The “G-Word”: Genocide’s Slippery Nature

President Obama is facing one of the shortest honeymoons in recent political history. While most of his predecessors were granted at least a hundred days to launch their core programs, Obama is facing a nervous, impatient public that it interested only in itself and in immediate results.

Here’s what you can expect in the first hundred days: a bold health care initiative, a drawdown of forces in Iraq, a toe in the water about energy self-sufficiency, and, above all, a manic attempt to get the economy back on solid footing.

Here’s what you won’t see: any attempt to halt the genocides underway in Sudan or the Congo. It’s not surprising—given the current political and economic climate, even a President Hillary Clinton or McCain would shy away from involving the United States in Africa. And a President Obama, with his Kenyan heritage, would be even more suspect if he turned any of our attention or resources toward Africa. Which is bad news for Africans—and minority groups throughout the world—for the next four to eight years.

We were never going to intervene in Sudan in the first place. The genocide was never brought up—by the candidates, the press, or the public—during the entire presidential campaign. And now, with the economy in freefall, Americans will become even more parochial and self-involved, much as we did in the 1930s as the Holocaust brewed.

All of this may be regrettable, but it should hardly come as a surprise. Since its birth as a word and concept in 1948, ‘genocide’ has proven a sticky problem for politicians, ethicists, and academicians alike. It wasn’t that the act itself was so unique; after all, states had been targeting and massacring select civilian populations for centuries. But now it not only had a name but a definition (“the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such”). And with that definition came the implicit expectation of a response.

The initial response to the concept of genocide—political, academic, and public—was silence. Politicians decided that just because there was a new term didn’t mean you had to use it. Academia, befuddled by genocide’s intricate interplay of sociology, political science, history, and ethics, couldn’t find a home for this new subject. So it was tabled for further discussion. And the public, heady with the post-World War II euphoria and the birth of the UN, vowed “Never again” and fixed its eyes on the future. ‘Genocide’ looked to be one of those terms that are archaic at birth.

Had genocide truly been outmoded at birth, made obsolete by the immensity of the Holocaust, then the term would have vanished under the soft weight of neglect. But state-sponsored mass murder, after a post-Holocaust dormant period, roared back to life under first Mao, then Pol Pot. And the world had to decide what, if anything, it would do.

The response this time—from both ethicists and politicians—was linguistic. Given the ethical—and by some definitions, legal—requirements that came with the mention of the term, political linguists were challenged with giving governments and religious organizations a way to call attention to atrocities without uttering the ‘g-word’ (as it became known in political circles). They looked first to precedent, putting to new use the terms the Nuremberg prosecutors employed to try to communicate the humanity behind the mind-numbing eleven million dead: mass murder, crimes against humanity, war crimes, even the cryptic “crimes against peace.” These terms were later joined by the more euphemistic and hygienic “ethnic cleansing.” All of them horrific, but none requiring the world to act.

This new approach worked so well that during the past sixty years, even in the face of Cambodia, Rwanda, Guatemala, Congo, Chechnya and Sudan, the g-word has been uttered about as commonly as the f-word in UN and US pronouncements. (This policy would reach its linguistic zenith when a State Department spokesperson referred to the situation in Rwanda as being comprised of “acts of genocide”—deplorable to be sure, but not constituting ‘genocide’.)

Ethicists, to their credit, didn’t hide behind linguistic gymnastics. They sincerely sought ‘the right thing to do’ for individuals, governments and religious institutions. Their problem was that every search had to navigate around an awkward historical fact: the only known cure for genocide is armed intervention. Examine any major genocide of the past century: regardless of their causes and symptoms, they were all cured the same way—with guns and bombs. Outrage, shame, boycotts, threats of prosecution—none of them work like airstrikes and incursions. So for the past sixty years, ethicists have sought earnestly but futilely for a realpolitik ‘third way’ to confront genocide.

Every year I task my students with examining the major genocides of the 20th century and determining how they, as a world leader of that time, would have addressed it. Most students advocate armed intervention. Even the pacifists conclude that we—and by “we” they mean the United States—should have militarily intervened to stop the slaughter. Whether it is the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians during World War I, when the U.S. was just a teenager, or the genocidal regime of Pol Pot, when we were still hung over from Vietnam, the answer is always the same: send in the troops.

But then comes the second assignment, this time examining current genocides in Sudan and Chechnya. And in both cases my students keep their powder dry. In the case of Chechnya, they talk about state sovereignty in ways that would have made the appeasers of the 1930s proud. And for Sudan they adopt the same tired tribal and ethnic arguments that didn’t hold water in Bosnia or Rwanda.

These students aren’t hypocrites—they’re just further evidence that history is clean and current events are messy. Political math tells them there are many reasons to stay out of today’s genocides and only one reason to intervene: that it’s the right thing to do.

Another problem for ethicists in dealing with genocide is that their response process often doesn’t keep pace with the events in question. Once the camps are built and the trains are running—once the machetes have been distributed and the hate radio is broadcasting—it’s too late to respond: the flames are stoked and the human fuel already in place. By the time the international community is roused to act, debates the issue and then responds, most of that fuel is gone. And we’re left with nothing but outrage, tribunals, and this generation’s variation of “Never again.”

Genocide can be stopped, but only if we change our way of thinking and our system of response. We need to quit viewing genocide as an act and see it as a disease; to train our students, our politicians, and ourselves to become ethical and political pathologists. Like any major disease, genocide has its stages: classification, identification, dehumanization, organization, isolation, preparation, and extermination. We need a standing UN body whose sole purpose is to recognize these warning symptoms and a standing UN troop force that can be deployed before the disease moves into its critical phase.

We need to change our fatalistic approach to genocide, to replace hand-wringing and outrage with action. We need to see as many tables on college campuses with signs that say “U.S. INTO SUDAN” as those that say “U.S. OUT OF IRAQ”. We need to humanize genocide—not just the victims but the perpetrators—to acknowledge that it was next-door neighbors who butchered entire Rwandan families with machetes; it was teachers, ministers and clerks who constituted the Nazi mobile killing units who machine-gunned hundreds of thousands of Polish and Russian Jews. And, as the prisoners in Abu Ghraib discovered, the torturer can even be the girl next door.

To confront genocide, we need to get outside of our racial comfort zones. It’s no coincidence that the only genocide in recent times that we tried to stop involved the white Europeans of the Balkans. Maybe we winced at the slaughter of our Guatemalan neighbors, but that was it. And if you’re a post-Vietnam Asian—or worse, a black African of any era—then God help you. Because the rest of the world won’t.

Most of us have been born into a ‘post-genocide’ world, coming of age since Lemkin’s heroic efforts to define ‘genocide’ and shame a world into acting. Unlike our parents and grandparents, who received news of the Nazi camps through the sterile world of print, we get our news in vivid, real-time images. We have fewer excuses than they did, but we have stronger stomachs.

If we’re truly going to battle genocide as it occurs, we have to develop weaker stomachs. Genocide needs to make us sick, and keep us sick. The resulting nausea is proof that we’re human. And it’s a reminder that we should do something about this thing that makes us so sick—before it turns fatal.

Illustration: Burning village painting at encampment for Darfur, courtesy of Used under a Creative Commons license.