12/20/2012 11:05 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

What Can I Do to Prevent Mass Murder?

The loss of lives in Newtown bears upon all of us. It is a good time to reflect on our understanding and ability to influence the people and the climate through which mass murders and genocide emerge. The International Watch for Genocide has studied the process whereby nations, communities, tribes and individuals progress to the belief that they can exterminate the "Other" and handle these murders as "acceptable" or "collateral" or "necessary" damage.

This shift takes time and there are specific and measurable stages in the process that can be observed in individuals and communities. In the case of genocide prevention, there are interventions that have proven effective.

The first stage through which a mass murderer or genocide perpetrator passes is Classification. All cultures have categories to distinguish people into "us and them" by ethnicity, race, religion or nationality: German and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi.

The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions, language, community gatherings and undertakings that:
  • Transcend rigid ethnic, religious, political or racial divisions
  • Cctively promote tolerance and understanding
  • Promote classifications that transcend the divisions
Churches could have played this role in Rwanda, had they not been divided by the same ethnic cleavages as Rwandan society. This search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide. A great book to share with your children about the first two stages is by Dr. Seuss: "The Sneeches."

Stage 2 is Symbolization.

We give names or other symbols to the classifications we have created. We name people "faggots" or "________" (fill in one that you know) or distinguish them by colors or dress. Classification and symbolization are universally human and do not necessarily result in genocide unless they lead to the next stage, Dehumanization.

To combat symbolization, hate symbols can be legally forbidden (swastikas) as can hate speech. Group marking like gang clothing or tribal scarring can be outlawed, as well.

The problem is that legal limitations will fail if unsupported by popular cultural enforcement. When we continue to use whispered "code" for the people we don't accept, nothing changes.

Stage 3 is Dehumanization, in which one person or group denies the humanity of the other person of group. Members of the excluded group are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases.

Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder. In terms of groups of people, negative propaganda in print and on radios is used to vilify the victim group. In combating this dehumanization, incitement to genocide should not be confused with protected speech.

I spoke at the National Religious Broadcasters convention last year to encourage their member stations worldwide to carefully monitor and eliminate rhetoric that dehumanized gay people since those broadcasts have been directly linked to the proposed Kill the Gays bill in Uganda. Sadly, I can still hear these broadcasts every day. On my way home from work yesterday, I listened to the onslaught of objections to marriage equality discussions in Parliament in Britain, all couched in the framework that gay people are against the natural order of things.

What else can we do here? Our schools need to inform and educate students and faculty members about the process whereby individuals lose their perspective about human life. Parents need to do the same and tune in to the devolving language or information about violence that their children are using or absorbing.

We need to create and sustain a community climate in which no person is vilified, no one is "out" and no one is "the other." Neighbors need to know their neighbors and extend compassion and care when needed. When we take out our candles during this season of lights, reflect on Howard Thurman's meditation and how it applies to our individual behavior in the world.

I will light candles this (Day)
Candles of joy despite all sadness
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch
Candles of courage where fear is ever present
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens
Candles of love to inspire all my living
Candles that will burn all the year long.

We will never eliminate every threat to human life, but we can significantly improve our community climate by refusing to participate in stigmatization and by identifying individuals and groups who are losing their way or those who are being dehumanized and providing early intervention.