Getting comfy with genocide.

Getting comfy with genocide.

Getting comfy with genocide.

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 1 2007 1:40 PM

Getting Comfy With Genocide

Is the word losing its power to shock us into action?

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Sen. Barack Obama

It's good that we're beginning to get all relaxed and comfy about genocide, isn't it? Samantha Power's important book on the subject was called A Problem From Hell. But in recent discourse, genocide seems to have become A Problem From Heck.

Ron Rosenbaum Ron Rosenbaum
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of Explaining Hitler.

One aspect of the shift is a new "realism" about genocide that reflects the way the world has come to tolerate it: We now tacitly concede that in practice, we can't or won't do much more than deplore it and learn to live with it.

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Another—more troubling—trend is toward what we might call "defining genocide down": redefining genocide to refer to lesser episodes of killing and thus lessening the power of the word to shock.

One has to admire the honesty of Barack Obama, who argued in the recent Democratic YouTube debate that even if rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq might lead to genocide, he'd favor going ahead and getting the troops out. He wasn't saying he was happy about the possibility—he was just expressing the view that the word genocide shouldn't freeze all discourse: He wouldn't let it be a deal-breaker.

Some were shocked by this remark. Others agreed that fear of a future genocide should not inhibit efforts to stop the current killing.

It's something Obama has clearly thought about. As he told the Associated Press later, "If [genocide is] the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now—where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife—which we haven't done. We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven't done."

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In other words, let's get real. Let's not pretend we care about the possibility of future genocide in Iraq if we do little or nothing about it where it's already happening now.

Obama's comments came in the context of an emerging debate over the consequences of U.S. withdrawal. The right half of the blogosphere points to the genocide in Cambodia after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and argues that something similar could transpire in Mesopotamia; the left half contends that to stay in Iraq is to contribute to an ongoing slow-motion genocide.

It's an argument in which the definition of genocide can get lost in the welter of terms that range from "ethnic strife" to "ethnic cleansing" to "mass murder." But by blurring the definition of genocide, by conflating it with various forms of what might be called "genocide-lite," we risk diminishing the moral weight and admonitory power of the term.

Samantha Power believes defining genocide properly is so important that she devotes three chapters, nearly 50 pages, of her book to the evolution of the definition of what would come to be called genocide in the 20th century, focusing on the struggle of the man who coined the term, Raphael Lemkin, to come up with a way of naming the phenomenon he'd first seen in the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1919.

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Lemkin's definition, which was finally adopted in 1948 by the U.N. General Assembly, classified as genocide "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."

It is a definition that has lasted nearly six decades, and it is important to remember that it refers not merely to war between nations or war within nations, however terrible. It is not about the death of soldiers in armed combat or in foreign or civil strife. It is about the mass murder of defenseless civilians—men, women, and children—because they belong to a certain kind of group.

And it's not just a matter of words. The United Nations convention on the prevention of genocide, signed by 138 nations, holds genocide to be a special category of crime that justifies "action appropriate for the prevention and suppression of genocide." The convention does not exclude abrogation of the sovereignty of a nation engaged in genocide in order to effect a humanitarian military intervention. *

The problem is that while it's going on, when it can still be stopped, it's often not evident just how grave a crime is being committed or whether it will eventually result in genocide if it's allowed to go unchecked.

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At what point, for instance, does "ethnic cleansing" become genocide? "Ethnic cleansing" can refer to the forced transfer of populations—bad enough—rather than the indiscriminate murder of them. "Ethnic cleansing," that hideous euphemism, becomes genocide when it involves mass murder with the intent to exterminate. Genocide is about annihilation.

In some respects, genocide occupies an unsettling moral category that gives the scale of the killing less weight than the intention behind it. Why was the death of an estimated 1 million Sunnis and Shiites in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s not a genocide, but the death of a "mere" tens of thousands in the former Yugoslavia often called at least incipient genocide? Does getting punctilious about the difference between ethnic cleansing and genocide tacitly serve to diminish outrage over the former? (We must intervene to stop genocide. Ethnic cleansing? It depends.)

