The term genocide was coined during World War II to denote a crime so terrible that it must not be confused with any other. But some people are wondering whether, in this sense, the word has worked too well.
Numerous mass killings of particular populations have occurred throughout history — from the destruction of Carthage during the Third Punic War in 146 BC to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. But, until World War II, genocide was a “crime without a name,” as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, put it.
The term was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who had evaded capture by the Germans and eventually resettled in the United States, in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin combined the Greek word genos, meaning race or tribe, with the Latin suffix -cide, derived from caedare, which means killing. Genocide was distinguished from mass murder — wrote Lemkin, who served as an advisor to the prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials — in that it is “directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.”
Lemkin's neologism quickly found its way into international law with the 1948 adoption of the United Nations Convention on Genocide. The convention defines genocide as the attempt to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group by killing its members or creating other disruptive and destructive acts such as attempting to prevent births within the targeted group or separating children from it. Member states can call on the United Nations to try to prevent genocide and are bound by the treaty to stop genocide from taking place within their own borders.
To Lemkin's dismay, however, the document did not define mass murder for political reasons as genocide. That has turned out to be an enormous loophole. In Indonesia, for example, an anti-communist purge in 1965–1966 by the army resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 people. Yet, because of their political nature, the massacres have not been considered genocide. In other cases — to get around the political loophole when outside observers have considered large-scale killings to be genocide — the perpetrator regimes have argued that their intent was based on self-defense or military necessity, not to target members of a particular ethnic or religious group.
The word's association with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust has, in fact, presented a barrier to defining mass killings as genocide because it “set the bar for concern so high” that people assumed contemporary genocides “were not measuring up,” writes Samantha Power, a public policy professor at Harvard University and author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
“Lemkin's hybrid term would cause endless confusion for policy makers and ordinary people who assumed that genocide occurred only where the perpetrator of atrocity could be shown, like Hitler, to possess an intent to exterminate every last member of an ethnic, national or religious group.”
In some contemporary cases, the debate among wealthy nations has seemed to turn more on the semantic question of whether events technically qualify as “genocide” than on formulating any response. “As in Rwanda, discussions about the dreaded ‘G-word’ dominate policy discussions about Darfur rather than the initiation of concrete measures to stop the … murderous excesses,” writes Stanford University historian Norman M. Naimark.
Such linguistic debates and the ramifications imposed by the international convention once an atrocity is called a genocide have made use of the term “deleterious to understanding, analysis and ultimately doing anything” about mass killings, says Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of a new book about genocide, Worse Than War.
“There's a legal structure out there that makes the word very powerful. It can trigger certain actions. That's why there's so much debate about whether something is genocide or isn't,” Goldhagen says. “The reality is that the term is a great hindrance, because fixating on the term hinders our understanding of what both happens and should happen.”
Although policy makers may be hung up on the ramifications of using the word, the public apparently is not. Dartmouth College historian Benjamin Valentino concocted two fake news stories about a Darfur-like slaughter in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in order to gauge Americans' reaction to the word genocide. The responses were essentially the same whether the article had labeled the events as genocide or not. “The bottom line is that people are not fixated on the term genocide,” he says. “Instead, they care about what is actually happening.”
Purdue University historian Charles W. Ingrao notes that former combatants can sometimes agree on the facts — including mass murder and mass rape — but the aggressor will still not accept the opprobrium of the genocide label. “The use of the term genocide throws a monkey wrench into what could be the smoothly working machinery of inter-ethnic reconciliation,” he says. “It has a political dimension that makes it counterproductive.”
Because the word has such power — both in deciding whether to intervene in present conflicts and in determining whether past slaughters should be considered genocide — some genocide scholars, including Goldhagen, have proposed alternative terms. They argue that fixating on the label is less productive than addressing mass killings or their underlying politics.
The relatively narrow legal definition of genocide remains important, however. “In order to prosecute people …, it's important to have a legal description,” says Alon Confino, a University of Virginia historian. “You can prosecute people only if there's a law. It's not enough to have some kind of description.”
But the political and public arguments about whether to embrace or deny the term have become largely symbolic. Calling something genocide rather than “murder between foreigners” may make citizens more likely to lobby Congress or the European Union. It may not make it any more likely, however, that political leaders will choose to intervene.
“Quite obviously, the system is broken,” Goldhagen says. “The central term has not been helpful in doing much of anything to save people's lives. The simple fact is that since the Holocaust, it has never once been invoked to save people's lives.”
— Alan Greenblatt