On Genocide, Part III

WE HAVE SO FAR given mind to the historical, cultural, aye, the biological antecedents for the present-day consensus regarding the peculiar evil of genocide. This consensus has been revealed, in its first origin, not to be the issue of reason, but rather of a kind of deep unreason, produced by the encounter of our historical vicissitudes with certain debilities of our contemporary politics. Yet the products of the unreason of the flesh have also their theoretical life, a life which is neither determined by, nor altogether divorced from, the physiological fundaments of the soul: a life which interpenetrates that same flesh, binds it with a different fiber, and, over the long course of time, may itself shape and alter it. We must then consider the theoretical meaning of the law against genocide, and its philosophical antecedents; we must give account for it, and through it, for ourselves. Else it and its antecedents are no binding law on us.
      To begin, we return to our original question, phrased now to set us upon our latest course: what is the rational justification for discriminating between the crime of genocide on the one hand, and the crime of mass murder on the other?
      Now, it is sometimes claimed that genocide is the worst crime in absolute for the way in which it attempts to smudge out the very existence of a human being, or cuts to the existential root of humanity itself. Other political crimes against human beings are generally actuated for political reasons; they are responses to this or that politically relevant action or belief of a human being, whether it be real or imaginary; but genocide alone, as an attack on the human being merely because he belongs to this or that ethnic group, reveals itself as a negation of the existence of the human being as such. It is therefore the epitome of the crime against humanity, and deserves special castigation and special punishment.
      Such a distinction between a politically motivated crime and an existentially motivated crime, however, disintegrates upon nearest review. The ethnicities that are targeted in genocides are targeted for a predictable canon of reasons: the ethnicity in question, it is claimed, endangers society by corrupting blood and custom, and by insinuating itself into politics and economics, wherein it presses for the good of its own, as opposed to the good of the whole; or it causes an increase in immorality, a decrease in the quality of life, by introducing execrable and destabilizing notions into the social order; or it foments rebellions and disaffection in a part of the populace and therefore threatens the general equilibrium. Now, all of these motivations are political in nature; an ethnicity which was not perceived to so vex the commonweal would never be targeted for special abuse. To say that a genocidal ruler is attempting to strike out the existence of such an ethnicity independently of all political considerations is basically vacuous.
      To say on the other hand that such a ruler is motivated more by the existential question than by the political one is not much more substantial from the point of view of law, for it can be claimed equally of any kind of mass killing. Mass killing as such is actuated against a group of human beings, be these members of an ethnicity, members of a social class, members of a particular party, members of a particular town or region. Stalin waged an explicit war against members of the kulaks, or property-owning peasants, and countless individuals lost their lives simply for their putative inclusion in this rather vaguely defined category. What makes this any different from Hitler’s purging of the Jews? Was Stalin attacking the humanity of these kulaks, or their socio-economic status? Is it possible to distinguish? It might be rebutted that Hitler’s position was the more detestable because he made no distinction between adults on the one hand and their children on the other; he was set on eradicating entire bloodlines. But did not Stalin do the same? It was probably just as dangerous in Soviet Russia to be the son of an aristocrat or a priest, as it was in Germany to be the son of a Jew. Or, to take an example nearer our European home, what of the French aristocrats during the Reign of Terror? Is one to say that Lavoisier was murdered for being a political threat to the state, or simply because he was an aristocrat—that is, because his “being” was “aristocratic”? All despotic murders are “political” murders, and all are “existential” murders; therein the very horror of tyranny.
      One might counter that genocide is peculiar amongst the crimes against humanity, for being actuated most purely by hate. But what does this finally mean? Are not many if not all the actions of a true despot actuated by hate? Was not Stalin motivated by an abysmal and inhumanly cold hatred for everyone? Indeed, if Stalin ever loved any human being, it was Hitler. Or was not the peasant Mao rife with plebeian loathing for everyone who had been born better or better-tended than him? So far as hatred goes, if wars themselves do not begin in hate, do they not commonly end in it? Does that make their endings more atrocious than their beginnings? And how if a dictator kills out of the love for what he believes he is defending and preserving? Would this in any way exonerate him? Or the man who kills his wife’s lover—is that not a crime of hate? Would it be less a crime, if he killed his rival out of bloodlust or boredom, or merely from the principle of the thing? And in any case—since, to say it again, genocide is a juridical principle—how precisely does one adjudicate with all necessary legal precision, the difference between a mass crime motivated by abstract political reasons, and a genocide motivated by hate?
