(For foreign policy buffs, remember to check out On V's Christmas Gift Recommendations.)
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.)