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Posted September 16, 2007 in Genocide , Sudanese genocide , War in Iraq
Ron Rosenbaum, "Getting Cozy with Genocide," Dallas Morning News (September 16, 2007)

It's good that we're beginning to get all relaxed and comfy about genocide, isn't it? Samantha Power's important book on the subject was called A Problem From Hell. But in recent discourse, genocide seems to have become A Problem From Heck.

One aspect of the shift is a new "realism" about genocide that reflects the way the world has come to tolerate it: We now tacitly concede that in practice, we can't or won't do much more than deplore it and learn to live with it.

Another – more troubling – trend is toward what we might call "defining genocide down": redefining genocide to refer to lesser episodes of killing and thus lessening the power of the word to shock.

One has to admire the honesty of Barack Obama, who argued in the Democratic YouTube debate that even if rapid withdrawal of troops from Iraq might lead to genocide, he'd favor going ahead and getting the troops out. He wasn't saying he was happy about the possibility – he was just expressing the view that the word genocide shouldn't freeze all discourse: He wouldn't let it be a deal-breaker.

Some were shocked. Others agreed that fear of future genocide shouldn't stop efforts to end the current killing.

It's something Mr. Obama has clearly thought about. As he told The Associated Press later, "If [genocide is] the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now – where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife – which we haven't done. We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven't done."

In other words, let's get real. Let's not pretend we care about the possibility of future genocide in Iraq if we do little or nothing about it where it's already happening now.

Mr. Obama's comments came in the context of an emerging debate over the consequences of U.S. withdrawal. The right half of the blogosphere points to the genocide in Cambodia after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and argues that something similar could transpire in Mesopotamia; the left half contends that to stay in Iraq is to contribute to an ongoing slow-motion genocide.

It's an argument in which the definition of genocide can get lost in the welter of terms that range from "ethnic strife" to "ethnic cleansing" to "mass murder." But by blurring the definition of genocide, by conflating it with various forms of what might be called "genocide-lite," we risk diminishing the moral weight and admonitory power of the term.

Samantha Power believes defining genocide properly is so important that she devotes three chapters, nearly 50 pages, of her book to the evolution of the definition first coined in the 20th century by Raphael Lemkin. Mr. Lemkin's definition, finally adopted in 1948 by the U.N. General Assembly, classified as genocide "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."

It is a definition that has lasted nearly six decades, and it is important to remember that it refers not merely to war between nations or war within nations, however terrible. It is not about the death of soldiers in armed combat or in foreign or civil strife. It is about the mass murder of defenseless civilians – men, women and children – because they belong to a certain kind of group.

The problem is that while it's going on, when it can still be stopped, it's often not evident just how grave a crime is being committed or whether it will eventually result in genocide if it's allowed to go unchecked.

At what point, for instance, does ethnic cleansing become genocide? Ethnic cleansing can refer to the forced transfer of populations – bad enough – rather than their indiscriminate murder. Ethnic cleansing becomes genocide when it involves mass murder with the intent to exterminate. Genocide is about annihilation.

In some respects, genocide occupies an unsettling moral category that gives the scale of the killing less weight than the intention behind it. Why was the death of an estimated 1 million Sunnis and Shiites in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s not genocide, but the death of a "mere" tens of thousands in the former Yugoslavia often called at least incipient genocide? Does getting punctilious about the difference between ethnic cleansing and genocide tacitly serve to diminish outrage over the former? (We must intervene to stop genocide. Ethnic cleansing? It depends.)

In the run-up to the war, and in many retrospective defenses of it, Saddam Hussein was often characterized as guilty of genocide; he was certainly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. But one can make arguments for and against the use of the term. Did the gassing and slaughter of the Kurds and the murder of other dissidents and groups constitute genocide or ethnic cleansing? And should it have made a difference?

Mr. Obama's comment that he would not let the prospect of genocide get in the way of a troop withdrawal in Iraq highlights the problem we have with the word and the thing. How would we distinguish between ethnic strife or ethnic cleansing and genocide in the sectarian violence that might follow an Iraq withdrawal? How much killing would prompt cries for reintervention of some kind to stop it?

For a period in the '90s, after 800,000 people were killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and after President Bill Clinton's 1998 apology for failing to intervene and stop it, there was much brighter line: Genocide was seen as something that demanded both immediate action and blame for inaction. The lesson of Rwanda helped make the ultimately successful case for action to halt the incipient genocide in the former Yugoslavia.

And the success, however mixed, in the former Yugoslavia helped convince a faction of liberals to support regime change in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. Genocide and its prevention, not the illusory weapons of mass destruction, was their prime rationale (if not President Bush's).

