Luckily for most of us the term “genocide” is not a term that we would consider to be personal. Other than the history lessons that briefly covered the Holocaust; most of us have little experience with the term. The term more than likely evokes emotions such as sadness, sympathy, disbelief, anger etc.; however, those emotions probably fade in and out quickly. We’ve never been severely persecuted or had to witness the persecution of others, so we are quick to sympathize for those mistreated and quick to judge those who mistreat. It is easy for us who have never been in such a tragic situation to label those who commit genocide as evil outcasts.
We like the idea, and it is easier to accept, that human nature is instinctively good; that we are good, and that only the “bad apples” could ever commit a crime so terrible. Yet what about those who have witnessed persecution? Everyday citizens just like you and I. Those that never committed a crime, but stood by silently as others did. Is there a distinction between those who actually kill, and those who idly stand by and let it happen? We place ourselves on a pedestal, and bring to light the clear differences between “us” and “them.” We believe that we could never sit by and let our neighbors, colleagues, and friends be brutally mistreated. But how can we be sure? How can we be sure human nature isn’t instinctively bad and that we must make a conscious effort to choose what is right? Would doing the right thing be as important if placed in a life or death situation?
The truth is that we are more similar to those who have been a part of genocide than we would ever want to comfortably admit. The Milgram and Zimbardo experiments concluded that positions of authority, as well as a group’s determined state of normalcy have unbelievable power over the decisions people make. In the Milgram experiment, subjects a lot like you and I would put a man’s life at risk simply because an authority figure told them to. The Zimbardo experiment was cut short because of the brutality that occurred from simple role-play. The participants of these studies had moral standards. They were not evil nor outcasts yet they failed to make the right decisions.
We can never truly know how we will react in a situation until we are placed in that situation. However, we can decrease our chances of indifference. It starts by first being educated on issues both of the past and the present so that we can learn from past mistakes and be sure not to repeat them. Secondly, we should not exaggerate the differences between those who take part in genocide and ourselves, but instead understand our similarities. If we can be humble and accept the fact that we too are susceptible to doing wrong to others, then we are more likely to understand what it takes to make a difference.