(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.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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1 reply

  1. Notwithstanding that Paul is correct that genocide is such a difficult term to define *in a historical or philosophical context* that it ends up being adapted to the rhetorical needs of the speaker, and therefore invalid in argument, I think we still do need the g-word:

    The big news in 1948 was not the definition of genocide but rather the adoption of the Convention on Genocide by the United Nations (recently victorious over the Axis powers and full of hope that they would get the peace right this time.) Once a certain critical mass of member states had ratified it, leaders of national governments were put on notice that they could be arrested, taken before the International Criminal Court, and convicted personally of the crimes contained in the definition of genocide. (The Court would of course consider all the facts of the case in determining guilt or non-guilt, which partisans and activists do not.) The country-by-country ratification process was agonizingly slow. Raphael Lemkin, the architect of the Convention and its adoption by the UN, died so early in the count that he had resigned himself to failure. The U.S. Senate did not ratify until 1988, and then with diluting reservations. National governments, while keen to condemn genocide in principal in the Chamber of Hot Air where talk is cheap, were loath to waive their Westphalian freedom as sovereign states to do whatever they wanted inside their own borders, (in democracies, whatever their electorates would let them.).

    Paul asks if Hitler would still have been guilty of genocide if he had been stopped before Barbarossa when the death count was lower (and Wansee hadn’t happened yet.) Trick question? because Lemkin did not coin the term until “1942 or 1943” (Wikipedia). And I’m not trying for a trick answer. Job One of selling the Convention was to put historical events that occurred before the UN’s declaration beyond reach of the Court. Instrumental in getting nervous national governments to ratify was language that meant massacres of Natives in 19th Century U.S., Stalinist purges and famines in the 1930s, atrocities against Armenians by Turkey, etc. would not be rehashed with a view to having them “certified” for political/activist purposes as acts of genocide. The goal was to prevent genocide in the future by personal deterrence of individuals currently in power, not to condemn countries retroactively (and apply trade sanctions, say, or encourage troublesome political minorities.) So if Hitler had still been alive in 1948 but no longer making war, he would not have been convictable under the Convention for actions before or after Barbarossa.

    Now, he (and his henchmen) could still have faced in 1941 a war-crimes tribunal convened by the victorious Allies, à la Nuremberg. By then he had 1) invaded Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Denmark, Norway, Holland, and France (and bombed England and carried out unrestricted submarine warfare at sea) and 2) begun the extermination of Jews and others in those countries. Surely convictions could have been obtained for 1) waging aggressive war and 2) committing crimes against humanity just as they were at Nuremberg, *but, also as at Nuremberg, only as committed in those invaded and occupied nations*. Whether the Allies would have wanted to go the trouble over just another dirty little war in Europe that, thankfully, had ended without eclipsing The Great War’s carnage is another question, but a good one. Is it a war crime on the scope of Nuremberg only if the victors in a conflict are really really really pissed at you, instead of just glad you surrendered before they lost another generation of their young men fighting you? I think that calculus changed after Barbarossa, certainly for the Russians.

    But suppose he had been stopped (how? — preemptive invasion, internal uprising?) — before the invasion of Poland. Then for his depredations against Jews and others in Germany, Austria, and Czecho he would have got off scot-free with the international community. (The restored sans-Hitler government of Germany could have tossed him back into prison on their own initiative, of course.) As Fuhrer from 1933, he was running the sovereign German state. Just as the government of Turkey could slaughter its Armenians like so many chickens, Hitler’s Germany could do what it wanted with “its” Jews, Slavs, gypsies, mental defectives, etc. In fact it was the refusal (on Westphalian grounds) by the victorious powers to allow the Nuremberg prosecutors to examine those actions that occurred in Germany before 1 Sept 1939 that set Lemkin on his quixotic mission to change the world’s approach to purely internal crimes committed by pariah states.

    There are obvious practical difficulties in bringing genocidaires to justice if they have had the sense not to invade their neighbours where they risk losing a war. Conceding that, the message with genocide is not what we laymen think it is (or was) but instead how the international community can punish its perpetrators (sometimes) even when they are careful to confine it to their own country.

    That’s something.

    (Source for much of this is “A Century of Genocide — Utopias of Race and Nation” by Eric Weitz, Princeton University Press, 2003.)


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