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On Genocide

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Our larger mission here at On Violence is to answer, what is Violence? We titled our website "On Violence" because we study more than just Afghanistan, Iraq and the Global War on Terror; we discuss Violence at large, as a concept and force in our lives. In that vein, I want to discuss the philosophical implications of one form of Violence, genocide.

In my opinion, you can map all Violence on a continuum. Where you place violent actions on that continuum is not determined by the size, audacity or intentionality of the action, but by the perceived justice or injustice of the violent action. On one end of the continuum are Just violent actions: self-defense, defense of others, and protection of the greater good. On the other end are unjust actions: rape, murder of the elderly, the sick and children (murder of the helpless).

How far can we go on the unjust end? On the continuum of violence, what is the most unjust action possible? Is there any violent action that is always unacceptable?

Towards that end, we have today's topic: genocide. Is genocide ever acceptable?

As with all things, first we must define our terms. First, the dictionary definition: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

Wikipedia goes further. They quote the United Nations Commission on Genocide: any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

These two definitions show that, in a genocide, belonging to the group is the only reason why an individual is killed. Whether that group is defined by ethnicity, culture, or political and religious beliefs, membership in a group is the only justification for murder. Genocide is both deliberate and systematic, focused on the extermination of a particular people.

So we can say that yes, genocide is unjust. It is unjust because the reasons for it are so arbitrary; it is punishment without cause. The only possible reason for a genocide would be that the existence of one group threatens the survival of another. However, history does not bear this out. One group can threaten another, but genocide is a step too far. The majority of genocides occur when a powerful group wants to rid itself of a perceived outside group.

For example, the Nazis in WWII committed a textbook genocide. Though they argued that Jewish people, the disabled and the Romani threatened their existence, history makes this view look silly. In Rwanda, the fighting between the Hutus and Tutsis that led to their genocide again had its basis in irrational fear.

Should genocide always be off the table? Yes. I make this final leap because I fear others in the global affairs and national security world may forget this. America once forgot that torture is always off the table. America will always have the right to defend itself. Self-defense is an inalienable right. But Genocide is never self-defense, and never warranted.

(Philosophy Bites is a great short podcast for anyone interested in philosophy. The cast on genocide defines a broad form of genocide I don’t support. Still it is an interesting discussion.

Also, Dr. Randy Borum highlights some unique attempts to bring Genocide into the realm of criminology, something I generally support.)

ten comments

I could see someone reading this and saying, well who supports genocide? Over on the comment’s thread of Rick’s Best defense blog, someone advocated that America ““nuke its way across both the USSR and the PRChttp://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/200..

Yeah, I was about to say “who really supports Genocide?”. In my opinion only an ignorant f—ktard or a fascist could suggest something like that and really mean it (somebody who probably thinks the USSR still exists, or doesn´t realize that nuking China means destroying the US´s largest trading partner and killing 1/3rd of the world´s population). If people making global decisions are really this far off their rocker as to implement a genocidal policy in an era of nuclear and bio weapons then this world is damned. Some people were afraid of someone without much perspective like Sarah Palin making a decision like that, but in all honesty I don´t see a current major global leader so horrendously irresponsible as to intentionally carry out a large scale genocidal policy right now. There are plenty of other things that global leaders could and should be criticized for, but not for being arbitrarily vindictive enough to advocate mass slaughter.

I would like to redact that last comment a litle bit. I see the sanctions on Gaza as harsh and severe, imposed upon an entire population, and bordering on Genocidal. You could make the argument that taking people´s land in the west bank is genocidal as well. Most people in Gaza are on a near starvation diet because of the sanctions. I´m not hear to bash Israel or anything (Egypt is equally responsible), but that in my opinion is mass punishment and attempted coercion of an entire civilian population for what Israel perceives as a security need.

Chris- In many ways, I am arguing against something no one said. Except that on some forums I have been to, I have read very aggressive language that verges on Genocide. At one point, I asked who on the forum would agree that Genocide is never an option. I don’t think anyone could actually say they would never support a genocide.

To agree with you, though, I don’t think any world leaders right now would be willing to commit genocide. Both America, China, Russia and Europe all know that working and trading together is better than all out war. One could argue that even the bulk of the Middle East know this as well. Nuke America and no one will want oil!

1. Thank god our leaders are more clear thinking than the populace, at times.

2. On V won’t touch Isreal palestine with a ten foot pole, at least until we’ve got a couple of years under our belt.

3. We need to start with the easy stuff, and we’ll move to morally ambigious stuff later. Also, we need a clear definition of genocide.

Does that mean eugenics is off the table?

With Palestine and Israel I just wanted to correct myself, Israel and Egypt I would call atleast very regionally influential if not global leaders. I don´t expect you guys to take a stance on that, I think you guys have enough on your plate as do I. You´re right saying Palestine / Israel is incredibly complex, the current conflict has decades of history to it, and is a controversial hot potato as well.

It is agreed that only people on the political fringes or who are paid to be ridiculous think that genocide is good. I think that the more interesting questions are should someone intervene to stop genocide; and when, where, how, and who should intervene to do so. I believe that the only time military intervention was used specifically to stop genocide was in the Balkans. First to end the three way war, after notable missteps, and then later to stop genocide before it began in Kosovo. This was not without cost, we are still in Kosovo. Was it worth it, should we do it again? What if other Great Powers are opposed to it? Also, Bill Clinton was attacked for Kosovo by both the right and the left (In Bowling for Columbine Michael Moore attacked him for bombing another country, which turned me off forever.). That has to have affected and will in the future affect other Presidents.

Hey Daniel,

Good point. If genocide is the ultimate evil, doesn’t that make war nessecary to stop it? I think we’ll need to write a followup post on this…

@Eric- Its a slippery slope finding reasons for war. You were the one who pointed out the entirety of the Ghandi quote.

@Daniel- Surprisingly, I have been on forums where Genocide was not openly rejected as a course of action. True “not rejecting” is not the same as advocating or calling it good, but I was surprised how few people were willing to say, Genocide is a line in the sand. Hence, why I wrote the post.