President Barack Obama spoke yesterday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day. To mark the occasion, he announced that a new executive-branch group was convening for the first time at the White House: the Atrocities Prevention Board.
Obama issued his Presidential Directive on Mass Atrocities last August. The initiative set in motion “a comprehensive review to strengthen the United States’s ability to prevent mass atrocities.” Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning genocide expert, became the president’s top aide on the effort. The Atrocities Prevention Board is the administration’s organizational hub for tracking international threats and using intelligence, diplomacy, and other tools to defuse them.
This is important work, and it’s long overdue. The first order of business of the Atrocities Prevention Board should be something not so important: finding a better name than the Atrocities Prevention Board.
A presidential body dedicated to the eradication of the methodical mass murder of innocents deserves more than to be lost in the stultifying jargon of government bureaucracy, where the APB will take its place in small, gray type next to its cousins, the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the Architectural Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and the Joint Board For The Enrollment Of Actuaries.
The White House initiative seems designed in part to correct the notion that it’s impossible to prevent genocide without military intervention. As the president explained yesterday: “We possess many tools—diplomatic and political, and economic and financial, and intelligence and law enforcement and our moral suasion—and using these tools over the past three years, I believe—I know—that we have saved countless lives.”
Certainly what the White House calls this effort is not a matter of national urgency. But the name of this body will, if it is successful, be read and spoken many times in the months and years ahead. Each time that happens, it can either serve to reinforce its mission or obscure it. They were on the right track with “Presidential Directive on Mass Atrocities.” Simple, serious, and authoritative. Why not keep that?
History offers precedent for how the government can focus attention with plain, bracing language that leaves no guesswork about its intent. For a lesson in naming serious subjects, the White House staff that named the Atrocities Prevention Board might have taken a cue from a January 1944 study by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Treasury Department: “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.” It makes for a lousy acronym, no doubt. But it certainly gets your attention.