      “Yes, but hate is like a flame upon the kindling; political crimes born in hate quickly spread to more and more actors, claiming more and more victims. On the international scale, hate crimes are abhorrent for this power of theirs to explode and to escalate, as what began as a small or isolated incident grows quickly to impossible proportions, sometimes consuming entire peoples, entire nations.” Surely! But is this exclusive to hate crimes? Lust does the same thing, lust for the flesh and lust for the blood; as does greed for material goods and for the possessions of others. Religious fervor against non-believers or against men of other faiths has historically made a similar pattern; indeed, even that religious fervor which would simply augment the glory of one’s own faith can bring men to perform deeds they would never otherwise have dreamed. But do we wish to establish an international tribunal to judge of crimes of lust, greed, or zeal?
      These arguments fail to persuade. Then let us return. The law against genocide is surely related to the pluralistic love of diversity, and the consequent praising of the virtue of tolerance, which characterizes the liberal states of the West. Now, the love of diversity posits a value in all human ways and all human customs. In terms of the law against genocide, we may phrase the issue thus: the law against genocide recognizes that the murder of a group of random individuals on the one hand, and the murder of a group of a given ethnicity as ethnicity on the other, differ in a fundamental respect: an ethnicity as ethnicity possesses a special value over and above a given undifferentiated mass of individuals, which value resides in what we may call its ethos, or its customs and its language, its traditional and habitual ways. The law against genocide, and the special and specially harsh punishments which attend it, exist in honor and in defense of the value inherent to all ethoi. A dictator like Mao who kills indiscriminately destroys human life, and that is terrible; a dictator like Hitler who kills people of a given ethnicity destroys human life and also something else, also the ethos of a people—and that is worse.
      This seems a tenable defense, and it is supported by the justification provided by the very inventor of the term “genocide,” Raphael Lemkin, when he states in his “Genocide as a Crime under International Law” that “[the term] mass murder does not convey the specific losses to civilization in the form of the cultural contributions which can be made only by groups of people united through national, racial or cultural characteristics.” For this reason, he saw fit to invent a new term which did recognize these specific losses.
      This defense has the added virtue of explaining a fact which our previous arguments could not: namely, why the contemporary world is loath to include attempts at elimination of economic or political classes as genocide. It explains as well why the attempt, say, to eliminate all the Christians of the world would somehow strike us as less genocidal than the attempt to eliminate all those who believe in the gods of the Bushmen. These groups of human beings are formed by incidental characteristics which can be adopted by any other human beings. Anyone can be rich; anyone can be a kulak, or a capitalist, or a Christian. If all the rich people of all the world were suddenly in this moment to disappear, that class of human beings could be easily recomposed with time. But if a true ethnicity disappears, nothing can bring it back again. An ethnicity is the product of a confluence of qualities and characteristics which, once lost, cannot be regained: namely, customs inculcated in human beings from birth by an entire social structure, race, living language, all linked to a given tradition and a given heritage, a given ancestry. Ethnicities are passed on in the blood. One can, in exceptional cases, become an honorable member of a given ethnicity to which one has not been born; but one will never pertain to it in the same way as a person born and raised in its care. In this concept of genocide, our modern world addresses, as profoundly as its superficiality will permit it to, the deep question of human custom and human race.
      But despite even this advantage to the explanation in question, we will perceive at once that even it is not without its defects. The first that confronts us is this: the communist dictators, while not being guilty of genocide per se (though Stalin, it should be noted, did target certain particularly “counter-revolutionary” ethnicities, as the Ukranians, the Poles, and even the Jews), nonetheless must be understood as deracinating, if nothing else, then surely their own peoples, their own ethoi. They must then be considered every bit as guilty of genocide as Hitler, if the particular significance of genocide is really to be regarded as the deliberate destruction of a people with a will to eliminate its ethos, its quality as a people.
      Yet it may be responded that Stalin and Mao represented precisely the historical expression of their peoples’ ethoi, so that it cannot rightly be said that they committed genocidal crimes against their own people. On the contrary—abhorrent as their deeds may appear to us today, yet still in the moment they were but manifestations of a greater popular will, the will of a given ethnicity to work upon itself. Their decisions were “sovereign” and did not threaten the “sovereignty” of any other group; therefore their actions are less detestable than Hitler’s, for he targeted groups which included non-German members.
      Now, I hope that this response will be regarded by most if not all of my readers as morally repugnant. But supposing we do so find it; how can we defend this feeling? For it is not easy to discriminate here between what is a genuine act of a people, and what is a false act of a people; it is not easy to distinguish between what really does emerge from the soil of a people’s ethos, and what is foisted on it by uncharacteristic growths within it. And even if we allow this rather cruel defense of the Asiatic dictators, this brings brightly to our attention a new and even more fundamental problem. If it is true that all ethoi are to be respected, despite their differences with our own liberal ethos, then why must we not respect those cultures which hold themselves to be superior to all others, such that they feel themselves justified in enslaving and massacring other ethnicities?
