November 12, 2010
Genocides can be prevented
The causes of genocide, from the Holocaust to Rwanda and Darfur, may not be a topic that lends any optimism to a Sunday evening lecture. But in the annual Kristallnacht Commemorative Lecture this week, Dr. Reva Adler incongruously shed some small rays of hope. To the question “Is genocide preventable?” her work suggests a tentative “yes.”
Adler is clinical associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of British Columbia. Her work has focused on older adult survivors of genocide and on violence prevention research. Adler has led a major study, called Addressing the Root Causes of Genocide (ARC-G), the first public health-based initiative designed to identify and transform attitudes that lead to genocidal behavior among civilians, even before incitements by governments lead to mass violence.
“Genocide prevention is rarely discussed as a public health problem,” she said. But, statistically, it is one of the leading causes of death, trauma and ill health. The Rwandan genocide of 1994, she noted, took place in a country with one of the worst AIDS pandemics in Africa. Even so, she said, deaths of Tutsis and moderate Hutus between April and June of that year exceeded the death rate attributable to AIDS by a factor of 120. Indeed, despite all of the other human-created, natural and disease-related deaths in Africa, the Rwandan genocide was that decade’s leading cause of mortality on the continent. An estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were massacred. In all, three million of Rwanda’s eight million people were involved in the genocide, either as direct participants or as supportive bystanders.
“How, you might ask, is that even remotely possible?” Adler asked the packed sanctuary at Beth Israel.
For one thing, Hutus were led to believe that their own lives were in danger from Tutsis. Secondly, once the massacres began, failure to participate or to otherwise support the slaughter could be seen as traitorous and, therefore, carried the risk of being killed.
“I had to join in order to save my life,” one perpetrator told Adler’s team. Three separate interviewees said they each believed they were literally living through the apocalypse as prophesied in the Book of Revelations.
There were other, more materialistic motives, in some cases. Property, livestock and jobs could be freed up for survivors. Reports said Hutus were told they could keep animals belonging to Tutsis, but only if they ensured the Tutsi owners could not return to claim their property.
In interviews with perpetrators of Rwandan and Sudanese mass murders, Adler uncovered horrible tales of fear and acting out. Through manipulation by malevolent leaders, usually by convincing one group that it is at risk of annihilation by another, rational individuals can be moved to inhumanity. Through fear-inducing government propaganda, trusted Tutsi neighbors were instantly recast as traitorous enemies bent on destroying the Hutu people, which conversely led to the mobilization of Hutus in the murder of Tutsis.
The world has often reacted to genocides – after the fact – with bafflement, unable to imagine how such atrocities can occur. Through hands-on mediation and dialogue training among potentially conflicted groups, particularly in Darfur, Adler believes that the potential exists to prevent future genocides before they occur.
“All genocides are preceded by years of planning,” she said. As such, strategies are needed to intervene before it reaches the stage, as it did in Rwanda, where governments begin arming civilians. Preemptive actions can be taken to inculcate humane values in people and counter the forces that can be leveraged to mobilize civilians to mass murder, she said. Through Adler’s research, factors identified as prerequisites to genocide include leadership crises, legacies of persecution, malevolent leaders, destructive and exclusionary ideologies and, of course, recruitment of foot soldiers. If these factors can be identified and confronted, through intervention both by foreign governments and at a grassroots level, educating civilians toward tolerance, it is a step away from the worst potential.
“If governments can’t recruit killers, they can’t commit genocide,” she said.
Among the strategies Adler’s project promotes are comparatively simple conflict resolution techniques that are routinely used in homes and workplaces around the world, but which can be extrapolated into community settings. In places where mass murders have taken place, the group trains community leaders in “psychological first aid” and mediation.
Adler’s life’s work was inspired when she was seven years old and she watched the TV coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial from beginning to end, incredulous at the stories of inhumanity she heard.
“Somehow, even then, I sensed this was important information,” she said. As she learned of Eichmann’s crimes, she asked herself: “How would I know if I met such a person and how would I stop him?”
Introducing Adler, Rena Sharon, a UBC music professor and friend, called Adler “a person of heroic stature [and] genuine humility,” who is one of “the humble heroes in our midst.”
“She has rescued many lives and she has restored many spirits,” said Sharon.
Before the lecture, the annual tradition of lighting six candles took place, with six Holocaust survivors – Sophia Cymbalista, Jack Fraeme, Margaret Fraeme, Chaim Kornfeld, Leslie Spiro and Frieda Wertman – escorted by six UBC Hillel students – Lauren Balter, Alyssa Birbrager, Jessica Jacoby, Arielle Mayer, Talia Salzman and Yasmin Sultani. Katy Hughes led the candlelighting.
Beth Israel Cantor Michael Zoosman chanted El Maleh Rachamim for victims of the Holocaust and genocides and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson read a proclamation from the city, after invoking the tragedies that befell North American indigenous peoples and his own Gaelic ancestors, who in 1745 were subject to, what he called, “clearances.”
“We have a responsibility to come together against the forces of hatred, wherever they may be,” said Robertson.
The annual lecture commemorates the Night of Broken Glass, Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, during which hundreds of synagogues were burned, thousands of Jewish-owned businesses destroyed, nearly 100 Jews were killed and more than 30,000 arrested and placed in concentration camps. It is considered by many to be the beginning of the Final Solution. The lecture is a joint program of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and Congregation Beth Israel.
Pat Johnson is, among other thing, director of programs at Hillel in British Columbia.