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Imagine the Unimaginable: Ending Genocide in the 21st Century Browse

Polling Presentation


MARK PENN: Thank you, and let me also thank the partners: the Holocaust Museum, CNN, our sponsors. And also let me thank the entire team at Burson Marsteller and Penn and Schoen that helped pull this off.

First, when we came up with the idea of doing a poll on genocide, I think the basic concept was one of those Jay Leno type polls. You’d ask people had they heard of the Holocaust and they would all say “no.” And what was genocide, and they would think it was some new drink you tried. And even in today’s pop-culture, reality-show-TV-world, what we actually found in the poll of a thousand Americans, conducted by phone, was the opposite: that there is a combination out there of knowledge, information, idealism, and realism that really, I think, set the standard for defining how strongly America should act in the face of mass atrocities and genocidal actions.

And I am going to share with you, pretty unvarnished, what the poll findings are so that you can see for yourself. First, as I said, it’s a thousand interviews, done by telephone (these days we have to get a quarter of them by cell phone because a quarter of households don’t have phones or land lines), and done by the standard random method of the US population.

So key findings: people believe that genocide is—continues to be—possible and also preventable. And that the US has a strong role in preventing genocide, and particularly, both on the military side and on the side of education, in order to prevent it from developing. State-sponsored genocide is probably the largest fear, and Americans support involvement in Syria, but with a coalition, and you’ll see how these findings are illustrated through the poll.

We first asked people, “Can you define what genocide is?” Destruction of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group. Fifty-five percent of those under 35 identified it correctly. As you can see, the next definition, which people are talking about extending genocide to, virtually any mass killing of civilians was second, wide spread human rights abuses or war crimes, third or fourth. But essentially, people knew pretty well what genocide was. They knew what kind of persecutions that could lead to mass killings that they defined quite well and that young people did an even better job of hitting the definition correctly.

What came to top of mind: the Holocaust, Africa, Rwanda, Hitler. Those were really the four or five things that really came to top of mind when you asked them, what do they associate with the word genocide?” If you asked those under 35, very similar: Hitler, Holocaust, Africa. And if you take a look at those over 55, perhaps a more complex map. There are memories, you see: Africa, Holocaust, Rwanda, Syria, Sudan, World War II; so perhaps a slightly more complex picture—they have slightly longer memories as we go back into the poll findings. There will be more older people who remember things that happened in Cambodia, for example. But nevertheless, as we go through this poll, the level of knowledge, what it’s about, where it happened, [is] significantly higher than we expected. Nothing to take on Jay Leno, everything, I think, to take to the President of the United States.

Can genocide still occur today? I think the first question is, “Why are we here? Why are we here on a conference to help prevent future genocides?” We are here because 94 percent, probably one of the highest unified numbers I’ve received in any poll lately in a very divided country, agree genocide is very much of a concern and could occur today.

“Do you think it is preventable?” Sixty-six percent believe it’s preventable. It means that with proper education, with strong deterrence, with diplomatic and military actions, sanctions, with other tools, it’s possible, two-thirds believe, to prevent it.

And what’s causing genocide? Power and politics: #1, ignorance: #2, religious and ethnic differences: #3, intolerance: #4. What was most powerful through this poll is the concern that state-sponsored genocide is on the rise. And that when you think of what a state can do with its enormous military power to ravage a civilian population, I think that is becoming an increased concern here and an increased concern in terms of what people think we should act on.

Again, the principle reason genocide occurs? Because military or political leaders order or encourage the killing of people: 63 percent.

Which are the reasons that people become concerned? Moral principles, sympathy for victims. Thirty-nine percent said we should become concerned because it’s in the national security [interest]. But when we asked people, “Do you think it is in the US national security interest to respond in the event of genocide or mass atrocity?” 71 percent said that it is now in the national interest, 23 percent said it wasn’t. Among young people 18-29, 77 percent said it was in the national interest. But even if we go to the over 55 [age group]: 69 percent. Genocide and fighting genocide is principally a consensus issue in this country these days. Far removed, I think, from twenty or thirty years ago when I would hazard that it really wasn’t.

“Do you think that the US should prevent or stop genocide or mass atrocities from occurring in another part of the world?” Sixty-nine percent—consistent finding. Americans think international bodies have the most responsibility. So they want to turn international bodies, they want the countries involved with the conflict; they don’t want the United States to go it alone. That means that fighting genocide is not strictly a military problem, it’s not strictly an economic problem, it is first and foremost a diplomatic problem. The ability to martial international coalitions is absolutely critical.

Again, “How effective do you think the international community is at protecting civilians from genocide?” Right now, most people say “not effective,” 55 [percent]. And so the international community has a ways to go in proving that it can form effective, consistent, collective action in the minds of most Americans.