In the run-up to the Iraq war, and in many retrospective defenses of it, Saddam Hussein was often characterized as guilty of genocide, and he was certainly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. But one can make arguments for and against the use of the term. Did the gassing and slaughter of the Kurds and the murder of other dissidents and groups such as the Marsh Arabs constitute genocide or ethnic cleansing? And should it have made a difference?

Obama's comment that he would not let the prospect of genocide get in the way of a troop withdrawal in Iraq highlights the problem we have with the word and the thing. How would we distinguish between ethnic strife or ethnic cleansing and genocide in the sectarian violence that might follow an Iraq withdrawal? How much killing would prompt cries for reintervention of some kind to stop it?

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For a period in the '90s, after 800,000 people were killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and after Bill Clinton's 1998 apology for failing to intervene and stop it, there was much brighter line: Genocide was seen as something that demanded both immediate action and blame for inaction. The lesson of Rwanda helped make the ultimately successful case for action to halt the incipient genocide in the former Yugoslavia, even though it was not yet clear whether the ethnic cleansing there amounted to genocide. The idea was to err on the side of preventive intervention.

And the success, however mixed, of action in the former Yugoslavia helped convince a faction of liberals who had fought for intervention there to support regime change in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. Genocide and its prevention, not the illusory WMD, was their prime rationale (if not Bush's).

But now realpolitik has entered the world of genocide calculations. For one thing, after Rwanda, after the former Yugoslavia, and during Darfur, there seems to be an emerging consensus, or at least an unspoken shared assumption, that genocide is not the exception but the rule in human affairs. The past century, from the Armenians to the Jews to the Rwandans, from Bosnia to the Congo to Darfur, certainly makes it seem that way.

And now that genocide seems so common, the word seems to have lost some of its special power to move us, to shock us into action.

As a result, even if you call the chaos and killing that might follow troop withdrawal genocide, it's not enough to derail the exit. Genocide: Happens all the time, we can't be paralyzed by the word.

While there's little doubt something bad would happen in Iraq—widely admired New YorkTimes war correspondent John Burns has said, "It seems to me incontrovertible that the most likely outcome of an American withdrawal any time soon would be cataclysmic violence"—it's impossible to know whether that badness will amount to genocide and how we should react to the probability of "cataclysmic violence" that falls short of it.

Our reaction to Darfur, however, an unequivocal ongoing genocide, illustrates what one might call a feel-good reaction to the phenomenon. It keeps going on and on, and we keep denouncing it and feeling good about ourselves for denouncing it, and nothing gets done. Again, the Democratic YouTube debate is illustrative. A YouTube question from a Darfur refugee camp prompted New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to say he'd been there, at that very refugee camp. And Joe Biden, not to be outdone, proudly boasted that he'd been there, too.

And look how much these powerful politicians who have been there have accomplished! Their tireless advocacy for action to end the genocide in Darfur has decisively turned the tide, hasn't it? Oh, wait.

At least Biden offered some specific policies that might help Darfur: a no-fly zone to prevent the strafing of the starving and even, if I heard him right, U.S. troops. A vast army of, um, 2,500 troops that could somehow save the day. Good luck, Darfur.

But in general, the YouTube debate didn't advance the cause of Darfur much beyond offering candidates a feel-good way to announce you're against mass murder. (Nobody said they're for it.) The real question—the question that should be asked of every candidate, Republican and Democrat—is this one:

What would you do if you saw another Rwanda developing? In other words, a genocide that has little to do with previous U.S. intervention and is not our fault in any direct way, but one we could prevent—at a cost: U.S. troops, U.S. lives. President Clinton has apologized for his failure to intervene in Rwanda. Do you agree that the United States should commit itself to preventing genocide anywhere it threatens to occur?

Of course, every presidential candidate would evade the hard question by promising to "work with the United Nations and the world community" to prevent any such eventualities. But look how well that's worked in Darfur. (The July 30 U.N. resolution calling for a troop deployment to Darfur won't begin till the end of the year, may be too little, too late, and will encourage maximized killing for the next five months, at least until the troops arrive.) Tell us: When the United Nations fails, as it almost always does, how many U.S. troops, how many U.S. lives? To save how many people? The question asks the candidates to make a cold, hard calculation. But then, they want to be president, don't they? And that's one of the job requirements.

