The wars in the Ukraine and Gaza/Israel bring us to a solemn moment in modern history - solemn because the plea for peace seems so shrouded in war’s death and destruction, and an end to the frenetic barbarity of the wars seems no where in sight. It is so deeply humbling to realize the abysmal failure of our world to prevent these wars, and then our tragic inability to end them when they inevitably feed on the maniacal vengeance and retribution they unleash.
In my work in criminal justice we learn victims of crime often conclude their ordeal with the comment that no one should ever have to endure such an experience again with the plea of some version of “Never again!” Crime victims are more willing to forgive and heal from an emotional trauma they have suffered if they are assured the offender realizes the pain he/she has incurred and expresses remorse and accountability for their actions. And victims expect that efforts are made to prevent that particular person - or others like them - from committing a similar crime. In addition, victims want to be assured similar crimes will be anticipated and prevented. Hence victims of crimes are often strong supporters of programs of crime prevention and mental illness treatment.
And this same sentiment obviously becomes even more powerful and poignant related to the larger atrocities of war and genocide. “Never Again!” is repeated as a solemn invocation and promise to future generations to work to prevent the grotesque evil of war and the pain and devastation it creates. Literature, and especially accounts of victims of the two world wars, repeat again and again that the war and genocide they survived must never happen again.
It is a terrible irony that despite the fervency and commitment to honor the depth of this long-standing, agonized cry against war, history has proven it difficult to uphold. But I believe it is still possible to do so. When George Floyd was killed and the history of police brutality became part of a national conversation the country united in a commitment to prevent the recurrence of such an atrocity through policy legislation, police training, and police accountability. And although reports of police brutality continue, they are now often subjected to public transparency and accountability and are no longer assumed to be tolerated. We thus have proved capable of seriously addressing societal and cultural gross injustice when there is sufficient demand and will to do so.
Let us hope this will be true for war and genocide as well. Will the world organize and equip a means of preventing war in the first place through international law, an international court system, and astute diplomacy that has the capacity to provide for the prevention of deadly conflict and then accountability when it occurs? If we are not yet persuaded to make this commitment, what level of devastating tragedy will it take before we seriously honor the cry for “Never Again!”? What will it take to establish and enforce protocols that would anticipate and mitigate potential situations of injustice and violence that are precursors to war? And dare we even think it will take the unimaginable ghastly impact of an atomic war?
And perhaps equally important, the world must limit, if not prevent, the widespread sale of arms that provoke and enable belligerent political leadership to be able to brazenly threaten and attack because they have the armed capacity to do so without accountability?
The world powers need to assert as law, with the most stringent penalties and sanctions possible, that a government - or an independent terrorist assault - will not be tolerated and will be subject to a united front of isolation, trial and accountability. And the public media needs to reinforce the sanctions with a diligent assessment of the impact armed conflict and especially warfare would have on innocent civilians, especially women and children, the environment and social infrastructure that would include whole cities, housing and hospitals such as already has been done in assessing the impact of an atomic bomb.
Current research and literature continues to provide other ways a society can prevent war, but that will be another article.
In some ways I apologize for my persistent, depressing accounts of the horrors of war. But I am simply trying to express for myself and others how heartbroken many of us are because we have have seen the photos of the devastation and heard or read the voices of the maimed and killed and their loved ones on all sides of the conflicts. Let us all not simply relinquish responsibility to deal with the prevention of war to the care of the politicians. The politicians are responsible for the laws and financial oversight that controls warfare, but it is also the responsibility of all of us whose religious and ethical sensibilities demand the utmost attention to the prevention of mass atrocities if humanity - and indeed the whole living planet - are to survive.
I encourage you to write your poems on war and publish them in your church bulletins (as my friend reported he has done) or write to your friends and neighbors through your local newspapers and blogs.
Send copies to your elected officials. Speak up. The cry for “Never Again!” must be a mantra for us all. As Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and author has taught us: “The opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.” Let us take action against war.