From Poland to Poway:

A Priest Contends with the Legacy of Violence

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Columbine was an isolated incident.

So was Virginia Tech.

Sandy Hook even.

But then there was Orlando. And Vegas. And Parkland and Pittsburgh and Poway and Virginia Beach, and somewhere along the way, we realized that these aren’t isolated incidents at all.

The shootings aren’t near each other.

The shooters don’t know each other.

Timing, agendas, weapons of choice—none of these are consistent.

But two things are consistent: bullets and bodies.

We’ve seen them before and we’ll see them again, at increasing rates[1], until we can figure out why this is happening and how to stop it.

That’s Father Patrick Desbois’s mission: to study mass murders and put an end to them. His organization, Yahad In-Unum, has been pursuing that agenda on a global scale since 2004, earning recognition from a score of governmental and non-governmental bodies.

France gave Desbois the nation’s highest decoration, the Légion d’honneur. And both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have personally written about the importance of his work.

For Father Desbois, all of America’s mass shootings are connected—not just to each other, but also to shootings, stabbings, and bombings around the world and throughout history. That includes genocides in Iraq, in Rwanda, and in Germany.

 “Everywhere, it’s the same disease,” he says.

Desbois’s research into that disease began with the Holocaust.

At first, he meant only to learn about his grandfather’s internment in a Nazi camp. But that inquiry launched a thirty-year hunt for mass graves and the stories within them.

His first two books, The Holocaust by Bullets and In Broad Daylight, shed light on a forgotten mechanism in Hitler’s killing machine—the SS mobile units that rounded up Jews by the thousands and shot them dead in village centers around Europe.

Not in camps.

Not in secret.

But in plain view of the public.

And with the help of that public.

Desbois’s research is primarily driven by the testimony of witnesses. Witnesses who dug mass graves. Witnesses who walked across piles of Jewish corpses, flattening them to ensure efficient use of space. Witnesses who report that the topsoil of graves would “breathe” for days after shootings—because not all of the buried Jews were dead.

As Father Desbois expanded the scope of his investigation, exploring the parallel Nazi effort to wipe out the Roma people, he developed an appreciation for his own responsibility as a witness—of both historical and contemporary genocides.  

He says that there is a truth and a dignity that’s lost when we bundle millions of these individual killings together and refer to them as a single act of genocide.

Because even when people are murdered by the millions, they are still murdered one by one—every killing its own calamity.

He says that there is also a truth that’s lost when we distinguish between genocides of Jews, of Roma, of Yazidis—when we distinguish between lives lost in shootings, in stabbings, and in bombings—in the US, in France, in Germany; in 1942, in 1994, in 2019.

A murder is a murder is a murder. One life is no less precious than another.

That’s why his organization has expanded its mission. While its Holocaust investigations carry on, it is also working to witness, respond to, and prevent contemporary atrocities.

In Iraq, Yahad In Unum is helping Yazidi survivors rebuild their lives, offering workshops, providing psychological support, and connecting victims to emergency aid.

Meanwhile, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked Father Desbois to investigate rising levels of violence in France—particularly against Jewish, Romanian, and LGBTQ populations.

That research will mirror the work he’s doing in the US, where he is on faculty at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization.

“Some people speak only about radical Islam, others about white hate groups,” he says. “But you can’t focalize on one group. You have to focalize on the disease. And it can take anybody.”

In order to extend the reach of its messaging, Yahad In Unum is educating educators around the world, giving them tools to influence students in their respective regions. 

At the heart of this instruction is the credo that we must memorialize in order to prevent: if we continue to forget about shootings days after they happen, then we will never be able to stop them.

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Orlando. Vegas. Parkland. Pittsburgh. Poway. Virginia Beach.

We cannot afford to bundle these events together and call them a “trend”: every bullet fired is its own crime, every body buried its own tragedy.

Nor can we afford to write these shootings off as isolated incidents. They are linked together by a legacy of violence that reaches beyond cultures, beyond borders, beyond time.

We cannot stop them until we begin remembering them.

Every shooting.

Every body.

Every day.

* * *

Visit Yahad In Unum’s website to make a tax-deductible contribution.[2]

If you can make an introduction to a journalist or an academic institution, please reach out to Father Desbois via private Facebook message.[3] Note that academic institutions need not compensate Yahad In Unum for its services.

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