Do you think they have confidence in the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court? Uh, no. Only 34 percent have confidence in the International Criminal Court. Interestingly 46 percent of young Americans have confidence in the Court as a key organization fighting genocide.

Were people familiar with the United Nations’ “Responsibility to Protect” plan? No. I was told that 21 percent said they were. Usually I say 21 percent are familiar with a ham sandwich if I just ask them. So that is kind of the lowest level of prompted awareness that you get. And so I’d say there is pretty much no real awareness.

Americans [are] most likely to think the US should engage when there are large scale human rights abuses or government killings—not a surprise—the bigger the event, the more likely people think the US should be involved, and particularly when the government itself is responsible for mass civilian deaths.

But an important question: “In your opinion, which military strategies are most effective in stopping genocide?” Multilateral actions was #1, military action facilitated by international bodies was 2, unilateral action only third, and very few people opted out of the question. So very few people said, “None of these.” And I think it tells you very much what they are looking for, which is strengthened international bodies to fight, to fight genocide, with strong US participation.

“Do you support or oppose the US taking military action to stop genocide or atrocities?” This, I think, is probably the most significant finding in the poll. Because it’s not 20 percent, it’s not 30 percent—78 percent said they’d support military action. What their attitude is, is if mass killings are happening, people have to step in. We just can’t stand idly by. This is a public that wants education, it wants preventative measures, but it is also willing to act when confronted with atrocities. Should there be Congressional approval? Sixty-nine percent say “yes” and younger Americans [have] an even stronger belief that Congress should approve it. We asked them, “In general, what do you think are the top foreign policy issues?” Afghanistan was #1, the EU economy will be disappointed that they were #2, but human rights, terrorism, Mid East, and you’ve got China and Iran. Syria by itself was at around 10 percent with North Korea. But genocide was also in there around 13 percent, and human rights was in there at 22 [percent]. So 22, 35, 45: you have an enormous constituency that is touching on human rights, genocide related issues, as being extremely important ones.

What about Syria itself? “Thinking about the past and more recent international conflicts, how convinced are you that the US should have taken military action in Syria?” Fifty-five percent are convinced, 24 percent convinced US should not take it. That’s about 2:1. So again, I see this poll from a political point of view. I think presidents have sat back and they’ve said, “You know, we would have wanted to intervene but we didn’t think the national interest definition sustained it,” or, “We would have wanted to intervene but we didn’t the public would support it.” And the biggest, I think, finding in this poll, is in an internet society, in which virtually anything that happens anywhere can be captured and transmitted on a cell phone, that fundamentally that is changing the calculus of public support for action. It brings atrocities not even into the living room, as we would have said 20 years ago, but right into the palm—right into your very being—and I think that has a profound effect on the notion that you just can’t act afterward, you have to act before and you have to act during.

So, if again you go back to Syria: helping refugees to flee violence, 63 percent, freezing trade except food and medicine, 59, sending US ground forces, but only as part of an international force, 55, Sudan, 56, airstrikes a lower number, ground forces alone, 38. And it shows you the difference in approach, the willingness to get involved, the demand to get involved and the demand to get other countries to get involved with us. Only 6 percent said, “No action.”

Again, if you now look at Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and Libya, about 6 in 10, whether we took action, or failed to take action in any of these areas, about 6 in 10 now say that they would have supported action or do support the that actions we’ve taken. Pretty much universally across the board. So, “How familiar are you with genocides?” Ninety-one percent were familiar with the Holocaust, 73 percent with Syria. Universally, pretty strong knowledge. Older people were more familiar with things that happened in a greater time period. Everybody, young, old, had about the same remembrance of the Holocaust in the 90s. It was, in fact, a pretty strong finding: Armenia would be the least known. The victims of genocide: often religious and ethnic groups. Education: what do you think about education about the history can prevent future genocides? Seventy-six percent agreed with that. Education and tolerance was the biggest non-military solution to the problem.

So let’s do a recap. Ninety-four percent believe that genocide is very much a concern and could occur. Sixty-six believe it’s preventable. Seventy-eight percent support US military action. Most say, “Let’s have not unilateral, but multilateral action.” And seventy-six percent believe that education is the key.

So, this is a poll about people saying, “Get involved.” They are saying, “I understand what is going on, I see it more than ever, it’s in the national interests. I don’t want to hear that our country has hung back.” They want an aggressive, multilateral, educational—and if necessary even military—action when mass atrocities and genocides occur, especially when they are sponsored by state governments against civilians.

Thank you.

Imagine the Unimaginable: Ending Genocide in the 21st Century
July 24, 2012
​United States Holocaust Memorial Museum