The U.S. has often been feckless in its response to genocide. In the years leading up to World War II, and even during the war itself, it didn’t do nearly what it could have to offer refuge to Europe’s Jews and to thwart Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution, although much later we did build some excellent museums commemorating the event.

Our words since then have sometimes rung hollow. “Never again,” the slogan goes, but, as David Rieff once said, in actual practice “never again” has meant, “Never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.”

The writer Ron Rosenbaum, in an essay for Slate that I mentioned last week, asks the question: How much discussion about the Holocaust is too much? Why does he raise this now? Because we’re approaching a pivotal moment in the continuing drama surrounding Iran’s nuclear progress -- and that means the U.S. may once again find itself in a position to confront the threat of genocide.

The rulers of Iran, who deny the historical reality of the Holocaust even as they dream of annihilating Israel, may in the very near future possess the ability to build nuclear weapons and to immunize their nuclear program from outside intervention. Rosenbaum argues eloquently that it isn’t neurotic or hysterical or parochial to worry that a regime that seeks the annihilation of Israel may be gaining the means to achieve it.

Civilized people have condemned the Iranian rhetoric, of course, most recently Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general (who nevertheless granted the Iranian regime legitimacy by attending an international conference in Tehran last week). But Rosenbaum is surprised, as I am, that more people don’t seem to grasp the urgency of keeping nuclear weapons away from a regime that openly threatens genocide.

Clear Pattern

With a few exceptions, the American response to genocide, and to threats of genocide, has followed a clear pattern over the years, one characterized first by indifference and timidity, then paralysis, and ultimately regret. The pattern was set by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, and in particular by his State Department, which reacted with depraved indifference to the gathering threat in Europe.

Postwar history is strewn with similar examples. In the late 1980s, the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush not only did nothing to stop Saddam Hussein’s attempted genocide of the Kurds -- a slaughter that employed chemical weapons -- but even supported Saddam in his war against Iran. It was only when he invaded Kuwait that we took notice. Talk about dispiriting: Genocide didn’t bother us, but a threat to the smooth flow of oil did.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton did virtually nothing to stop the murder of 800,000 Rwandans (although he later expressed very feelingly his remorse at not intervening)

But it isn’t just our elected leaders who respond inadequately to genocide. The news media play a role, too. Here’s one recent example. Last month, the Washington Post published a lengthy article exploring Iraqi attitudes about the future after the final U.S. troop withdrawal from their country earlier this year.

“In dozens of interviews this summer across Iraq, many people said that their lives were safer and more prosperous under Hussein and that the U.S. invasion was not worth the price both countries have paid,” wrote the reporter, Kevin Sullivan.

This struck me as odd. Many Iraqis, particularly members of the Sunni Arab minority that ruled the country until Saddam’s ouster, regret the U.S. invasion, and many in the Shiite majority certainly regret the bungling and negligence that followed. But how do Kurds feel?

Elision of History

Kurds make up about 20 percent of the Iraqi population, and they were the group most victimized by Saddam’s Baathist regime. As many as 4,000 Kurdish villages were eradicated by his army; dozens of those villages were attacked with chemical weapons. Thousands of innocents were tortured. There is broad agreement in the international human-rights community that the anti-Kurdish campaign amounted to genocide.

The American invasion meant that Iraq’s Kurds were finally free from the threat of further slaughter. For this reason, it’s not easy to find a Kurdish Iraqi who opposed Saddam’s overthrow. But nowhere in the article is this mentioned. In fact, nowhere in the article is a Kurdish Iraqi even quoted. My point is not to pick on Sullivan, who’s an intrepid reporter. It’s to note that this elision of history in a prominent newspaper is symptomatic of a collective unwillingness to fully grapple with a mass murder we could have prevented.

The U.S., under Barack Obama’s administration, is now in a position to upend this unfortunate history. Yet we feel insufficient urgency to blunt the Iranian regime’s openly stated genocidal intentions, and we do embarrassingly little to stop the mass slaughter of thousands of mainly Sunni Syrians by their country’s minority Alawite rulers.

It is true that the continuing massacre in Syria doesn’t yet rise to the level of genocide. It is also true that Obama’s passive response makes it more likely that one day it will. In Iran, Obama’s promise to use all means necessary to prevent the regime from getting nuclear weapons -- to forestall the possibility of a future genocide -- may also one day soon be put to the test.

Sometimes, we turn away from issues that seem insoluble or that raise doubts about our humanity. But turning away always -- always -- makes things worse.

(Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Today’s highlights: the editors on the Democrats’ hard task and on addressing West Nile virus and dengue fever in the U.S.; William Pesek on this weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference; Ramesh Ponnuru on how hard an Obama second term would be; Cass R. Sunstein on how voters can escape from their political cocoons; John H. Cochrane on Keynesian assumptions at the Congressional Budget Office.

To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.