Tag Archives: Holocaust Museum

See the Light: My Year of Green Day and Genocide

I really hope that when Green Day puts out their next album, whenever that may be, that they and we can go back to “happier” times and lyrics, singing at breakneck speed about burning out, growing old, obsessive love, masturbation and pot… but… we’ll see.

Why Green Day?

I’ve gotten the question of “Why Green Day?” so many times this year that I thought I should finally explain myself. My friends are a bit astounded at me for following Green Day intensely this year. They knew I was a fan but never knew how much of one I’d become. All I can really say is that it’s been one of those years and Green Day has gotten me through a rough season.

Green Day recently celebrated their 21st year together, but I’m a relatively new fan (read about that here, if you care) from the American Idiot era. It’s well-known among hardcore fans that their lyrics have spoken to fans for two decades now, but for me, this year has been the second time (during the latter Bush Administration being the first) in which Green Day helped me through a bad political and social time.


Do You Know This Man?

Raphael Lemkin, Father of the Genocide Convention

Five years ago, I worked as an archivist at the American Jewish Historical Society. At the Society, we have a collection of archival materials written by a man of the name, Raphael Lemkin. Never heard of him? Don’t worry, you are not the only one. He coined the word genocide (Greek word genos, meaning tribe, and the Latin word cide, meaning to kill) in 1943/44 and was the first person to systematically write about a human condition which pops up more than we would like: the intent to destroy specific groups of humans by other groups of humans. There had been no word for this crime prior to this time, but there had been plenty of genocidal incidents before World War II (primary case in point: Armenia, 1915-1917).

Lemkin single-handedly pushed a major treaty through the United Nations in 1948, a document that he felt would be the beginning of the end of this disease that occasionally afflicts humans now named genocide, the United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Boy, was he wrong, but at least he tried. (Ok, he wasn’t wrong about the concept, just wrong that humans would do something about it if there was a law, a treaty, a will, a way…)

I was assigned to archive his papers and afterward, I wrote a journal article on Lemkin’s collections which was published in a jaunty-sounding journal called the Journal of Genocide Research. The paper (LINK HERE IF YOU CARE) has since been used by genocide scholars around the world to access Lemkin’s papers for their own historical and future research into the worst of human traits: the ability for one group of people to lose their collective minds and kill other groups of people who aren’t like them.

This Year

This past June 7-10, I was asked to present a paper at another jaunty-sounding event, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, held in Washington, D.C. The conference itself consisted of scholars with one goal in mind: presenting papers on this most heinous problem of mankind from numerous countries and perspectives, but primarily the social, economic and human toil that genocide inflicts on humankind.

I didn’t want to do it. I’m not a scholar, just someone who has the ability to put one and one together and present facts with some conclusions. But my previous paper had made such a big impact on the community of scholars that I had no choice but to present. I had to drag myself kicking and screaming to do my research and write the paper. I was my own worst enemy when it came to putting my thoughts on paper, it was ridiculous. And Green Day came to my rescue with the song, “Know Your Enemy.”

Do you know the enemy?
Do you know your enemy?
Well gotta know the enemy right here
Well gotta know the enemy right here

Silence is an enemy against your insurgency so rally up the demons of your soul.

I listened to KYE probably 100 times to help get over myself and plow through the research and writing. My topic was on a group of African-Americans, who just happened to be Communists, that accused the United States government of genocide toward blacks in America. The group published a petition in 1951 by the name of “We Charge Genocide” at the start of the Cold War and against the backdrop of the intense ideological struggles of the time between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The petition was also one of the many precursors of the Civil Rights movement and caused quite a stir in the FBI and State Department.

The group’s premise was that in America, blacks had been terrorized and murdered under the willing eye of law enforcement and as such, were being destroyed as a group. Their accusations didn’t quite fit under the covenants of the actual Convention, but when you are trying to make a point, you can fit your argument into almost anything.

By the time I hit D.C., I was physically and mentally drained. I stayed at a friend’s house in D.C. for a night, which was nice, and headed off the next day for 2.5 days of non-stop genocide talk. Oh joy. Oh bliss.

The conference itself was ok, and my paper was well-received, if a bit light and fluffy. I was on the same panel as a woman from Australia who had done some intense research regarding the genocide which occurred in Cambodia from 1975-1979, asking the question whether Cambodia constituted genocide, crimes against humanity or revolution. Yes, people argue constantly over what constitutes genocide, subtly trying to undermine the premise of it until the distinctions become useless and paralyzing. Her conclusion was that it was genocide, plain and simple.

The conference was supposed to end at noon on the 10th, but these things never end on time, and we were having our final session at the Capitol, a place I had never been before. The session dragged on until after the noon hour and I had promised another friend that I would meet him for lunch, so I left. A few minutes later I got a call from him saying he needed to blow through a deadline and we were unable to meet. I now had nothing to do until my Bolt Bus left at 5:30.

