When prompted with the question of where atrocities are occurring in the modern day, we commonly point to regions in the Global South, namely ongoing genocide in East Turkistan or Myanmar. However, it is rare that we consider the warning signs of mass atrocities and the possibility of mass violence in a country as developed and with the perceived global dominance of the United States.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dartmouth College’s Early Warning Project rank the United States as number 66 of 162 countries at risk of a mass atrocity, having risen from number 85 in 2019. While US citizens enjoy, amongst other things, basic freedom of movement, religion, and press, in recent years, the country has seen intensified violence against minority groups, increased political tensions, and explicit expressions of white supremacy. As a collective, these factors have created conditions that historically predicate some form of mass atrocity.
The U.S. is currently witnessing a handful of warning signs of mass atrocities. In April 2021, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) drew from experts in 11 countries worldwide to release a report highlighting police violence against Black people in the US. The IADL references a lack of accountability in police forces, excessive violence against Black people, tazing and chokeholds as forms of torture, and policies like “stop and frisk” to make a case for crimes against humanity occurring in the U.S.. The report concludes with calls for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open investigations and, more importantly, puts into writing what an atrocity prevention perspective has pointed to for years- that the U.S.’s widespread police brutality and militarized police forces should be considered a warning sign of some form of an international crime. In June 2020, University of Chicago researchers found that, of the 20 police departments studied, zero were in compliance with the bare minimum of international human rights laws. As highlighted in the report, what is perhaps equally concerning is the extent to which US police operations differ from their global counterparts. The US’s discrimination, use of lethal force, and clear targeting of Black and Brown people constitute state-sponsored violence and meet two risk factors of mass atrocities– lack of evenness of civil liberties and social group equality.
Further, the U.S.’s tinderbox political climate contributes to previous factors and works in tandem with police brutality as a warning sign that could worsen as tensions escalate. The US is experiencing arguably unprecedented levels of political polarization that make violence more likely to occur. A study published in 2018 determined that an increase in partisan identity following the 2016 election has caused “lethal mass partisanship” as individuals begin to endorse violence against those from opposing groups. The storming of the Capitol on January 6 is reflective of this extreme division that has not only resulted in violence but makes violence more likely to manifest in the future.
Any evaluation of potential atrocities in the U.S. would be incomplete without noting the country’s direct ties to genocide. The U.S. has a largely unacknowledged history of genocide against Indigenous People, an event with repercussions that have yet to fade from modern day Indigenous plight. One of the most significant predictors of a mass atrocity is if a mass atrocity has occurred in the past. The existence of such an event is not an impossible idea when we consider that the needed conditions- marginalization, discrimination, and, namely, historical precedent- are in place. Indigenous People in the US continue to be denied land back and remain subject to gilded storytelling of their history of forced assimilation, boarding schools, and genocide. Due to Indigenous Peoples’ experiences with discrimination in healthcare, the justice system, and the workplace, all of which stem from a history of mass violence, Indigenous life expectancy is an estimated 5.5 years less than the average US citizen. Indigenous plight serves as a stark reminder of an unresolved history of mass atrocities that could likely manifest in the contentious environment of today.
It is worth noting that the U.S. is surely not alone in its history of genocide- we can look to Australia for a comparable example of a country with past violence against Indigenous populations, given Australia’s history of mass killings of First Nations people. However, the U.S. differentiates itself from other Western nations given the country’s current environment of racial tensions and arguably the most extreme political polarization of the Global North. Combined with historical precedent, these conditions make the U.S. much more vulnerable to some form of a mass atrocity than its’ Western counterparts. Quantitative analyses reflect this as well- the Early Warning Project ranks Australia at 128 of 162 countries, compared to the US at 66.
The U.S. is also grappling with reports of forced sterilizations in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention camps that would fit the formal definition of genocide, and it is clear that the U.S. recognizes the severity of such malpractice despite the potential complicity of a federal agency. After evidence of forced sterilization of Uyghur women came to light, the Biden Administration placed additional sanctions on China- as the US actively works to condemn mass atrocity warning signs abroad, the same needs to happen domestically.
The term “mass atrocity” is not formally defined. It is a word that encompasses the legally defined crimes of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. The probability of each form of mass atrocity occurring in the U.S. varies- the term “mass atrocity” is used to generalize what could result from the mass atrocity warning signs currently seen in the U.S.. While the increasing probability of an atrocity in the U.S. is reason enough to analyze current events from an atrocity prevention point of view, this new perspective could also be an opportunity for Americans to rewire their perceptions of their own state. Violence and warning signs of mass atrocities have been and are currently taking place in the U.S., and it is well past time that they are labeled as such.
Moving forward, the U.S. should maintain the focus of the Early Warning Project and related monitoring to ensure that current warning signs do not escalate to mass violence. As for preventative policy reform, given that it is unlikely the Biden Administration will pursue police abolition, the least done should be a formal and exhaustive acknowledgment of and reparations for the genocide of Indigenous peoples and systemic violence against Black and Brown people. Also necessary are extensive investigations of ICE centers and associated medical professionals. By taking the bare minimum steps towards addressing the warning signs of mass atrocities, the US is simultaneously initiating a rebuilding of systems that will prevent mass atrocities for years to come.