I believe that the only solution to genocide is war: “armed intervention”, to be precise. As Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up.” Take any major genocide of the past century, starting with the Armenians, continuing through the Holocaust to Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. Like any disease, they had their separate causes and presenting symptoms. But they were all cured the same way: with guns and bombs.
Genocides are so hard to stop, in part, because we’re so ignorant of what they are and how they start. They aren’t spontaneous—they’re government-planned and executed. They’re not random: they’re often clinical and precise in their design. And they’re not cultural road rage—outbursts of hatred that will burn themselves out on their own. Genocides must be stopped or they’ll burn until all their human fuel is gone.
Every year I task my students with examining one of the major genocides of the 20th century and determining how they, as a world leader of that time, would have addressed it. To a student they advocate armed intervention. Even the pacifists and cynics conclude that we—and by “we” they mean the United States—should have militarily intervened to stop the slaughter. Whether it is the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians during World War I, when the US was but a teenager, or the genocidal regime of Pol Pot, with the US still hung over from Vietnam, the answer is always the same: send in the troops.
But then comes the second assignment, this time examining the genocides in Sudan and Chechnya today. And in most cases my students keep their powder dry. In the case of Chechnya, they talk about state sovereignty in terms that would have made the appeasers of the 1930s proud. And for Sudan they adopt the same tired tribal and ethnic arguments that didn’t hold water in Bosnia or Rwanda.
These students aren’t hypocrites—they’re just reminders that history is clean and current events are messy. That political math tells us there are many reasons to stay out of today’s genocides and only one reason to intervene: that it’s the right thing to do.
I believe that genocide can be stopped, but only if we change our way of thinking and our system of response. We need to see genocide as a disease, one that can be diagnosed and treated in its earliest stages, before it becomes full-blown. We need a standing UN body whose sole purpose is to recognize these warning symptoms and we need a standing UN troop force that can be sent in before the disease becomes critical.
We need to change our fatalistic approach to genocide, to see tables on college campuses with signs that say “US INTO SUDAN” next to the ones that say “US OUT OF IRAQ”. We need to intervene because it’s the right thing to do, politically and ethically. Or else
we’ll be left to tell future generations once again that ‘we didn’t know’, when in fact we knew but didn’t care.
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