As the images of mass graves and murdered civilians in Ukraine flash across our screen, we think of those who commit genocide as pure evil.
But a man who has dedicated his life to fighting the bigotry that causes genocide and has discovered more than 3,100 execution sites and interviewed more than 7,400 victims around the world knows better.
“A human being has the capacity to heal people, to save people, but also the capacity to do the worst crimes,” Father Patrick Desbois said. “The first thing to accept is that genocide is inside humanity.”
Desbois, an author and founder of Yahad-In Unum (Together In One), a non-profit organization dedicated to discovering genocidal practices, spoke Monday night inside the Arizona Ballroom of the Memorial Union as part of Genocide Awareness Week, put on by Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.
Desbois, who has received several awards for his work documenting the Holocaust, including the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor, said the perpetrators of genocide often are ordinary people who become embroiled in extraordinary situations.
He cited the case of Sabrina Harmon, a former U.S. Army reservist who was convicted of war crimes for her involvement in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Baghdad during the Iraq war.
“I always say to my students (at Georgetown University) that I’m sure she was a normal girl,” Desbois said. “I’m sure she was not a monster. Genocide is not in a hell place away from everything. It’s not true.”
Genocide often is the result, Desbois said, of propaganda feeding brainwashed minds. It was that way in Nazi Germany, in Angola in the 1970s, in Sudan and in Ukraine, where Russian president Vladimir Putin justified his country’s invasion with the propaganda that Ukraine is “openly pro-Nazi.”
“Hitler never missed people to do the job,” Desbois said. “There is no country where Hitler said, ‘Oh, nobody wants to do the job for killings. He found people to do everything, to dig the mass graves, to fill the mass graves, and even if Jews are not dead, they are buried alive, to take the belongings and sell them by auction, etc. etc.
“Because when you brainwash people, when you make propaganda to designate a target, you wake up the criminals. And you find clients for everything … Why are young soldiers coming from Russa doing awful things in public, under cameras from CNN? Why can Putin deny it every day?
“Propaganda is still strong. Propaganda has a capacity to whitewash the brain. And when people are brainwashed, any violence is possible … Everybody can be a victim. Everybody can be a killer. It depends where you are.”
Desbois said propaganda – and the resulting Neo-Nazi movement — is in part responsible for the rise in anti-Semitism around the world, including the United States. According to FBI statistics in 2020, Jews living in America are the target of 58% of all religiously motivated hate crimes.
Desbois said that when he posts something about the Holocaust on his Facebook page, “there’s always somebody who denies it, for any reason.”
“I will never forget the first time I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I took a cab from the airport and had an Arab driver. I gave the address, and he brought me to the museum. After I went to pay, he told me, ‘You go to a place which shows the genocide that never existed.’”
That attitude, Desbois said, is why it’s important to teach high school and college students about the Holocaust. Already, he said, the Holocaust is not taught in schools in Mexico, Asia, China, India, Russia, most African countries and most Arab countries.
“I see year after year students (at Georgetown) know nothing about the Holocaust,” Desbois said. And the young generation, they will have very few chances to meet a (Holocaust) survivor. They will meet people who say, ‘Ha, it never existed. It’s a Jewish trick to make money to build Israel.’
"So, it’s a strong responsibility to teach, to train a generation of leaders and to do it so that they have the capacity to resist the huge movement of hate.”
"Holocaust by Bullets,” a program and exhibit by Yahad-In Unum, can be seen in the Hayden Library through April 17. Members of the ASU community can access the free exhibit any time during library hours. Non-ASU community members can access the exhibit during docent-led tours from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays.
Top photo: Closeup of a Holocaust memorial.
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