I was eleven when I first read Number the Stars, my first introduction to the 20th-century atrocity known as the Holocaust. I was fourteen when Schindler’s List won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I was sixteen when I watched it for the first time, finally receiving permission from my parents to watch it with my AP US history class. I was nineteen when my World Civilization professor preached about the importance of studying the Holocaust. It seemed only natural that when I was a 20-year-old college junior, I would take time out of my whirlwind European continent backpacking trip to visit the very first Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany.
Only it wasn’t natural. Nothing about an extensive education in genocide is natural, because to study genocide is to study the very worst part of human nature. It is to study not just prejudice, but a loathing hatred that is so intense one wishes the worst kind of death on an enemy—an enemy with the misfortune of being too different in the eyes of the perpetrator.
The visit to Dachau was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. It was a beautiful, clear September day. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it certainly felt like 60-year-old ghosts followed my two classmate traveling companions and me, every step we took in the bright sunshine. The grounds of the concentration camp, within the city limits of a beautiful little German city, memorialized victims and convicted their captors and murderers. I walked in believing I knew everything I needed to know about the Holocaust. I walked out knowing that I needed to spend the rest of my career educating my future students about, not just the Holocaust, but all incidents of mass human destruction around the world. An idealistic 20-year-old, I believed that I could change the future just by making sure my students knew about the past.
In the nearly 20 years since I visited Dachau, the world has been plagued with news about Darfur, Syria, Somalia, Myanmar, and far too many other places around the world where people are being tortured and killed because they don’t fit the ideal set in place by the people in charge. I clearly remember hearing about Bosnia when I was in high school. Elie Wiesel gave speeches, the news made comparisons to the Holocaust, the US sent troops to help, the sad decline of Bosnia and Yugoslavia was discussed in winter Olympics coverage. But I knew nothing about the genocide taking place in Rwanda during the same period of time. I didn’t learn about the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis until I was in my early 20s and watching Hotel Rwanda. Clearly, I didn’t know my world as well as I thought I did.
I hear some say that we should worry about the problems in our own borders. We have orphans and children who are starving. We have homelessness. We have drug problems and violence on our streets. If we can’t take care of our own, how can we take care of those in other countries?
But this valid concern ignores the fact that the world is no longer a collection of insulated countries unaffected by what happens on the other side of the globe. Victims fleeing genocide will go anywhere they can to escape violence and death. When you are being chased by a hungry lion, you don’t care what door or wall you have to knock down to find refuge. And how a community responds to those victims affects everyone in the community for years to come. Community response can either make all members of a community stronger, or tear it apart and make it more dangerous than it was before.
It is natural to fear for our own lives and the lives of those closest to us. 9/11 changed the national and international landscape, bringing monsters to the doorsteps of geographic locations we had always believed to be safe. Suddenly Western concert halls, museums, and open markets hold the potential for unexpected violence. But those of us who have had our comfortable existence rattled forget that the innocent victims we blame for our unease are escaping certain death, not just an immeasurable probability of danger.
In a 24-hour news world with global social media outlets spreading information about oppression in real time, we Americans face a difficult decision. Are we going to turn a blind eye and ear to the oppression of others, praying that we will never need similar assistance, or do we respond to the open appeal to our humanity by opening our arms to those suffering human rights abuses that we wouldn’t wish upon our worst enemy?
The answer isn’t simple. It rarely is. But if we want to see a better future, we need to remember lessons of the past. The times we, individually or as a country, could have made a difference, no matter how small, and the consequences of not doing so.
And then we need to repent of our sins of omission and do better.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on human rights from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.