The month of April has become widely associated as “Genocide Prevention/Awareness Month,” marking the anniversary of six major genocides taking place during the 20th century: Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born holocaust survivor and lawyer who dedicated his life to advocating for a universal acceptance of a resolution to prevent and punish those who commit genocide. It was not until the end of his life was he able to approve a Genocide Convention resolution under the auspice of the United Nations and International Criminal Court in 1948.
If there one thing people misinterpret about genocides, it is the faces behind them, also known as ‘genocidaires’. More than often, the genocidaires are associated as a group of inhumane individuals with a lot animosity towards a certain group. Although somewhat true, what is not noted is that ordinary individuals — who were once neighbors in the same towns and villages or even part of the same family — unexpectedly become bloody killers. This was demonstrated in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, when one of its ethnic groups, the Hutus, committed genocide against the Tutsis.
During roughly three months, between 500,000and 800,000 of the about 1 million Tutsis were butchered in cold blood. Shockingly, many of the slaughterers were neighbors and friends. At times, intermarriages between both ethnicities brought bloodshed due to their own relatives. Not all Hutus were involved in the genocide; those who were against it were often killed as well. How is it that ordinary citizens, who were once neighbors or even part of the same family, are able to turn intogenocidaires?
There are several factors that become the draft for genocide, each forming a stepping-stone for the next. Often extremists try to bring back old animosities amongst a group; such the case was with the Hutus and the Tutsis under discriminatory Belgian colonial rule. In political psychology, the concept of playing on people’s fear is a common tool. That is, if something’s not done about “those people” (i.e. Tutsis) they will eventually do something to you (i.e. Hutus). An “us” versus “them” effect is created as they (The Tutsis) are seen as the enemy and target of the Hutus animosity. This becomes a major factor in the inception of a mass genocide. Repetitive remarks and reminders of how the Tutsis treated the Hutus in the past, and how something must be done before it is too late, were common things utilized through the propagating media. As a result, people feel that they are endangered or threatened, so it leads them to kill as a means of self-defense.
Another factor is the notion of dehumanization, when the humanity of another group is denied. As seen in the Holocaust and other genocides, members of a race are no longer human but equivalents to disease, vermin, animals, or insects. Hitler called the Jews “lice” and “vermin,” leading to a sudden need to exterminate. When something like that is propagated through the media on a repetitive basis, it is instilled in people’s minds. In Rwanda, Radio Rwanda and Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) propaganda radio referred to the Tutsis as “cockroaches” and “snakes”. By means of dehumanization, it helped psychologically infiltrate the murders of the Rwandan people and is considered to be a commanding psychological device. Psychologists describe it as a person’s vision being altered and suddenly seeing “them” as inhuman. As a result, they become a sort of disease that people want to quarantine or else face means of infection.
Architects of genocide often search for individuals who have the characteristics of criminals. Nevertheless, when large-scale genocide is to take place, there are not enough criminal minds in society to supplement the killings. Time and again, young men are considered, assuming it is easier to train and manipulate them since they are usually responsive to figures who maintain authority. Such the case was seen in Bosnia and Rwanda, when the number of people to take part in the genocide is not reached, older people take part in it as well.
According to researchers, many people involved in the genocide have never killed before and were not the type to ever commit these sorts of atrocities, as they are often ordinary people that have simple jobs and lifestyles. What makes it alarming is how the architects do not have to look far for people to do their dirty work, since there are numerous people who are ready and willing to do it without realizing it. Normally a punishment and reward system is executed to make sure the killings are conducted. The potential murderers are given social and food advancement. If they do not comply, they are given the choice of death. A majority of the time, people will choose the former. In the case of Rwanda many men were bribed with drugs, alcohol, and the raping of women.
Most cases of genocide are accompanied by a “perfect storm” effect, where a nation-state is going through economical and political problems. At that time, a leader rises up and makes a promise to the citizens of the country to help improve the situation. The people of the nation-state then fall for the fanatics and a part of the population is then accused and eventually is part of the genocidal blueprint that is seen every time. By the time the genocidaires realize what they did is wrong, it is too late.
Looking at genocide attentively, there is acumen realization that the masterminds of them do not take place in the mass killings, but rather are bystanders watching ordinary people do the dirty work with no real protest. Realizing the simplicity behind the committing of genocide, I encourage you in this month of remembrance to learn more about these major atrocities. Knowledge truly is power and through this magnificent instrument, we are able to prevent future killings on massive scales. In the words of the international community, “Never again.”