Not that presidential candidates are the only ones who need to struggle with these impossible questions. In surveying the post-Obama debate over genocide, I noticed how often the question of "intentions" came up. If our intentions were good, or if the invasion of Iraq could be defended on humanitarian grounds of the type liberals favor, do we then have more of a responsibility to remedy the results of our good intentions and mistaken calculations?

And if our intentions were bad—oil, bases, Halliburton, empire-building—do we have less of a duty to clean up the potentially genocidal mess, because our intentions were never humanitarian in the first place?

One of the most interesting discussions of this issue—an intellectual defense of the idea of getting comfortable with genocide—came in a recent column by the influential pseudonymous Asia Times columnist "Spengler."

Spengler's recent column cites David Rieff, a liberal who originally supported Iraq regime change on "humanitarian"—anti-genocide—grounds. Rieff has changed his mind about anti-genocide intervention, Spengler says:

[P]rominent journalist and humanitarian activist David Rieff believes that if genocide is inevitable in Iraq, we should stand back and watch. He asks '... why the U.S. should remain in Iraq at all: [1] The usual answer is that because if we leave [Iraq] there will be a genocide. ... The deeper questions are (a) whether short of open-ended colonization, the U.S. has the power to prevent the genocide whose preconditions we ourselves created through our hubris, (b) whether the future of the Iraqi polity should be one of the main foci of our concerns, and (c) whether the cost of preventing genocide is one we as a polity can afford to pay. My answer to all three questions is no.'

Rieff "penned the above words," Spengler says, "to defend Democratic Senator Barack Obama's statement that the danger of genocide is not sufficient cause to keep U.S. troops in Iraq." I don't know if I'm as certain of the answers as Rieff is, but he has defined the questions well.

Spengler, though, who seems to agree with Rieff's new position, goes on to offer some peculiar ideas about genocide which allow him to feel more comfortable about it. He argues we should look at it as a "normative" aspect of human history, not a new or especially abhorrent one.

He attempts to prove this by defining genocide down. By classifying virtually all war of any kind as "genocide," simply because lots of people are killed. While Raphael Lemkin took pains to define genocide as the deliberate attempt at the annihilation of groups, Spengler incorporates it into the ordinary course of human events. Nothing new, nothing to get excited about here. Move along.

He makes two questionable claims, for example: that the slaughter of Native Americans in America wasn't genocide, but that the Civil War was, although he pays tribute to its "moral splendor." A new notion entirely: morally splendid genocide.

Then he cites statistics about how many Southern males were killed in the Civil War (one-fourth of the military-age male population). That was genocide? No, that was the loss of many soldiers defending what was, arguably, the ongoing genocide of the slave system.

Yes, war may have civilian casualties in great numbers. But defeating an army is not committing genocide. Deliberately destroying civilian populations is. The North didn't intend to murder all slaveholding Southern whites, only to end the secession and (belatedly) to free the slaves. Intention matters, and it's hard to have useful discussion if terms are so far apart.

Samantha Power quotes Raphael Lemkin on this point: "Genocide is not war! It is more dangerous than war," and thus, he argued, deserves a separate abhorrent category.

The outlandishness of Spengler's reasoning, and the forcefulness of David Rieff's rejection of the genocide argument about the Iraq aftermath, indicate just how desperate we are not to be unduly disturbed or hindered by the special cruelty and hatefulness of genocide or even the word. If we say, Look, it's happened all the time in the past, every war is a genocide, and it seems like it's going to keep happening no matter how much or little we do, there's less to be outraged about, less to be alarmed about, less to take action against.

Of course it's more important to fight genocide than to fight over the definition of genocide, but getting too comfortable with genocide, blurring the definition, defining it down, can undermine the fight.

It's still a "problem from hell."

Correction, Aug. 7, 2007: This article originally stated that the United Nations "holds genocide to be a special category of crime that justifies the abrogation of the sovereignty of a nation engaged in it." The convention on the prevention of genocide calls for "action appropriate for the prevention and suppression of genocide" and doesn't exclude abrogation of sovereignty. (Return to the corrected sentence.)