We had the lucky opportunity to sit down with one of the experts for the challenge, Mike Abramowitz, Director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. We asked him for his insight into the importance of this issue and areas that the community could consider exploring during the inspiration phase.
Hi Mike, can you tell us what got you interested in your line of work?
It is hard to pinpoint one reason. My background is in journalism, I worked for close to 25 years as a reporter and editor at the Washington Post, mainly covering politics. One of my introductions to the issue in recent years was covering the US response to the Darfur crisis and really being struck by the human cost of this tragedy--hundreds of thousands of people killed, millions displaced – and how hard it has been for leaders to address this problem.
Beyond this professional interest, my dad was in the foreign service and I lived abroad in Thailand during the Cambodian refugee crisis for a short time. I volunteered in a refugee camp on the border and was really exposed to the kind of human impact these atrocities can have. And of course as an American Jew, many members of my own family, my great grandparents, uncles and others died in Lithuania during the Holocaust, so it is very personal for me. Many have the same experience as I do. This far from an abstract issue for me.
One of the most important things about this subject that keeps me motivated is that so much of the work about genocide is done after the fact, after a genocide begins. You’re constantly reminded when working at the Museum how much better it would’ve been if we had tried to do something ahead of time.
Why is this issue so important now to you?
The challenge question is so important: what can you do to empower people on the ground to get the word out about what’s happening and how can you enhance the capabilities of outsiders to see what’s happening?
The problem is very much still with us. If you look at places like Syria, Darfur, Congo, there are still places where many people live under the constant threat of mass violence, where they are attacked often just for the color of their skin or what they believe in or what group they belong to. Yet what is happening to them is too often invisible to the rest of the world. So it is very appropriate for us to think as much as possible about how can technology help us tell their stories.
The second point I would make is that the whole world of technology is in flux. From social media to big data to mobile technologies, there are exciting things happening. So we really need to figure out how these technologies can address this very important problem. There couldn’t be more important work.
The problem is real – and we need solutions.
What are examples of moments where an atrocity could’ve been prevented for our community to reflect on as they explore this issue?
If you think about the 6 million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, the mass killing project of the Holocaust didn’t largely begin until 1941. The Nazis spent 8 years preparing to kill people, conditioning the German people to think of Jews as less than human beings. There were plenty of early warning signs and points where Hitler could’ve been stopped, where either the German people or governments outside of Germany could have moved more effectively to get rid of him. Obviously the thing that is hard to imagine was that Hitler would actually follow through and systematically murder 6 million Jews. But hard as it may be, sometimes you have to consider the unimaginable.
What are examples you can give our community to help them as they research and learn about this issue of verifying information to help prevent atrocities?
Gathering and verifying information is a profound challenge because despite the 24/7 news cycle there’s still parts of the world where evil leaders have drawn a cloak of darkness. Consider Darfur – it is very hard for journalists to get inside so the question becomes how do you get the information out about the terrible things that are still happening to people? Can cell phones, satellites or other forms of technology help us figure out what’s going on in these areas that have been closed off to scrutiny? These questions are at the forefront of our mind.
I’m extremely excited to see what comes out of the Atrocity Prevention Challenge and thank all of the participants for collectively seeking new solutions.