National Commentary

When the Issue Is Genocide

Following a tour with Elie Wiesel of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Monday, President Obama called the experience “searing,” as it was for him earlier when he visited with Wiesel the concentration camp remains at Buchenwald.

The president’s comments Monday at the Holocaust Museum were delivered with a sombre tone reflecting not only the images that he’d just seen, but the heavy burden of responsibility of someone so empowered in the world to prevent such atrocities as The Holocaust from happening again.

The grim fact is that there seems always to exist the potential for mankind to descend into the moral hell where mass killings, killings based on nothing more than hatred of differences among us, occur.

The “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge have been documented. The killings there, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Darfur, the president said, “Shock our conscience but they are the awful extreme of a spectrum of ignorance and intolerance that we see every day, the bigotry that says another person is less than my equal, less than human. These are the seeds of hate that we cannot let take root in our heart.”

“Never again” is, he said, “a challenge to defend the fundamental right of free people and free nations to exist in peace and security,” adding, “It’s a bitter truth: too often the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. We are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.”

One could almost see more hairs turning gray on the president’s head as he spoke Monday. Pondering the evil of The Holocaust and of mass atrocities all across the globe puts his work on a different plane from the pressures of partisan arguments in an election year or the myriad responsibilities of the job on a daily basis.

Indeed, it places the issues of correcting prejudice and bigotry on a front burner that they may not otherwise seem to justify. In a year in which jobs and the economy are supposed to dominate the national election, the sobering realities the president addressed Monday reminded him, and those who heard him, that preventing and correcting irrational attitudes of hatred at every level has to be a top priority.

Whether it is bullying on a playground, taunting or violence against any minority on our city streets, exhibitions of cruel disrespect against indigenous populations overseas, or the toleration of coded racist language by incendiary radio talk show hosts, the nation, the president, all of us face a daunting challenge.

Obama said Monday that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and core moral responsibility of the United States of America.”

I am heartened by his inclusion of the term “moral responsibility,” and as it applies to our nation, it applies to every one of us, as well, at every level of our society, in every context where irrational hatred flares up.

Who can say at what point in Germany’s long-simmering bigotry against Jewish people that suddenly it could no longer be contained from bursting forth as a national policy of brutal repression and extermination? It was gradual even as the Nazis first came to power.

Where was the resolute refusal to head down that path to hell? “It can be tempting to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to man’s endless capacity for cruelty,” Obama said Monday. “It’s tempting sometimes to believe that there is nothing we can do.” He said that Wiesel told him when touring Buchenwald, “We had the right to give up, to give up on humanity, to give up on culture, to give up on education, to give up on the possibility of living one’s life with dignity in a world that has no place for dignity.”

But, Obama recalled, Wiesel said, “We rejected that possibility, and we said, no, we must continue believing in the future.”

“Thank you for not giving up. You show us the way,” Obama concluded, so “we can speak and strive for a future where there’s a place for dignity for every human being.”