Revulsion and Habituation

Ophelia Benson


The unabashed racism of Donald Trump and the enthusiasm of his fans are reminders of recurring questions about how easy it is for people to allow genocides and other atrocities to happen. How thin is the line? Could a genocide happen here?

If you pull the camera back far enough, the question becomes ridiculous. Of course genocide could happen here, because it already has, and not all that long ago. The nineteenth century was one long festival of genocide of Native Americans, and when Reconstruction failed in the post–Civil War South, slavery was smuggled in through the backdoor in the form of Jim Crow labor laws that bordered on genocidal in their effects.

But we feel that we’ve changed. We’ve put all that behind us, and made things better, and resolved to go on in that same direction. I grew up thinking genocide was in the past, in that distant country Before I Was Born—that we had firmly turned our backs on it, vowing never again. But the reality is that genocide never stopped being an option. There was My Lai, for instance, a local holocaust, and there were other local holocausts in Guatemala, Argentina, the Congo—many places, often with U.S. Central Intelligence Agency involvement. The Khmer Rouge killed millions. Did we really mean it about “never again" or did we not? The Balkans and Rwanda seemed to tell us we did not as long as the genocide in question was happening sufficiently far away.

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