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City Lights: Trying to understand genocide

March 26, 2014|By Michael Miller
  • Barbara English at a candlelight vigil in 2007 about Darfur.
Barbara English at a candlelight vigil in 2007 about Darfur. (Handout )

If you've ever been to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, you may recall the installation that tracks the rise of the Third Reich in Germany. One of the early scenes depicts an outdoor cafe in Berlin in the early 1930s where customers talk casually about their reactions to Hitler coming to power.

I thought of that museum display when I had lunch last week with Barbara English at Native Foods in Costa Mesa. I don't believe genocide will come to America any time soon. But this cafe couldn't have been too different from ones in Rwanda, Cambodia and elsewhere — and as for it being a sunny spring day, consider that the genocide in those countries, as well as Armenia, Sudan and Bosnia, all started in April.

English, who runs the nonprofit Living Ubuntu, was telling me about her upcoming film series, "Remembering the Past Toward Healing Our Future," which will feature films about the acts of genocide of the last century. The conversation turned to the potential for evil in each of us, and I asked her: Were the people around us on this outdoor patio capable of participating in mass killing?

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"Yes" was her quick response.

"I think the range of possibilities for human beings in both directions is immense," English said. "And if you look at the Rwandan genocide in particular, a lot of the so-called killers had previously been neighbors, and they were farmers. They were not long-term killers. They were not psychopaths.

"So I think it's something that we need to really understand about genocide and understand about human nature, that there's an awful lot of human beings that, under the right circumstances, would become capable of committing atrocities."

I first met English six years ago when she made me part of the "E" in the word "End." Her group, which oversaw the grass-roots campaign Orange County for Darfur, had called for volunteers to gather for a photo shoot in Corona del Mar and spell out the words "End Genocide Now!" with their bodies on the beach.

You may have seen English's name since then. In 2010, Living Ubuntu distributed materials about the Darfur situation for Huntington Beach's HB Reads program, which spotlighted a book by Sudan refugees that year; last November, she brought in Rwanda witness Carl Wilkens for a fundraiser in Newport Beach.

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