Raisa Ostapenko is a final-year doctoral researcher at Sorbonne University in Paris. Her work is focused on the methods, motivations, and moral psychology of Ukrainian rescuers of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. An enquiry into the “how” and “why” of rescuing in a landscape where helping Jews was punishable by death, this research also provides insight into social responsibility, social trust, and the difficult ethical and logistical choices people make in times of war and mass violence.
November 24, 2023: Civilians bunkering in basements and saferooms; columns of deportees; millions of women, children, and the elderly fleeing their homes in fear of bloodshed, braving the elements with nothing but their pets, a bit of water, and some bread, all for a chance at refuge in the arms of the unknown; roads to safety peppered with incinerated vehicles and bodies charred beyond recognition; the dying embers of identities and memories snuffed out in reeducation camps; the frenzied agony of eyes searching for loved ones amid rows of body bags; the sense of stupor induced by images of varnished nails on lifeless fingers stained by mud and footage of beheadings, castrations, extrajudicial killings, children foaming at the mouth from gas and losing limbs to cluster bombs, naked corpses and blood-soaked hostages being paraded around town, animals and humans drowning in a manmade deluge and other acts of barbarism unleashed in the name of acceptability, respectability, vengeance, war, and terror.
These descriptions recall another era, specifically the first half of the twentieth century, which saw the two World Wars and two of the most unthinkable catastrophes in human history – the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. How incompatible they seem with a world that pledged to safeguard human dignity in the Genocide Convention (1948) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and ushered in a new millennium with a chorus of “Never Again” – “a prayer, a promise, [and] a vow” that there would never again be hatred, or “the suffering of innocent people, or the shooting of starving, frightened, terrified children. And never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence,” to quote the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
And yet these scenes of horror are painfully fresh, each unfolding in the past decade of the twenty-first century – some over recent weeks. A bitter reminder of both human fragility and capacity for cruelty, they evoke a deep sense of sorrow soothed only by a lingering hope that “Never Again” remains more than a pipe dream in a world that has normalized violence. Despite an illusion of respite in the immediate post-Cold War-era, it has become increasingly clear that certain regimes and organizations see rape, torture, and other crimes against civilians as viable strategies to achieve political goals. What is more, most of these crimes go unpunished. As a result, many ordinary people have come to think that these egregious violations of human rights – while lamentable – are ultimately unavoidable and even normal parts of conflict and geopolitics. But this could not be further from the truth. Such tactics are weapons of war and terror.
Sadly, despite our capacity for empathy, so many people limit their sense of responsibility to a “universe of obligation,” defined by the sociologist Helen Fein as a perceived “circle of people with reciprocal obligations to protect each other.” This problem is only compounded by disinformation and tensions so deeply steeped in “identity” – a perception of belonging based on real or imagined differences in culture, politics, class, religion, language, or race. It is for this reason that genocide – an extreme form of identity-based violence – is a deeply emotional phenomenon.
Numbed by moral disengagement, ingroup biases, competition for resources, and polarization, people are increasingly emphasizing particularism over universalism. In doing so, they deny the multiplicity of their own identities, support “in-group” ambitions, and see representatives of “out-groups” – even innocent civilians – as deserving targets of retributive violence. This is how ordinary people come to stand by in the face of mass violence or, worse, partake in it.
As a scholar of genocide specializing in rescue work, I believe that we owe it to both the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the potential of “Never Again” and the future of mankind to reinvigorate our efforts to foster compassion and fight scapegoating, dehumanization, and other precursors of crimes against humanity not just through academic research and engagement with humanitarian organizations, but through the democratization of knowledge on genocide across media types, insightful yet accessible grassroots discussions of key concepts, and social responsibility initiatives focused on education, de-escalation, reconciliation, and pluralism. As the saying goes, we must speak out for others, because if we do not, there will be no one left to speak out for us.