      Put otherwise, ken the matter thus. We are intent on permitting every of what we call human “cultures” or “sub-cultures” to do as they best see fit and to live as they think it good to live, and we go very far indeed in defending their “cultural” rights, if not in deed then most certainly in word. Yet we evidently believe, and unanimously, by all evidence, that no “culture” or ethos on Earth can legitimately hold to the proposition, for instance, that it is superior to all others; or that another ethnicity is inferior and so fit for enslavement or subjection; or that there should be no miscegenation between the races, on pain of the penalty of the law; or that religion or the favor of one’s god is carried with blood and must be preserved with blood; or that a given parcel of land belongs to a given ethnicity and should not be used or owned by any other; etc.
      I am not interested in disputing the contention that these are noxious convictions for any peoples to hold. I am questioning rather the compatibility of this belief with the theory that all human ways are essentially valuable. For are these not human ways, even as, say, the preparing of a trousseau for the daughters of a family, or the initiation of its sons into manhood through a vision quest, or the belief that the world was created by Raven? It is not enough to claim that what I have presented here are not customs so much as beliefs; for there is a clear and radical connection between the one and the other. Some peoples are warlike; some hold slaves; some refuse to permit intermarriage between members of their clan and the members of other clans; some are cannibalistic. Yet all of these practices, if they are not genocidal, certainly tend to encourage those habits and outlooks which finally render genocide possible. Very often, the only difference between the practices to issue from these customs, and the more infamous genocides of history, is one of scale: in principle, the ways of such peoples are not so different from the theories and the laws that brought the twentieth century to such precipitate bloodletting. Given our instinct to assert the total equality of all ethnicities and all ethoi, how can we consistently condemn those peoples who are warlike, conquering, enslaving? Is there not something arbitrary in our position—and how might we give account for it?
      It might be tempting to claim that the aggressive tendencies of a people cannot be considered cultural elements of the same, but that is patently false: for what would the Vikings or the Mongols have been, without their warrior ethic? They would have remained peoples, to be sure, but—the same peoples? What of the ancient Romans? What would they have been, had they not been conquerors and empire-builders, had they restricted themselves to the Seven Hills and satisfied their ambitions within the limits of Rome alone? (Not to speak of the fact that even to get so far as that they had to overthrow and displace who knows how many Etruscans!) Romulus murdered Remus: that is the originating myth of an entire people. How do you expect to strip such a people of its will to violence, without stripping it also of some basic aspect of its ethos?
      Yes—one will hasten to respond—but these are old stories, atavistic stories, from well before the European Enlightenment—that is, before we knew any better. Those were ignorant and dark times, in which the most improbable superstitions and the most naked and animalistic powerhunger ruled the day. Here and now, in our enlightened latter days, one knows better; here and now, one knows to value all human life, no matter to what tribe it belongs, or what shapes and colors it inhabits, or what ways and beliefs it tends. One knows, in short, that if you strip this human being of his costumes and his customs, and flay him of his skin, the results will appear quite equal here, there, or anywhere.
      I believe we really must respond in this vein, to keep any semblance of order amongst our jostling notions. But we must note well just what it is we are claiming: the warlike ethoi of the past were ignorant, they lived in darkness; but the peoples of today which hold to their own superiority and use this to justify violence, are wrongheaded, delirious, mistaken, deluded. Our Western liberal view, meanwhile, is the product of knowledge, of light; it is here and now the true and the good view. Western liberalism, far from being one amongst a variety of perfectly equal visions of the world, is here and now the right vision, and the Western liberal society that it generates is here and now the best society.
      This conclusion will be resisted, I know, by those progressives who are in particular the latest flowering of the liberal society. They will rebel with all their hearts against any such chauvinism as that implied in what I have just stated; they will object that this is the very position which leads us to act as conquerors and invaders, and not even particularly responsible or competent ones, by tinkering with sovereign nations which we ought by rights leave well enough alone, and attempting to inflict our views on all the world through “state-building” in places which have no relation whatever to us. The position that ours is the good society, they will claim, leads of a course to the positions and the policies of the neo-conservatives, and hence to new wars, a new colonialism, and—who knows?—new genocides.
      In the first place, I would beg these progressives—for I dearly do not see how such a thing is to be accomplished—to tell me how they expect to address the contradictions I have outlined above, without reference to Occidental superiority. It does not suffice to bury these contradictions under heaps of pretty bromides; in these troubled times, they will come out one way or another. Either the liberal position is superior to the ethnocentric conquistador’s, or it is morally indistinguishable from it; if the latter, then the law against genocide is but our peculiar custom, and is no more defensible than an international law prohibiting barefootedness out of doors, animal sacrifice, or the Jewish Sabbath. And it is no good avoiding the necessity of acknowledging the superiority of liberal society by referring to unalienable rights: for precisely if there are such rights, then the society which builds itself most coherently upon the respect of those rights, is the best society.
