to our attention, or simply blame the victims. Anything to throw off the burden of responsibility.
All of these factors came into play when conflict broke out in Syria in the late spring of 2011.
Journalists struggled to get to the action, and when they did it was often too complex to convey to the short attention spans of their audiences. Meanwhile, there were too few specialists to tell the media affirmatively what was happening, and with the experts faltering, false narratives proliferated.
To be sure, all of the major human rights groups issued repeated reports on the extreme human rights abuses war crimes of the Assad regime.
Through much of the war they were besieging over half a million people, who were often reduced to eating rats and grass just to stay alive.
They pounded their major cities to rubble, routinely dropping chlorine based barrel bombs and aiming at the hospitals and medical workers in areas under rebel control. Amid the slaughter, they turned their prisons into mortuaries, torturing what in the end is likely to amount to tens of thousands to death.
Eye gouging, castration, and gang rape abounded.
And yet, all too many left-wing activists took their cues from the Assad regime and the Russian state television network, RT, generating an array of conspiracies in an effort to control the narrative and prevent another intervention like that of Iraq.
This left the general public dumbfounded and policy makers charged with carrying out the will of the people paralyzed.
Somehow, it was the anti-imperial peace activists who were aiding and abetting genocide this time around. And as if in the grip of some myth of the eternal return or unbreakable genetic code, we yet again seemed hypnotized by the violence and lulled into paralysis.
But just as so many anti-imperial leftists reached their moral low, something looking a whole lot like genocide broke out in Yemen, and this time the cause better fit the narrative. For this time it was a Saudi-led coalition, armed and abetted by Britain and America, that was blockading ports and putting millions at risk of starvation.
This time it really was a heartless West, reaping substantial profits, and arming a wealthy coalition of royalty, who were stunting millions of children for life.
There are now a couple million Syrian civilians amassed in the small northwestern province of Idlib, many of whom have been ethnically cleansed from rebel held territories, who are at risk of the worst assault yet. And the United Nations is warning that 18 millions Yemenis are in jeopardy of being put on the brink of starvation by the end of the year.
Perhaps you will disagree with the interpretation of some of these events; perhaps you will want to use the expression genocide more sparingly. What is far more difficult to deny, however, is the horror of the events that are now unfolding, and the way so many of us are averting our gaze.
Genocide is making a comeback, and it is time we stare it down until the perpetrators themselves turn away in shame.
If you liked this article, please check out my newly released book, The Holocausts We All Deny, of which this article is an adapted introduction.