The ABCs Of Genocide Prevention

Co-authored by Professor Susan Bitensky, Michigan State University College of Law

Some days it feels like humankind is not much more than one step above primordial ooze.  Are we really so brutal a species that genocide must be a recurring impulse? 

When did “Never Again,” the collective resolve after the Holocaust, become ever again and again?

The mortifying fact is that, since that spectacular bloodletting, we have not been able to end this distemper of our times; genocide’s grisly and savage agenda continues, be it in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda or Bosnia.

Genocide results from multifaceted, complex causes.  These include ethnic and religious conflict, political and socioeconomic inequities, and childhood victimization by inuring violence. 

What is more, the actual causes and the extent of any one cause’s role vary with each genocide.  Such a perfect storm of unruly forces thus raises the question of how one is to go about trying to stop recurrences. 

As it happens, seven state legislatures have provided an answer of great promise.  The seven have each enacted a statute which requires that public schools in all or some grades, must teach students about genocide. 

New York, New Jersey, Florida, Illinois and California enacted such statutes during the 1980s-1990s.  Pennsylvania’s was passed in 2014 and Michigan’s became law in June 2016. 

As of this writing, a Rhode Island bill of the same import is awaiting the governor’s signature.  Nascent efforts are reportedly underway as well in eleven other states to legislate the requirement. 

Our increasing understanding of child development and the power of education, suggests that the best defense against genocide may be found inside the schoolhouse gates. 

The legislators of the seven vanguard states have shown bold leadership based on this insight and its compelling ethical implications.  Indeed, is there not a moral obligation to instill in our children, via age-appropriate curriculum, abhorrence of genocide and knowledge about its warning signals and precursors? 

Then, with the sensitization and information imparted by genocide-education, when children grow up, they should be in a much better position to forestall genocide—perhaps forever.

In the remaining 43 states, there are undoubtedly teachers and schools electing to cover the topic.  While they are to be applauded, it is still the case that whether children in those jurisdictions get genocide-education is a hit or miss matter. 

We don’t make instruction in as fundamental a subject as literacy hit or miss.  We wouldn’t think of it.  Yet, genocide-education is, if you will, the literacy of a civilized social order. 

 It could be our generation’s most important legacy to our children and the human endeavor.”