For many, if not most Americans, the atrocities taking place on a daily basis in Syria are little more than an abstraction. Yes, the government’s slaughter of fellow Syrians has been condemned by the White House, the media and human-rights organizations, but the voice of the American people has not been raised in defense of human rights in that beleaguered nation.
That is more than unfortunate. It is tragic.
The United States, after all, has long been an advocate for universal human rights that transcend borders and ideologies. Samantha Power, who runs the National Security Council’s Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, affirmed American principles in her landmark polemic, “The Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” We are a nation committed to democratic principles based on human dignity.
Ever since the establishment in 1978 of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, every U.S. president has affirmed the nation’s commitment to preventing the recurrence of genocide. President Obama declared in April that "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States".
The question is whether the American people believe that it is in their interest to prevent “mass atrocities and genocide.” The silence about Syria suggests that we are not convinced.
That is troubling, especially because public schools throughout the nation are supposed to be raising awareness about genocide and other violations of inalienable human rights.
According to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, an intergovernmental body with 31 member countries, teachers in 48 states and the District of Columbia are required by acts of state legislatures to address social studies standards that include study of the Holocaust.
But I am learning from my students who teach in New Jersey’s school districts that there is little enforcement of those mandates. New Jersey was among the first states to mandate the teaching of the Holocaust, and stands out for creating extensive and detailed curricula and guides for teaching the Holocaust. I had a hand in developing these resources. But there is no practical point to these efforts and good intentions if students receive little exposure to the subject. It is about time to investigate these anecdotal reports and to rethink pedagogical strategies that could inspire inquiry and, indeed, action.
There is no dearth of moral resolution in our national conversation and idealism among young people has not disappeared. Recall the response in February to the YouTube film “Invisible Children,” which documented warlord Joseph Kony’s crimes against human rights in Africa. Sadly, though, that sense of outrage dissipated and Kony remains at large.
Geoffrey Canada — the head of Harlem Children’s Zone, whose purpose is to champion “truth, fairness, liberty and equality” — presented a moving commencement speech in May at the University of Pennsylvania.
Describing his “battle with the forces of darkness,” he imagined years from now seeing a surprisingly sympathetic army of young warriors ready to help him in his hour of desperation. “Who are you?” he imagined asking these young people. “Where did you come from?” And, in his imagined future, they would reply: “Don’t you remember us? We are from Penn, Class of 2012.”
I am not as convinced as Canada is that the forces of righteousness will prevail. Our leaders can condemn genocide and other atrocities with fine-sounding words, but the results will still be meager. The people need to speak out as well.
If there is little popular will, not even President Obama’s recent creation of an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board offers much promise. This body, chaired by Power and formed in April to coordinate the government’s response to killings, genocide and ethnic cleansing, has been slow to respond to the killing of civilians and to other acts of state violence in Syria.
Voices must be raised, otherwise more innocent Syrians will die. Years from now, we should be able to say to them, and to all victims of genocide, “Don’t you remember us?”