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I recently stopped in at a Cambodian restaurant that I have been going to for many years. Although eating the food for which a particular group is known is perhaps the most superficial of ways to communicate with people, I found myself involved in small talk with the people who staffed the restaurant on this particular winter day in Providence, Rhode Island. The young men and women who staffed the business were indistinguishable from those of their peer group. They were about my children’s ages. They spoke of their families, the holiday, and their dislike for the annoying reality program that played on the television meant to “entertain” those waiting for take-out orders.
When our conversations ended, I thought of the events of long ago that propelled me to become a war resister. The incursions of Richard Nixon into Cambodia in April 1970, purportedly to stop the flow of troops and armaments traveling down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, unleashed consequences that even Nixon could not have foreseen, but needed to avoid. National Security Archive transcripts just released relate interchanges between Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Regarding the dropping of millions of pounds of bombs on Cambodia by the U.S., Nixon responds to Kissinger: “That shock treatment [is] cracking them. I tell you the thing to do is pour it in there every place we can…just bomb the hell out of them.”
Mass demonstrations broke out spontaneously on campuses across the U.S., students were killed at both Kent and Jackson State Universities, and I decided that I had had enough and became a resister to the war. The attacks inside Cambodia weakened the government of that country and hastened the murderous regime of Pol Pot that resulted in the massacre and torture of over two million people. The governments of the world, knowing the lessons of Hitler’s Holocaust, did little or nothing to stop the carnage!
In the early 1990s I asked one of the owners of the same restaurant about a jar placed next to the cash register in the establishment that bore a label about an agency working to support relief efforts in Cambodia. The owner spoke about her family members who had been killed during the Cambodian genocide.
What is the record of superpowers and world governmental organizations coming to the aid and stopping holocausts in the contemporary era? Holocausts and genocide are not to be confused with “traditional” warfare that kills millions, but rather according to the United Nations (1948):
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including: (a) killing a member of the group (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group (c) deliberately inflicting on the group on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Few are ever brought to justice for carrying out genocide. The history of modern holocausts, contemporary with, and just prior to, the Nazi Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews include:
Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1992-1995- 200,000 deaths; Rwanda: 1994- 800,000 deaths; Pol Pot in Cambodia: 1975-1979- 2 million deaths: Rape of Nanking: 1937-1938- 300,000 deaths; Stalin’s Forced Famine: 1932-1933- 7 million deaths; Armenians in Turkey: 1915-1918- 1.5 million deaths (The History Place, 2000).
Added to the above are the more than 400,000 deaths in Darfur cited by the Coalition for International Justice, a nongovernmental agency working for the U.S. Agency for International Development (The Washington Post, “Darfur’s Real Death Toll,” April 24, 2005). Even in the present, the fact of a holocaust seems to draw attention for a short period of time and then fades from consciousness, both personal and official. The conclusion is that humanity hasn’t become any more advanced or humane in the 21st century in dealing with international crises and wars since the barbarian hordes of the ancient world!
For many years I worked with a woman in public schools who was instrumental in finding housing in Rhode Island for refugees as they entered the U.S. from Cambodia and resettlement camps outside of Cambodia. Her work made a lot of sense to me. It seemed more practical than my resistance to the Vietnam War had been, but people do what they can given their immediate circumstances. That the world, governments, international organizations, and international laws have become little better at preventing mass murder against a particular group is of grave concern to those who value peace.
HOWARD LISNOFF teaches writing and is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.