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Professor: Moral bystanders required

Katlyn Smith | Friday, November 9, 2007

Atrocities like the Holocaust cannot be reduced to perpetrators and victims, genocide scholar Ernesto Verdeja said at Saint Mary’s Thursday.

Moral bystanders play a large role in the “most heinous crimes of human history,” said Verdeja, a government professor at Wesleyan University. “Through their inaction, these bystanders facilitated the crimes, although they did not have dirt on their hands.”

Verdeja spoke at an event hosted by Saint Mary’s Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership to commemorate the 69th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.”

Although bystanders are not legally responsible, they have the obligation to recognize suffering and plights as human beings, Verdeja said. This indifference and inaction occurs when one “decides to close one’s eyes to what’s going on in the world.”

In terms of the Holocaust, the extermination of six million people resulted from a relatively small number of legal perpetrators compared to the extensive group of moral bystanders who failed to recognize the humanity of the victims and who facilitated genocide, he said.

Verdeja said the atrocity in Darfur mirrors 20th-century genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and the Congo. The professor encouraged possible solutions through pressure on congressmen, active participation in organizations working to stop genocide and divesting from economic institutions that do business with Sudanese government.

In addition to the power of the purse, “it is imperative to educate ourselves so we don’t end up in situations where we dehumanize others,” Verdeja said.

Verdeja also addressed the United Nations’ past responses to genocide.

Often, national interests of Security Council members prevent coherent efforts and intervention. China’s massive economic boom calls for a cheap energy source. As a result, its investment in Darfur’s oil economy and other African countries facilitates these violent militias, he said.

China has vetoed and prevented the passage of UN action targeting the ethnic cleansing in the sub-Saharan country.

Genocide is defined as the “intent to destroy racial, ethnic, religious or national groups.” Consequently, past atrocities have not been deemed genocides, he said.

Looking to the future, Verdeja said the U.S. government is not likely to intensify action against the Khartoum government.

“We have lost our credibility and leverage in places such as Darfur,” he said. Taking action “would be seen as imperial pressure against a Muslim country.”

If the situation in Iraq became genocide, Verdeja questioned whether the U.S. would maintain a troop presence.

Verdeja is currently authoring a book.

Saint Mary’s history professor David Stefancic began the evening with the history behind Kristallnacht.

Stefancic said the shock of World War I triggered a search for a scapegoat and the necessity to define a German identity. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was seen as a prophetic solution, calling for the removal of “subhumans,” he said. The Nazi propaganda campaign found its cause when a Jewish student living in Paris learned of his parent’s deportation from Germany, marched into a German embassy and shot a secretary.

Soon afterward, the “Night of Broken Glass” began “organized, spontaneous riots” with the rampant destruction of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues, Stefancic said.

The discussion followed a screening of the Holocaust film, “Life Is Beautiful.” It took place in Carroll Auditorium.