What could be more horrific than war?
In a gripping new documentary that aired Tuesday night on PBS to mark National Holocaust Remembrance Week, historian and author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen makes a convincing case that genocide — the systematic effort to eliminate an entire group perceived of as deserving of death — is even more destructive than armed conflict, and yet often can be prevented.
The 90-minute film, “Worse Than War,” based on Goldhagen’s book of the same title, has him narrating the story of his visits to places like Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Germany and Guatemala, talking not only to survivors of genocide but perpetrators as well.
It is a grim but compelling film, which can be seen on the PBS Web site (see note below), and it features several poignant moments when Goldhagen and his father, a Holocaust survivor who years later taught at Harvard about those horrors, visit the unmarked graves of family members killed by the Nazis. As the two men embrace, we see them not as impartial academics but as father and son, grieving together.
Perhaps most chilling is to hear an articulate, all-too-likeable young Rwandan explain in matter-of-fact tones how he would hack a former friend to pieces with a machete because he was from a different tribe.
He described the feeling as being “in a fog” of cruelty.
The viewer of the film has the feeling of being in a fog of hopelessness about the human condition, where modernity has only made us more efficient in killing those deemed somehow subhuman.
The film, exploring why genocide happens and how it can be thwarted, was presented at a private screening at the Museum of Modern Art one night last week for several hundred people, sponsored by Karen and Bill Ackman (Pershing Square Capital Management) and Cheryl and David Einhorn (Einhorn Family Charitable Trust), who were the chief underwriters for the documentary, which received initial funding from JTN (Jewish Television Network).
Ackman noted that Goldhagen was his senior thesis adviser at Harvard, and the two have stayed in touch over the years.
After the screening, Goldhagen said his intention was for audiences “to see the world differently” after viewing “Worse Than War.”
“I want to change the consciousness of people,” he said, making them realize that genocide is “not an out-of-world phenomenon” but an all too familiar and highly preventable, modern form of politics that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100 million people in the 20th century.
It takes place, he said, when political leaders set out planfully to eliminate an entire group of people, deemed evil, and convince others that doing so is necessary and even exemplary.
In the film, and in a post-screening conversation with PBS television host Charlie Rose, Goldhagen said he wants to shift the genocide discussion from intervention to prevention, asserting that the latter is less complicated, less expensive and more effective. And while not every attempt at genocide can be thwarted, he said, many attempts could be stopped, particularly among dictators of weak countries.
All it takes, he said, is for even one country to take action, though he called for a consortium of Western countries to pledge to act boldly to prevent future attempts at genocide.
Goldhagen expressed contempt for the United Nations for not only doing nothing to relieve or prevent the suffering involved in genocide, but in offering its member nations “an alibi for not doing anything.” And he criticized former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for being less than forthright when she explained, in the film, that the U.S. did not respond more rapidly to the killings in Rwanda in 1994 because it lacked sufficient information.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the phrase “never again” — first popularized by Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League and later repeated in the mainstream Jewish community, albeit with less militant fury — has become a mantra for those who insist the world must learn from the past so as not to repeat its most inhuman mistakes.
But the Rwanda genocide is one more example of the sad truth that “never again” is still a hollow declaration. Even in an age of instant, global news, when we can no longer employ the excuse that “we didn’t know,” the killings go on. And we look away or claim helplessness. (Darfur is today’s Exhibit A.)
Goldhagen’s most powerful message is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if the U.S. disavows the role of policeman of the world, and deems it unrealistic to intervene on every occasion, he said, it could still step in and act on some occasions, as can any other country. And some action is better than none.
“The single most radical thing is the status quo,” Goldhagen asserted, explaining that when no one attempts to counter an act of genocide, millions of innocents die “and that’s the worst catastrophe there can be.”
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