85. Power of a Word

Author: Gregory Zitelli, Senior


A force that binds us together as a community.
When strung together they share information,
Collaborate ideas,
Create contracts,
Give our lives meaning.

Words change the way we live and how we view the world.
Our ancestors recognized the importance of words,
Fighting wars with ink
And the power of ideas.
The French asserted
“[We] have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man,” 1
While the Americans wrote
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” 2
And over a century and a half later the world affirmed their importance, stating
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” 3

These words still mean something, right?

A few weeks ago a professor asked my class to write a one-word response to a series of words he would ask us.
The purpose was to find a symbol or emotion we associate with each word.

We started very light-hearted:
“First word: Pizza.”
I wrote, “Delicious.”
“Summer” … “Vacation.”
“Music” … “Dancing”

We kept going like this for about five minutes until he asked one last word.


My pen froze. I considered writing many words:
No, I had already used “awful” to describe homework… it could not do justice.
I considered other words.

Images flooded my mind.

Smoke emerging from a tower in a snowy German countryside.
Refugees pushing their loved ones in hospital beds away from a city in Southeast Asia.
A cathedral packed with rotting corpses in the heart of Africa.
A young girl dangling from a tree near Sarajevo.
Emaciated bodies in scrubs clinging to a barbed wire fence.


Its inventor, Raphael Lemkin, hoped it would be, “The Word.”
The rare term that, “carried society’s revulsion and indignation,” 4
Honing the power to chill listeners and invite immediate action.
But some experiences lack the words for description,
And as close as ‘genocide’ comes it still fails to capture the horrors that occur in our world.

So what can genocide really mean to me?
It’s an unimaginable abstract idea,
A distant nightmare.
Something that happens to those less fortunate in other countries.
Far away from me.

The word has the power to elicit anger.
Motivate protests and calls for intervention.
The word means something factually and emotionally.

It has the power to deploy thousands of soldiers
Or the power the keep politician’s quiet,
Avoiding its silent strength.

“Acts of genocide have occurred,” a State Department spokesperson once stated.
“What’s the difference between ‘acts of genocide’ and ‘genocide’?” a reporter questioned.
“Well… as you know there’s a legal definition… but as to distinctions between the words… we’re trying to call what we have seen so far as best we can.” 5

Genocide is more than just a word.
Genocide is a family fleeing from home to avoid a militia wielding machetes.
Genocide is a grown woman hiding in a closet for three months to avoid capture.
Genocide is a child watching his parents be raped and mutilated.
Genocide is loss of innocence,
For each individual involved
And for a weary world that bears witness to these atrocities over and over again.

Words mean something, right?

For centuries our leaders have written eloquently about the rights of man,
The Pursuit of Happiness.

Are these just flowery words that we say to indulge ourselves?
Or do they stand for something more?

The ghosts of our past are still waiting for the answer.

  Quoted from French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789.
2 Quoted from U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776.
3 Quoted from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
4 Quoted from A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide by Samantha Powers.
5 An exchange between US State Department spokesperson Shelly and Reuters correspondent Alsner. Quoted from Samantha Powers.

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