Genocide: It’s Political
by Sonya Cunningham
I admit that as I began preparing to teach Elie Wiesel’s Night for the first time fourteen years ago, I was ignorant to the many genocides that have occurred globally. In my history and philosophy courses, the Holocaust, with its systematic and industrialized killing, was studied as the event that changed 20th century thinking forever, yet there had been no mention of the Armenian, Ukrainian, Mayan, Burmese, Sudanese, Bosnian, and Rwandan genocides. Since I began teaching in 2001, other genocides have occurred and many are still ongoing, and it appalls me that these events still exist, that, as a global people, we still have not learned. In teaching my unit on genocidal literature, which now, in conjunction to the Holocaust literature, includes current events on genocide and other genocidal literature, my students have the same initial reaction that I once had. They were unaware.
In researching genocide, the cold, calculated political nature of the genocides both shocked and horrified me. I found it even more distressing to learn that the governments who enacted these crimes did not face repercussions; they got away with it due to the human constructs of “sovereignty” and “impunity.” Yet, as genocides are political and are carried out by the government, it makes no sense for the UN to recognize a country’s sovereignty when that country’s government is slaughtering its own people nor does it make sense for homicidal leaders to be granted impunity. To evoke Raphael Lemkin’s key question, “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?”
When genocidal governments are not held accountable for their crimes, it sends the troubling message to the guilty governments as well as future governments that there are no repercussions for such heinous actions – and these events happen again … and again. Hitler himself declared, “‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” And while these governments continue to blatantly commit these crimes, onlooking countries remain more afraid of angering allies or upsetting a country they already have political tensions with than they are with the value of a people. What are the global implications when an entire culture is eliminated? To a people; to a nation; to a world; to history? Peter Balakian, in Black Dog of Fate, tackles these very questions and asserts, “When a civilization is erased, there is a new darkness on the earth” (263). And worse, when the crime is denied, the wound remains open. Balakian calls this denial, this unhealed wound, a second killing: “the first killing followed by a killing of the memory of the killing” (290).
Yet, behind the shield of politics, the governments that have the power to protect turn away; they do nothing and then justify their actions with the ever-shifting sword of semantics. I may be but an educator and human rights advocate, but it seems to me a no-brainer that an enforceable universal legislation needs to be created that will eliminate the wall of politics as the barrier to the prevention of genocide. How many peoples must be slaughtered – with the world acting as a bystander – before such actions occur?
While the politics in the prevention, punishment, and recognition of genocide outraged me, in advocating for the prevention of genocide and global education, I was more than disheartened to learn that teaching genocide and talking about genocide are equally political. At events, I have been approached by anger-blinded people who asked why I worked to help those in need in other countries when we have people who are poor and lack education in our own country. I have been accused of being un-American by individuals who declared that good soldiers were fighting against terrorists while I was pushing for education. When I attempted to schedule an event where students would present their research for their chosen genocidal literature, with a former Lost Boy of Sudan and Kurdish survivor of the Al Anfal campaign as guest speakers, I was accused by a colleague of enforcing my own “political agenda” on my students, that the event was of “little educational value,” and that “video clips” of survivors would be “as impactful as a presentation that would disrupt the school day.” And while I throw myself equally into every unit I teach, I have become known primarily for my unit on genocide, and, as a result, somewhat controversial.
I weighed statements and judgments such as these, and here are my responses. We are all connected in this global society, and it is time we stop viewing ourselves by our borders. Humanity extends beyond borders. Our soldiers fight for peace and freedom, so how is working to promote peace through education counter to these goals? And isn’t history itself political? Videos and literature may enable us to learn about genocide, but when we speak to survivors, we bear witness to the events, we connect, we remember.
I have had to learn to refocus my energies on those who have been instrumental supporters rather than on the louder voices of the few, which, as they most often strike at the most incremental times, can be discouraging. I have been blessed to have many dedicated people work to support the educational goals of Ambassadors for Change, a supportive administration, many, many supportive colleagues, and awesome and caring students. And these glimmers of light bring me hope.
When working towards anything that makes us face the darkness humankind is capable of, it is a natural response to turn away. However, we must change this reaction. I believe that the majority of people balk at the concept of genocide, not because they are heartless, but because it is a crime beyond human comprehension. It is most certainly beyond mine. Yet teaching genocide is not about darkness; it is about a love for humanity.
Yes, the UN needs to develop and implement legislation that eliminates politics from the protection of humanity against the crime of genocide, but as individuals, we are not exempt from responsibility. Memory and education enables us to view ourselves as part of a global rather than national world. We must learn to see ourselves in the other. We, as individuals, have the responsibility to contact state, national, and international leaders. Only we can raise our voices to say, “Enough.”