Sunday, March 11, 2007

The G-Word: The Dark Side of Humanity

I was recently talking about Darfur with a group of people, mostly activists who have been fighting (and rightly so) to bring attention to the trauma inflicting the people of Western Sudan, where the government in Khartoum has been trying to brutally repress a rebellion through ethnic cleansing and all the atrocities that usually entails. There was dispute and confusion about what was going on, namely over complex Sudanese notions of ethnicity as the self-described "Arab" Janjaweed militias, who carry out some of the most heinous acts, look little different to Western eyes from the "black Africans" that are their victims. The "G"-Word--genocide--was wielded strongly, and put to use to show moral outrage. And no wonder. Since the horrors carried out by the Third Reich, genocide has been drummed into us as possibly the most extreme expression of man's inhumanity to man. Say the "G"-Word and our minds conjure up images of emaciated bodies at Buchenwald and mass graves at Sobibor. In the long list of human atrocities, genocide ranks foremost in our collective abhorrence.

And yet, as I listened to these varied persons speak about Darfur, and genocide, I noticed a strong disconnection in their tone. The "G"-Word was something that happened "over there." It was something "recent" in human history. And it was considered "rare." In fact, to many its very rarity speaks to how evil it is, and how hideously monstrous its perpertrators must be. But is genocide that simple? Is it something wholly divorced from our reality that only happens in far off places? Is it just a product of modernity? Is it actually as rare as we'd like to think? And if not, are its perpertators monsters performing inhumane acts, or all too human individuals performing monstrous acts?

In a recent article, Human, All Too Human for The Nation magazine, author and journalist Adam LeBor through several book reviews sheds some history on the "G"-Word. The article traces the origin of the term in the 1930s but points out that the act itself stretches far back in human history. It turns out genocide has been with us for some time. Flip through the pages of the Biblical Old Testatment, and genocide is not only detailed but condoned as a normal part of warfare, and sanctioned by God. In NU 21:3 the Israelites claim to utterly destroy the Canaanites, "them and their cities," at the behest of the Lord. In DT 2:33-34 the Israelites utterly destroy "the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city," of Sihon. The words of extermination are chilling: "we left none to remain." This plays out repeatedly in the Old Testament. And it wasn't only there, as LeBor points out that the ancient Near East saw many scenes of carnage that called for the complete decimation of one's ethnic enemies--down to the last child if need be.

Genocide played its role in the Americas, against an indigenous population that succumbed to both warfare and especially disease. European explorers and migrants destroyed whole cultures, societies, ethnic groups and civilizations. Speaking of Native Americans, Thomas Jefferson declared, "In war they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them." Genocide continued, reshaped to fit the purpose of the emerging nation-states of the 19th century. From the Ottoman Turks mass atrocities against the Armenians, to the exterminationist policies of British settlers in Australia and Tasmania to Stalin's purges and the killing fields of Pol Pot--genocide has been a part of dictatorships and democracies, fascists and colonialists, capitalists and communists. No form of government or social system yet seems immune.

Today the "G"-Word is still with us, as are the atrocities that define it. Names like Rwanda and now Darfur remain etched in our minds as both terrible and unexplainable. LeBor details some of his own work interviewing both victims and perpertrators of genocide in Bosnia. He recalls Milan Kovacevic in particular, who ran the Serb detention camp at Omarska where between 1992 and 1995 some 5,000 Bosnian Muslims perished. Kovacevic years later himself could not explain when and where the march towards genocide began. "It was planned to have a camp for people, but not a concentration camp... ," he would recount puzzled. "I cannot explain the loss of control.... You could call it collective madness."

What LeBor points to in his article, and what may be the most disturbing lesson for us to swallow, is that genocide seems to be part of the human condition. There is nothing that inherently points out that one group is more prone to committing genocide than another. Everyone seems able, both state and ordinary citizen, if and when the time comes. Most are in denial, even while they are carrying it out. "Every group is inherently capable of violence;" Turkish historian Taner Akcam points out, "when the right conditions arise this potential may easily become reality, and on the slightest of pretexts. There are no exceptions."
Read Adam LeBor's article and his literary review here:

Human, All Too Human

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