Karuna Nandkumar

Pd. 2
How Innocent Are the Bystanders?
In the gift shop of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., there is a rack of pins
inscribed with the slogans “Remember” and “Never Again.” The words “never again” carry a
certain promise that the United States will do everything in its power to prevent such an
occurrence in the future. Then, in 1975, “never again” happened again. And again. And again.
While genocides were taking place in Cambodia, Guatemala, Bosnia, and Rwanda, The United
States managed to spend an incredible amount of time avoiding the word “genocide”, and
redefining what they meant by “never again.” In his journalistic expose on the Rwandan
genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip
Gourevitch makes the argument that vilifying evil is not equivalent to doing good. In reality, it is
far from it, and criminalizing an act or situation is definitely not enough from any person or
entity in a position to provide assistance. Condemning horrific acts without acting on that
condemnation does not exempt the powerful countries that chose to ignore massacres while they
were occurring from guilt, and “...the problem remains that denouncing evil is a far cry from
doing good” (Gourevitch, 170).
On December 9th, 1948, the United Nations adopted a resolution on genocide prevention
stating that all contracted parties were required to prevent and punish the recently defined crime
of genocide: “‘...acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national,
ethnical, racial or religious group’” (Gourevitch, 149). In 1994, genocide in Rwanda resulted in
the death of over 800,000 people who belonged to the Tutsi minority. The United Nations forces
stood by inside Rwanda and watched the massacres take place, claiming that they were not
authorized to use force and squabbling over minute details of bills while thousands died. The

killings were reported and pleas were sent for help, but no help came. The United States
“actually forbade unqualified use of the g-word” (Gourevitch, 152), and a State Department
spokeswoman explained that there were certain obligations connected to the use of the term.
Meaning, the United States didn’t want to be required to act; and by the time we were finally
pressured into defining the events accurately, we found a way to get around our former
obligation to provide help in a genocide. The new, moral order that we swore to uphold in 1948
was broken once again, reiterating the reality that the signers of the Genocide Convention
“...knew perfectly well that they had not fought World War Two to stop the Holocaust but
rather...to contain fascist aggression” (Gourevitch, 149). The number of innocent Tutsi lives that
could have been saved with even a minute deployment of U.N. forces with the ability to act will
never be known. In the words of the leader of the Rwandan army that finally arose to combat the
genocide, General Kagame, the rest of the world “‘...stood around with its hands in its pockets’”
(Gourevitch, 163).
The broken commitments did not begin with the Rwandan genocide, however; Western
inaction has been a common pattern ever since the promise to act was signed. In the second
world war itself, the Western policies of containment and isolationism created an environment in
which the Holocaust flourished. The United States even made it difficult for refugees to enter the
country, perpetuating the loss of life while piously condemning the horror of it all (Obstacles).
Then, four years later, we swore to change that pattern of deadly apathy in the future. So one
would expect that when the Khmer Rouge began systematically slaughtering all intellectuals and
minority groups in Cambodia, the UN would intervene as quickly as possible. Instead, however,
nothing happened. It didn’t qualify as a genocide at the time because instead of being against one
specific group, many different groups were being murdered; so, obviously, intervention was not

required (Genocides). The events were finally addressed only thirty years later, when the United
Nations agreed to help bring the leaders to justice (Cambodian). Then, in 1982, hundreds of
thousands of Mayans were slaughtered by the Guatemalan government, while the United States
turned a blind eye and actually continued to supply the genocidaires with weapons and training
under the Reagan administration (Genocides). When the attacks against Muslims in Bosnia
began in 1995, the only action we took was, again, after the fact. During what is now known as
the worst act of genocide since the Holocaust, the international community didn’t do much to
stop the organized atrocities committed against the Croats and Muslim Bosniaks while they were
No matter the size of the genocide, Western response has been inexcusable. We see these
lives as trivial, the tragedies of third-world countries are simply tribal squabbles and savagery
that is not worth our time and effort. And there’s no danger to us, the civilized, organized world.
So instead of doing everything in our ability to prevent mass losses of innocent life, we mourn in
the papers after the gruesome events are in the past. Like a negligent parent, we see ourselves as
the role model for these newborn countries, but then turn away when they begin to throw a
temper tantrum. The most popular opinion seems to be that it would be pleasant “...if the natives
out there settled down, but if they’re just fighting for the hell of it, it’s not my problem. But it is
our problem” (Gourevitch, 182).
There could have been so much less death. The sense of detachment, however, makes it
easy to exclaim “Oh, that’s so awful!” when we hear the statistics - but in our minds, that’s all
the genocides are. Statistics, not people. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “ I have almost
reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward
freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate

who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence
of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice...” (King, 3). If the white moderate
in the 1960s was the greatest obstacle to the achievement of black equality, then the United
States and Europe are the white moderate of the world. We have the power to act, to change
something for the better; but we choose to sit back and watch until the mess has calmed down,
and then we can swoop in with our trials and humanitarian aid to smooth it all over. Until it
literally marches in front of our faces, as King did, as the Black Lives Matter movement does
now, we have the privilege of pretending that everything is perfect. Life goes on, for us.
Elsewhere, in 1975, 82’, 94’, and 95’, thousands of lives did the opposite. That, however was
preventable; it was possible for us to prevent those lives from ending, at least some; and
denouncing the bloody murder of thousands is not enough. Our sympathetic, apathetic approach
is just as censurable as the killings themselves. Unintentionally, and sometimes, as was the case
with Guatemala, intentionally, we became complicit in the slaughter.
The girl in the hallway who watches the bullying occur is as guilty as the bully. A popular
saying, but without much effect. A homeless man was left dead on the streets of New York for
days before anyone noticed; they all thought he was sleeping. We have become numb to the
events that don’t directly involve us, and maybe this detachment is simply a part of human
nature. Icarus falls into the sea while the people go about their daily routine, thousands are
murdered in Rwanda while we brush our teeth, or turn on the TV. We know this, however; and
certainly then, one of these chances - there have been many - we should have been able to act.
Over and over again, “...false promises of international protection were followed by the swift
abandonment of hundreds of thousand of civilians in the face of extreme violence” (Gourevitch,
325). Because we had the ability to prevent some of these losses of life, empty statements about

how this can never happen again don’t forgive the crime of inaction. King said, “Shallow
understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from
people of ill will,” (King, 3), and in the context of a genocide, frustrating becomes deadly.

Works Cited
Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our
Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998. Print.
"Obstacles to Immigration." United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States
Holocaust Memorial Council, 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.
"Genocides." Peace Pledge Union. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.
"Cambodian Genocide Program." Yale.edu. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter From Birmingham Jail." Letter. Aug. 1963.