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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2004
Number 61
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Reflections by the Author: Herbert Hirsch

Anti-Genocide: Building an American Movement to Prevent Genocide by Herbert Hirsch
Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers

The subject of genocide came flooding back to human consciousness at the conclusion of the last century as repeated examples of mass slaughter assaulted humanity. There is, in fact, little doubt that the 20th century was perhaps the most consistently violent century in human existence, at least in terms of the number of victims. Estimates of the toll in human life are astounding, Brzezinski speculates that war alone claimed 87 million lives and that all told 167 to 175 million lives were lost to what he calls politically motivated carnage. According to his calculations, this is the approximate equivalent of the total population of France, Italy and Great Britian; or more than two-thirds the total current population of the United States. This is more than the total killed in all previous wars, civil conflicts and religious persecutions throughout human history. Clearly, as we observed the close of the last century, we could not avoid the pessimistic conclusion that genocide, war and racial as well as ethnic conflict appeared to be increasingly common occurrences.

Pondering this tangibility of mass death, I used to think that appropriate action could stop the slaughter. I wrote, in fact, at the conclusion of my previous book, Genocide and the Politics of Memory (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), that genocide could be prevented if specific long- and short-term steps were taken. I argued that in the short term it was most important to end the violence to create the conditions under which steps might be taken to bring about reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. To accomplish this I said that three interrelated steps are necessary: (1) develop a policy to bring together the international laws of war and the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; (2) develop an “Eary Warning System” and instruments of humanitarian intervention to recognize and curtail future genocides and political massacres; and (3) formulate mechanisms to capture and punish instigators of genocide and political massacres demonstrating to the world that violence is not an acceptable means to achieve political ends.

In the long term, I continued, if human life is to be preserved, world views must change from chauvinistic nationalism to cooperative internationalism. Throughout history, with increasing ferocity and deadliness in the 20th century, genocide has been perpetuated by the modern nation state that has made few, if any, moves to prevent or punish that crime. Since nationalism is the psychological foundation on which international perceptions are currently constructed, it must be modified by instituting a process of political re-socialization from one which emphasizes nationalism to one which emphasizes internationalism. The mechanism to inculcate this new perspective will be changing the orientation of political education so that it emphasizes international human rights and what I called “covenanted internationalism.”

My new book, Anti-Genocide: Building an American Movement to Prevent Genocide, re-examines those arguments and adds an additional dimension. Here I argue that if we are ever to successfully confront and prevent, or at least control, the most egregious aspects of genocidal violence, it will be necessary to create some mechanisms, some political institutions, to contain violence in the short run and to change, or try to change, human behavior in the long run. This book examines these complex realities and proposes how a politics of prevention could be built. The particular focus is on the United States, where a political movement needs to be built to support the politics of prevention in the international realm. These are the short-term politics of prevention. The second part of the equation is to try to control genocidal behavior in the long run. To accomplish this it will be necessary to begin to change the way humans view each other by creating a new ethic of life-enhancing behavior based on the ideology of univeral human rights and pass this on from generation to generation via the process of reeducating human beings to move away from hatred and violence as solutions to their problems.

The book begins with an examination of how political movements are structured by examining the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s. From there it proceeds to look at what the American public thinks about genocide and then looks at American political institutions and their responses to genocide. The focus here is to see if pressure could be put on American political leaders to get them to participate in international political processes to prevent genocide.

The next section, in fact, looks at the failure of American foreign policy in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor, then critiques the politics followed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Following that examination, the last section formulates a policy that could be created to try to prevent the repetition of genocide in the modern world.

In this sense, this is a unique book since there have been books written that explain why different genocides have occurred but few that propose how to structure a political movement to prevent genocide from continuing to plague humanity in the future.

Herbert Hirsch is Professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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