But now realpolitik has entered the world of genocide calculations. For one thing, after Rwanda, after Yugoslavia and during Darfur, there seems to be an emerging consensus that genocide is not the exception but the rule in human affairs. The past century, from the Armenians to the Jews to the Rwandans, from Bosnia to the Congo to Darfur, certainly makes it seem that way.

And now that genocide seems so common, the word seems to have lost some of its special power to move us, to shock us into action.

As a result, even if you call the chaos and killing that might follow troop withdrawal genocide, it's not enough to derail the exit. Genocide: Happens all the time; we can't be paralyzed by the word.

While there's little doubt something bad would happen in Iraq, it's impossible to know whether that badness will amount to genocide and how we should react to the probability of cataclysmic violence that falls short of it.

Our response to Darfur, however, an unequivocal ongoing genocide, illustrates what one might call a feel-good reaction to the phenomenon. It keeps going on and on, and we keep denouncing it and feeling good about ourselves for denouncing it, and nothing gets done. Again, the YouTube debate is illustrative. A question from a Darfur refugee camp prompted New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to say he'd been there, at that very refugee camp. And Joe Biden, not to be outdone, proudly boasted that he'd been there, too.

And look how much these powerful politicians who have been there have accomplished! At least Mr. Biden offered some specific policies that might help Darfur: a no-fly zone to prevent the strafing of the starving and even, if I heard him right, U.S. troops. A vast army of, um, 2,500 that could somehow save the day. Good luck, Darfur.

The real question – the question that should be asked of every candidate, Republican and Democrat – is this one:

What would you do if you saw another Rwanda developing? In other words, a genocide that has little to do with previous U.S. intervention and is not our fault in any direct way, but one we could prevent – at a cost: U.S. troops, U.S. lives. Mr. Clinton has apologized for his failure to intervene in Rwanda. Do you agree that the United States should commit itself to preventing genocide anywhere it threatens to occur?

Of course, every presidential candidate would evade the hard question by promising to "work with the United Nations and the world community" to prevent any such eventualities. But look how well that's worked in Darfur. Tell us: When the U.N. fails, as it almost always does, how many U.S. troops, how many U.S. lives? To save how many people? The question asks the candidates to make a cold, hard calculation. But then, they want to be president, don't they? And that's one of the job requirements.

One of the most interesting discussions of this issue – an intellectual defense of the idea of getting comfortable with genocide – came in a recent column by the influential pseudonymous Asia Times columnist "Spengler."

Spengler's recent column cites David Rieff, a liberal who originally supported Iraq regime change on "humanitarian" – anti-genocide – grounds. Mr. Rieff has changed his mind about anti-genocide intervention (see our Q&A with him in "Point of Contact" on 1P) on the grounds that the U.S. doesn't have the power to prevent the genocide, nor is the cost one we can afford to pay.

Spengler argues that we should look at genocide as a "normative" aspect of human history, not a new or especially abhorrent one.

He attempts to prove this by defining genocide down – by classifying virtually all war of any kind as genocide, simply because lots of people are killed. While Raphael Lemkin took pains to define genocide as the deliberate attempt at the annihilation of groups, Spengler incorporates it into the ordinary course of human events. Nothing new, nothing to get excited about here. Move along.

He makes two questionable claims, for example: that the slaughter of American Indians in America wasn't genocide but that the Civil War was, although he pays tribute to its "moral splendor." A new notion entirely: morally splendid genocide.

Yes, war may have civilian casualties in great numbers. But defeating an army is not committing genocide. Deliberately destroying civilian populations is. The North didn't intend to murder all slaveholding Southern whites, only to end the secession and (belatedly) to free the slaves. Intention matters, and it's hard to have useful discussion if terms are so far apart.

The outlandishness of Spengler's reasoning, and the forcefulness of Mr. Rieff's rejection of the genocide argument about the Iraq aftermath, indicate just how desperate we are not to be unduly disturbed or hindered by the special cruelty and hatefulness of genocide or even the word. If we say, "Look, it's happened all the time in the past, every war is a genocide, and it seems like it's going to keep happening no matter how much or little we do," there's less to be outraged about, less to be alarmed about, less to take action against.

Of course, it's more important to fight genocide than to fight over the definition of genocide, but getting too comfortable with genocide, blurring the definition, defining it down, can undermine the fight.

It's still a "problem from hell."

Ron Rosenbaum is author of "The Shakespeare Wars." A version of this essay first appeared on

Category: Genocide , Sudanese genocide , War in Iraq