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Guns and Genocide

Why Ben Carson, the NRA (and so many others) Have it All Wrong When it Comes to Guns and Genocide

It seems to me that every time the topic of gun control in America comes up, it isn’t long until some one plays the trump card – the Holocaust. It is implied that if we have gun control laws in America, we, the people, unable to defend ourselves, will end up victims of a government-sponsored genocide. How the jump from gun control to genocide is made is quite perplexing. The argument goes, “If only the Jews had guns then the Holocaust would not have happened (or at least happened on a smaller scale).” This line of thinking is both erroneous and offensive. Here is why:

1. It oversimplifies the Shoah[1] and genocide in general. The Shoah did not happen overnight or simply when the “Regulations Against Jews’ Possession of Weapons” law went into effect in 1938.   Nor did the genocides in Armenia, the Ukraine/Soviet Union, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, etc. magically materialize one random day. They evolved over time and share complex, common ingredients like fear-mongering, ignorance, and above all else, nationalism. Creating genocide involves time and planning. Perpetrators work hard to create a bitter division within society creating an “us vs. them” mentality. They pit neighbor against neighbor to the point where the “thems” are slowly but surely dehumanized and stripped of their dignity. In every country that has experienced genocide, a minority group of “undesirables” is isolated, and the perpetrators use fear, propaganda, and the law to indoctrinate the majority into compliancy.

2.     It is illogical. Jews were a minority. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Jews made up about 0.75% of the population. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum reports that, “In 1933, approximately 9.5 million Jews lived in Europe, comprising 1.7% of the total European population.” Even if each and every one had a gun, it would not have stopped the Nazi juggernaut. Keep in mind that that population included children and the elderly who were incapable of fighting. If guns in Jewish hands would have resolved the Holocaust, then why didn’t the armed Poles stop the invading Wehrmacht? Why didn’t the armed Dutch, Danish, Belgian, French, Czech, Hungarian, Romanian, and Norse armies and citizens with guns stop them?  The same stands for other genocides. The Armenians were a minority. The Tutsis were a minority.  The Bosniaks were a minority. All were outnumbered to the point that even if each had a gun, it would not have saved them in the end. Added to the overall death toll, yes. Saved them, no.
3.     It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what totalitarianism really is and what it does to people. In her testimony, Jewish résistante Paulette Oppert Fink said, “You have to realize what it means to be absolutely weak and powerless in front of the might of the Germans.” Thankfully, we as Americans have NO concept of what it is truly like. We can imagine, yes, but it is not the same. Totalitarianism is part militarism, but there is a huge psychological component to it that no gun will fix. It is very easy to be an armchair gun-blazing partisan. Watching accounts of real-life heroes like the Bielski Brothers in the movie Defiance, Missak Manouchian’s group in the French film Armée du Crime or even the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in The Pianist can be exhilarating, yet they are deceiving. While these people and their sacrifices were real and commendable, their efforts are romanticized in that Hollywood way and do society past, present, and future a disservice. We walk away with a John Wayne swagger and feeling of invincibility like, “I could do that! Give me a gun and I’ll blow up those Nazi bastards! Yeah!” This Hollywoodization of history gives rise to fantasies where people fancy themselves the love child of Rambo and Chuck Norris. Unfortunately, that is not how reality works. What is lacking in these films (and in the Rambo/Norris fantasy world) is the depth of the risk involved in fighting back, the intensity of the perpetual anxiety of occupation and the sense of utter terror that grips every part of your being 24/7. These movies last two to three hours, but the real historical event lasted YEARS and plagued all of Nazi occupied Europe. And let’s not forget, both the so-called Army of Crime and the Warsaw Uprising did nothing to stop the Nazis but did end in the death of each participant despite the fact that they had guns.  Additionally, Nazis and other genocidal regimes are notorious for reprisal killings. To stage some armed resistance typically involved the murders of innocent civilians, even entire towns or villages.
4.     It is a form of victim blaming. It is equivalent to asking a woman why she didn’t fight back or simply leave when her abusive husband was beating her. It is the equivalent of asking rape victims why they didn’t fight off their rapist or why they allowed themselves to be in that situation in the first place. “If the Jews would have only had guns, they could have fought back.” Unfortunately, that leaves us with a very false impression that Jews were passive and resigned to their fate. It implies that had the Jews had more foresight, they could have hid their guns or went out of their way to find more. Jews and other occupied people did find ways of fighting back – sometimes with weapons, many more times without. Fighting back does not always have to involve guns.
5.     It shamelessly exploits the pain and suffering of millions to promote an individual or an institution’s political agenda. If we are going to invoke genocide into the gun control argument, why don’t we hold up the mirror to ourselves? We don’t because we would NOT like what we would see. We would see ourselves as the exploiters and perpetrators of genocide against the Indigenous Americans, the enslavers of Africans, the oppressors of Japanese Americans, and the passive bystanders of the Shoah, the Rwandan genocide, the Armenian genocide, the Cambodian genocide, etc.  Columnist Michael Moynihan said it best that, “America isn’t Nazi Germany, and it cheapens the experience of Holocaust victims to suggest otherwise.”

Historically speaking, people with guns have used them to pillage, plunder, and exploit primitive cultures more than they have to defend themselves. The white Europeans used guns to take advantage of cultures without such advanced weaponry and murder their way into taking what did not belong to them.  When the African slaves in America or the Indigenous peoples of the Americas got their hands on some guns, did that stop the white men? No. It did not. When the minority tried to fight back, we, the more powerful majority, easily subdued them and put them in their so-called place.

The bottom line is this: We can speculate until the cows come home about “What if the Jews had guns?” But having guns (or not) does not get to the heart of the problem. In fact, it exacerbates it.  The answer to stopping genocide is not in arming people, but instead in teaching respect for and acceptance of those who are different from us.




[1] I purposely use the Hebrew word Shoah instead of the more common Holocaust. Holocaust means sacrifice by fire – and, to me, sacrifice insinuates that something positive is gained out of a negative act. I see no true sacrifice in the annihilation of 6 million Jews and 5 million others, and so Shoah, which means catastrophe, is far more appropriate in my line of thinking.

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