(Note: This is the first in a series of two entries. The second will be on the meaning, if any, of cultural genocide.)
Genocide is not a success term. If it were there wouldn’t be any victims left to complain about it. But does it even refer to an attempt? And if so, at what?
For example, suppose that having conquered the world the Nazis decided to keep a few Jews in a zoo. So one needn’t be attempting to kill every token of a kind. But how many? The Nazis were stopped after six million. Suppose they were stopped before Barbarossa. So let’s say after half a million. That’s about the number of Tutsi slaughtered by the Hutu. But suppose the Nazis or the Hutu were stopped before they barely got started.
Or suppose the ‘intention’ condition fails because the deaths were an autonomous effect of some other, perhaps more laudable intention. The Nazis weren’t trying to kill Jews. They were trying to eradicate the Tay Sachs allele.
Does it have to be killing or, like the Holodomor, does just letting die qualify? Is it genocide if a lone anti-Semite goes on a killing spree? Does it have to be organised, or can it be spontaneous?
We’re told that the dinosaurs went extinct because of a meteor strike, but I’m guessing that for a charge of genocide humans would have had to have had a hand in the matter. Well then, the North American bison and the whooping crane have been driven to near-extinction by human hands. But I’m guessing only humans can be the victims of genocide.
It would seem, then, that genocide is one of those words that are indexed to the rhetorical needs of the speaker. Clearly it refers to what the speaker regards as the wrongful targeting of members of a specifiable group. But not just any group will do. Even abolitionists wouldn’t refer to capital punishment as genocide. So there are accepted constraints even on the purely rhetorical deployment of the word.
The deployment of the word is a move in (what Wittgenstein called) a language game. If you say, “A woman has a right to control her own body,” I’m allowed to answer, “Yes, but the foetus has rights too.” But I’m not allowed to counter that, “Well no, as a matter of fact a woman does not have the right to control her own body.” That would be considered an illegal move in the abortion debate game. Similarly, then, once the genocide card has been played, that it was genocide is the one thing that cannot be denied. It’s a bit like trying to protest that you’re not a racist. If you’ve been called a racist then you’re a racist, because no one would have called you one if you weren’t.
So what it is to be a genocide is what it is to be a racist or to have a right. It doesn’t refer to anything, nor is it intended to. It’s a claim to the moral high ground. And like You’re it! in Hide and Seek or calling shotgun! on who gets the front seat, that high ground goes to whoever calls it first.
In some places in the Old West there was an understanding among the settlers that if you see an Indian, kill him. Was that followed by “before he has a chance to kill you”? or was it categorical? So if the settlers had been bent on killing the Indians preemptively rather than categorically, would it not have been genocide? Then neither would it have been genocide if the Indians had been bent on killing the settlers preemptively rather than categorically.
So it would seem that the distinction between preemptive and categorical ethnic cleansing is central to a charge of genocide. Can that distinction be drawn? That is, if resistance to invasion is exculpatory for the invader, then it’s hard to think of a case that could still count as genocide. But if resistance to resistance is not genocide – and surely it can’t be – then don’t we already have a perfectly serviceable word for this? Isn’t it just called war?
What we need then – if we’re to preserve a conceptual space for genocide – is that the Armenians were no threat to the Turks, or the Jews to the Nazis, or the Palestinians to the Jews. But these are hard cases to make. Easier to make if we deny that merely being on the coveted land is a threat to the would-be occupier. It’s certainly a setback of his interests. But a setback of interest is not a threat. So the charge of genocide would seem to hang on whether the current population can be peaceably displaced, i.e. without resistance. That is, it’s genocide if but only if the victim population could have been displaced without encountering resistance, but for some mysterious reason the invader didn’t avail himself of that option.
But what this means is that if there’s nowhere for these displaced people to go, then the invader has no choice but to exterminate them in situ. So now it’s genocide just in case either a) the victim population could have been displaced without encountering resistance or b) the reason for not doing so is because there was nowhere for these to-be-displaced people to go.
Does that mean that culpability for the Shoah falls in part on those countries that refused to accept Jewish refugees? That depends on whether we’re worried – as was the Trump administration, or as is the current administration in Lithuania – that absorbing another country’s disposables encourages their disposability. Most people think we should protect targets of genocide, but they’re split between taking them in and forcibly removing the governments that are targeting them. The worry on the one side is the ‘browning’ of our otherwise pristine West. The worry on the other is that it amounts to neo-colonialism.
Some people think that ethnic cleansing – which is really all that genocide is left to be – is immoral because it’s gratuitous violence, and it’s gratuitous because the lion can lay down with the lamb. So a one-state solution is available in Israel/Palestine. There was no need to ‘cull the herd’, neither in Rwanda nor in the former Yugoslavia. And so on.
I’m in no position to pass judgment on these cases, except to say that the distinction between a people’s survival and its delectation cannot be drawn. And if it can’t be drawn, then deciding to share the hillside rather than fight over it is a judgment call we‘re each entitled to make. I think Jews and Palestinians could live together, but I don’t have to live there, do I? Nor do I have to live in Denmark, or along the border in Texas.
The tension between exclusion and embrace is not ameliorated by deploying the rhetoric of genocide. We’ve rid ourselves of the n-word. Let’s do the same – and for the same reason – with the g-word.