Stanton, a small-town Illinois native and the son of a Presbyterian pastor, realized he had to devote his life to the prevention of genocide in 1981, while sitting in the office of a Yale psychiatrist.
A graduate of the Harvard Divinity School with a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago, he was in his second year at Yale Law School, recently back from a year in Cambodia, where he had worked for the Church World Service, bringing relief to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. He and his wife had adopted a daughter there and he should have been happy, he said, but instead he had slipped into a deep depression. His wife insisted he see a psychiatrist, who asked what was bothering him. He told of the mass graves and the survivor testimonies and the little corpse in the tattered Mickey Mouse t-shirt.
The doctor told him that if he weren’t depressed there would be something wrong with him. The doctor added that he, like many others who have studied depression, feel it is a form of repressed anger. “Then he looked at me and said: ‘What are you angry about?’” Stanton recalled.
Stanton’s response: the fact that the Khmer Rouge had organized and perpetrated the killing of 1.7 million Cambodians and still remained in power.
From that moment on the prevention of genocide became his life’s work. He founded the Cambodia Genocide Project and spent decades pushing for the indictment of those responsible. He helped establish the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and was awarded the American Foreign Service Association’s W. Averell Harriman Award for “intellectual courage and creative accomplishment.”
Over the years Stanton realized that all genocides follow eight stages. They are, in this order: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination and denial.
Iran, he said, had classified and symbolized Israel through exclusionary ideology and hate speech; dehumanized it – “overcoming the normal human revulsion against murder” — by portraying the potential victims as a “cancer” in need of eradication; organized fanatical militias (the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps); polarized the society by repressing dissent and arresting moderates; prepared for the killing by denying a past genocide and by constructing weapons of mass destruction; and, through global terrorism, even begun the seventh of his eight stages: extermination.
Encouraging genocide is a crime. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was signed in 1948 and fathered by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish Polish lawyer who studied the genocide of the Armenians and invented the term in 1943 – “genos” meaning race or people and “cide” to kill. The Convention states that incitement “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” is illegal.
Late last week, on precisely those grounds, Canada severed its ties with Iran. John Baird, the minister of foreign affairs, announced that the Iranian regime “engages in racist anti-Semitic rhetoric and incitement to genocide.”