I could have gone back to the meeting, but I was mentally done with the conference, so I pondered a bit and decided to head to the Holocaust Museum since I had never been there. As I was approaching the METRO, I became apprehensive about going and by the I reached the Capitol stop, I said forget it, turned around, and went across the street to the Library of Congress since I had never been there before. I toured what I could of the building for about an hour and decided to take my leave back to the hotel and that’s when I started to hear people talk about some incident that had occurred in D.C. I didn’t hear the details of the incident until I got on the METRO and it was still innuendo and rumor. People knew something had happened but not quite what.

When I entered my hotel, the big screen television in the lobby was focused on the Holocaust Museum. I froze and just stared, realizing how close I had come to being there. I sat in the lobby, watching the screen and hearing the most devastating news possible, a shooting had occurred and one man was dead. I began crying, particularly since the death crazed aspects of me being in D.C. were overwhelming and I had just spent 2.5 days listening to talk of genocide and presenting a paper on the subject.

In a nutshell, a white supremacist had walked into a Holocaust Museum and killed a black security guard. From that moment, I went into what I call, Humanity Overload.

Crying uncontrollably and still looking at the T.V., I put my headphones on and listened to 21st Century Breakdown. I was having one, that’s for certain.

Billie Joe's Guitar of Conscious

Billie Joe's Guitar of Conscience - Screenshot by CarmenPunkGirl

I don’t really remember much of the album as I was listening. I just know that its effect on me was calming, despite the guitars and Billie’s screamed lyrics. I kept the album on as I went to catch my bus, and all I could think of was how much humanity sucked.

From then on, it was Green Day for the rest of the summer. I took a break from politics, I didn’t think of genocide, I no longer watched the news. I primarily found comfort in a crazy band of fun misfits who sang about everything I felt. I went to four of their concerts in the States (Albany, the two MSGs, and San Antonio), and two shows in England. I began this blog the day before the conference, on June 6, to personally document their tour and escape from the harsh realities of life. I still haven’t paid much attention to the news. I needed a break, a respite. Sometimes you just have to DO IT.

But genocide never really leaves you once you think about it in any serious way. My place of work is holding a conference on Lemkin’s collection of correspondence, papers, and life’s work coming up this weekend in New York (click on the picture below for more information), and I’ve had to help with the accompanying exhibit and will also be presenting a short paper on the recently digitized collection of correspondence we now have on the web.

Letters of Conscious - Raphael Lemkin and the Quest to End Genocide

Letters of Conscience - Raphael Lemkin and the Quest to End Genocide

However, I don’t feel as panicked and hopeless about it or humanity in general as I did earlier in the summer. In fact, I’m regaining my sense of fight and hope, of pluck and stamina, and I have Green Day to thank for helping me, kicking and screaming all the way, renew a sense of purpose. As Billie Joe says, you have to live here, in the moment, right now, so get up, stand up.

Mind you, I don’t want to equate Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics or actions to the words or actions of Raphael Lemkin as being equal. Lemkin was determined to stop a very real problem of humanity by using the law and political will to stop the mass killing of groups. Billie Joe wants to raise our conscience a couple of levels while raising a few beers and forgoing our guilt in having a good time. However, I think Lemkin and he both possess a special and rare human quality that few people possess. This far-reaching quality is the ability to encompass large groups of people, embrace them, and try, for just a moment or their lifetime, to ease their pain.

I told my fellow GD friend, Tony, that I had listened to “Know Your Enemy” to prepare for the conference earlier this year and that I had no desire to think positively about a myriad of things in regard to humanity or the upcoming conference. He succinctly said, “you just have to ‘See The Light’ instead.” I took his advice and began to listen to this song from Green Day. And slowly, but surely, it’s been helping to pull me up from the abyss.

I really hope that one day genocide will no longer be a problem and that no one has to think about such a horrible crime again.

So, that’s my story of 2009: Green Day and genocide. What a year its been.

Well I crossed the river
Fell into the sea
Where the non-believers
Go beyond belief

Then I scratched the surface
In the mouth of hell
Running out of service
In the blood I fell

Well I, I just want to see the light
And I, I don’t want to lose my sight
Well I, I just want to see the light
And I need to know what’s worth the fight

I’ve been wasted
Pills and alcohol
And I’ve been chasing
Down the pool halls

Then I drank the water
From a hurricane
And I set a fire
Just to see the flame

Well I, I just want to see the light
And I, I don’t want to lose my sight
Well I, I just want to see the light
And I need to know what’s worth the fight

Well I crossed the desert
Reaching higher ground
Then I pound the pavement
To take the liars down

But it’s gone forever
But never too late
Where the ever after
Is in the hands of fate

Well I, I just want to see the light
And I, I don’t want to lose my sight
Well I, I just want to see the light
And I need to know what’s worth the fight