Of Genocide and Other Liberal Nostrums

While I am against murder, and therefore also against the slaughter of people in large numbers – quite viscerally opposed – the word “genocide” does not move me. This has something to do with its history; and since it was, after all, invented “to make a point,” I must step carefully in explaining what I mean by this.

It is not an old word, as English words go. From what I can make out, it was coined (from the Greek genos, for “race” or “kin”) only at the end of the last World War, apparently by the Polish-American jurist Raphael Lemkin in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944).

That it put a Latin ending on a Greek stem (cidere means “to kill”), will not be my point. This is bad form in English word formation, but we can all agree that mass murder is worse. (“Genticide” would have been more correct.)

That it refers to something real, we may take as given by previous words used in its place, such as populicide, which went from French to English in the late 18th century, to describe phenomena associated with the French Revolution. It was another unpretty word for an unpretty thing.

“Killing off the whole tribe” – the very idea is as old as social man. We have evidence enough for little wars of extermination among our distant ancestors in the bush. Yet this is part of what makes me uncomfortable about the neologism: that it suggests something new in human history.

Poland, 1944
Poland, 1944

Indeed, many of its first users wished it to be understood that way, and for reasons we can understand. The Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany, as it came ever more fully to light, seemed like something new in history, in its incredible scale, as it was vividly presented to the conscience of the world, thanks to photography and modern mass communications.

Not only Jews, but all sentient beings, could feel that something unprecedented had happened. But this could only be felt so long as it remained historically fresh. Already, after seventy years, the shock is passing, and I have heard jokes attempted that would have been inconceivable when I was growing up.

Hitler was said to have said, “Who remembers the Armenian massacre?” Who remembers Tamerlaine, for that matter? The glibness that enfolds historical memory is inevitable for man, who has not the faculties to take in the sum of horrors he has perpetrated over millennia. It is the more reason we should be deadly serious about the nature of “original sin.”

I did not mean to criticize the work of Raphael Lemkin, incidentally. He was himself, from my understanding, working on the concept before the War. He touches on the Armenian massacre, and broadens the discussion to consider the fuller range of atrocities, chiefly against Christians, in the latter moments of the Ottoman Empire, as their old Millet system disintegrated.

And he follows this to the massacres continued under successor regimes. In the Kingdom of Iraq, for instance, Assyrian Christians had been massacred under the Ottomans in 1915 – for being Christian – but also again in August of 1933. Large numbers were slaughtered at Simele, and many dozen Assyrian villages were depopulated, by uniformed Iraqi soldiers.

As we know, the Assyrians are under attack again, now by Sunni Islamic fanatics, who have also targeted Yazidis and Shia Muslims. There are also reports of targeting in reply, against Sunni Muslims, by the Shia troops of the Iraqi Army, now principally sponsored and directed by the much more powerful and murderous Shia regime of Iran.

That every decent human being will condemn such actions, and that no intelligent Western statesmen would negotiate with either the “Islamic State” or with Iran, should go without saying. Like Hitler’s, these are diabolical powers loose in the world, which must not be appeased, but destroyed.

But here is the vexation, made plain, I think, by a report of the United Nations’ Human Rights bureaucracy, released yesterday. It documents and condemns terrible crimes committed by the Islamic State Jihadis – slaughter on a huge scale, but also torture, rape, sexual slavery, forced religious conversions, and the conscription of children.

Iran, 2014
Iran, 2014

This documentation is important, and here I do not mean to criticize brave men and women in the field, who have risked their own lives to gather facts that should be made part of the historical record.

But the focus of the report is politically correct, and its proposals are accordingly fatuous.

The Yazidis have been singled out as if they were the primary intended victims of the Jihadis, whose scope is much wider. The emphasis placed on them, in their confined territory, actually serves to distract from the broader issue: that Yazidis, Jews, Christians, local Muslim minorities, and others are being exterminated as a matter of policy by Jihadis all over the Muslim world, wherever they find themselves in a strong enough position to act.

I said “fatuous” and meant fatuous. The very suggestion of bringing formal charges of “war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide” against leaders of the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” is no better than that. We are dealing with evils of a kind and on a scale that go beyond any pretension of criminal law, and to frame them in those terms is monstrously obtuse.

To my mind, the very term “genocide,” with its legalistic overtones, and increasingly legalistic applications, is at the heart of this. It lets the user pick and choose his own targets for prosecution, and almost forces him to do so, by reducing the whole, immense field to the postage-stamp window of “due process.”

We are challenged by savages beyond all human and natural law, who do not even care for their own lives. The response of the modern, liberal mind is to issue them with the equivalent of parking tickets.

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

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