      Now, if we cast our glance a moment to the international scene, we are made aware of yet a further ramification of this inconsistency in our position. As tolerant and diversity-minded liberals, we are much enamored of the multicultural aspect of the globe, the wonderful and most colorful variety of its peoples, nations, and ethoi. We should most like to preserve this diversity, and our insistence upon the genocide laws is a very great testament to this desire. We feel that the world is richer with its Eskimos and its Maasai, its aborigines and its Aymaras. But if we cannot avoid acknowledging the superiority of our own society, it would seem to follow that all other societies must be ranked according to our standards: that is to say, they must be ranked by the degree to which they meet liberal ideals. The consequence of this in turn is that we must condemn all societies precisely by the degree to which they differ from our own societies, which difference was precisely what we sought most to preserve.
      We see this paradox in any number of particular cases in which our liberal mores come most clearly into conflict with the ways of other peoples, as when we look upon laws mandating burkas in the Middle East, or laws and customs perpetuating the caste system in the Far East, or tribal practices involving genital mutilations in Africa. To the degree to which such practices infringe on human rights, we cannot bring ourselves to abide them; yet we cannot condemn them or seek their eradication without sinning against our ideal of diversity. Silence about them is now and then denounced as Occidental heartlessness and self-infatuation at the expense of the sufferings abroad; yet to attempt to eliminate them is to impinge dangerously on that territory called “colonialist” or “imperialist,” a territory which is peopled, we are led to understand, only by heartless and self-infatuated occidentals. What then?
      In the first place, it would be well to dispel a certain myth which has crept up amongst us in recent years. The belief in the fundamental or present superiority of our ways does not perforce lead to militarism, to colonialism, to the invasion of other lands and the infringement on or the reformation of the customs of other peoples. It does so only insofar as it coincides with warlike tendencies existent amongst the broad generality of our people. But these are decidedly lacking in our contemporary West.
      The wars of the past two decades will be brought against me as proof that what I have just said is absurd, but those wars could only be publicly justified on the basis of preserving national defense, or bringing democracy to oppressed peoples who desperately craved it. Lacking these two pillars of support, our public will to international militarism quite decays, as we have seen with great clarity even in the recent case of Syria.
      One could well imagine—and there have been, and are today, historical examples—a nation dedicated unabashedly to the protection and preservation of its own laws and customs, which yet looks upon all the world from an aloof height, and refuses to become so much as tangentially embroiled in its affairs. Perhaps it even holds a dash of contempt for its neighbors as it goes about its own business with its great cool reserve, and perhaps it even does what it can to maintain all clarity of differences between it and those with whom it comes into contact. Thus this contempt, rather than convincing it to invade or enslave the peoples surrounding it, is yet another among the motives persuading it to retract into itself and live according to its own unsullied lights, high upon its hill.
      Or perhaps it even revels in the exoticism of what is different from it, and holds strongly to the principle that these differences should be, whenever possible, preserved to the world, if for no other reason than the aesthetic; perhaps it puts its hands on the wheel of history every so often, simply to see to it that the beautiful variety and marvelous painterly heterogeneity of the world be perpetuated; but this reasoning and this intervention, too, is nothing but the view from the hill.
      How can we explain such a nation to ourselves? In principle, and quite simply, this nation has never confused morality with universalism; it has never arrived at that most curious supposition, that all human beings everywhere are in principle identical to one another; it still possesses pride in what is its own, and it knows the folly and indeed the disgrace in attempting to make its ways, into the ways of all the world. Precisely because its ways are the best, they cannot be of everyone, and only a fool or a dreamer would attempt to impose the high destiny of such a nation, on peoples who are not prepared for it.
      The problem with such a position, of course, is that only nations in unique geographical or sociological positions can adopt such an attitude without having constantly to fear their neighbors’ interference. A nation surrounded by hostility and greedy enmity cannot permit itself the luxury of such disdainful isolationism. It must either take up arms against the aggressivity of its foes, or it must find a way of neutralizing that aggressivity in itself.
      Here we find the highest function, not just of the laws against genocide, but also of the spirit that inculcates them. These laws ought perform a twin function; they ought in the first place embody in internationally clarion form the stance of all the Occidental liberal nations, vis-à-vis a legitimate international system of ethics; and they ought in the second place form a binding precedent on these same nations, and all those near them, which can if necessary be brought to bear against abusers. The goal, unspoken as it has been, of our international stance against genocide, has not been to “make the world safe for democracy,” but rather to make the Occident safe for a higher liberalism.

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Return to On Genocide, Part II


Related Material:

1. Raphael Lemkin’s Genocide—A Modern Crime, one of the defining works behind the juridical founding of the genocide laws.

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