In your lifetime, you will needlessly destroy relationships.
You will take wrong turns and miss vital opportunities. You will find yourself addicted to the wrong people or substances.
And at some point, in due time, you will make a complete and utter wreck of your life.
There is a banality to our everyday tragedies. And as it goes for our own lives, so goes it for the nations of which we are a part.
We will elect dangerous and deceitful leaders, support pointless wars, oppose the fight against genuine evils, join causes we later regret, and retreat from the world in ways we deem selfish.
All of this is part of what it means to be human.
The philosopher, Hannah Arendt, described the way ordinary people, carrying out ordinary bureaucratic procedures, brought about the extraordinary nightmare of the Holocaust, calling it “the banality of evil.” But the scholar, Daniel Goldhagen, goes further in an epic study of genocide, noting that its evils are quite typically not only carried out, but actually driven, by ordinary people.
This is how in a country the size of South Carolina, Hutu militias could, but in a few short months, in the spring of 1994, hack 800,000 fellow Rwandans to death with machetes. They rose early in the morning, gathered at football fields, and worked in teams—hunting their countrymen and women, hacking and chopping their victims, and drinking beer and sleeping with their wives when the day was done.
This too is part of the human experience.
The point is brought home to me when considering my own previous views on world hunger. Following a logic that was cutting edge for the early 19th century, but simply ignorant for the late 20th, I used to believe that we should not do anything about famines, because famines are necessary to limit population growth—and if we do not limit it now, more people will die later.
The logic was faulty, because population tends to grow fastest in the most poverty stricken places, like Darfur and Somalia. And famines do not kill nearly so many people as clever environmentalists think, but rather prolong suffering through stunting and trauma.
My logic was not only faulty, my position not only inhumane, but my failure to study the issue in greater depth was negligent, and amounted to a sort of passive support for genocide. And the scariest thing is this is a common view among environmentalists.
Not only do we make a wreck of our own lives and nations, but, in the age of globalization, we make a wreck of the world itself—and all too often under the mistaken belief it is right.
Something similar seems to be at work among opponents of genetic engineering, who whip themselves into a frenzy over its dangers, but seldom consider that the scientific consensus over the safety of genetically modified foods is comparable to that on climate change; seldom consider its potential to bring greater yields to African crops like sweet potatoes and cassava; seldom consider the rain forests that will be spared if we can achieve higher yields; seldom consider the potential to stave off hunger for hundreds of millions of people.
The tragedy of this stance was brought home when Greenpeace convinced the government of Zambia to bar a shipment of genetically modified food aid in the midst of a famine. The president, whom they convinced, complained of Western governments trying to poison his people, so he let them starve instead. And Greenpeace chalked it up to a victory.
Robert Paarlberg, an advocate of using genetic engineering to increase African crop yields, suggested, however, that it was a crime against humanity.
Perhaps you are opposed to genetically modified food for good reason, and perhaps you can convince me of the rightness of your stance. But it is quite possible, if the near scientific consensus on its safety is correct, that your opposition would result in the malnourishment and death by disease of hundreds of millions of people, and for no good reason.
Something similar was at work in the opposition to a no-fly zone in Syria. Peace activists opposed creating a safe zone for the victims of Assad and Putin bombings, even though the bombings had killed hundreds of thousands of people, and the no-fly zone would have provided them a safe space from genocide. It is quite possible that opponents of the safe zone were correct that it would degenerate into war, but it is also possible their opposition amounted in the end to aiding and abetting genocide.
Many readers will agree with these views, and many will find them frustrating and offensive, arguing the genocidal implications of my own views instead. But what is interesting is just how few of us ask how our own cherished views might contribute to mass murder, when the stakes behind them are routinely so high. And what is most astonishing is how few of us care.
The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Samantha Power, who served as America’s Representative to the United Nations in the Obama administration, demonstrates in her exhaustive book on the subject, that America ignored virtually every genocide of the 20th century. As the death tolls mounted, a few brave voices cried murder and showed how we could stop it—but most turned away.
Most of us stand stunned, watching country after country descend into chaos; most of us do not ask why close to a billion people alive today are malnourished. Most of us do not even possess the language needed to argue it is wrong.
Both the Hebrew Talmud and the Muslim Qur’an suggest that “when you save a life you save the world.” But there is a sense in which to waste but a moment is to destroy universes.
A friend of mine who is dedicated to accosting random people on the street and waking them up to the plight of the planet, encourages people to consider taking some action for the earth that will add a single minute to the lifespan of the biosphere—a single moment added to the lives of trillions of beings.
It is a beautiful exercise in empowerment and a testament to the powers of math. But it is also a meditation on the human capacity for creation and destruction.
There is much we will destroy in our personal and planetary lives, but universes might also be born in a single moment. This too is part of what it means to be human.
This article is an excerpt from my book, The Holocausts We All Deny. Please check it out and write a review if you like it.