The Politics of Genocide

Jonathan Kay

Spring is a season for black memories. April 24 marked the beginning of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. April 27 was Yom HaShoah, a day for Holocaust remembrance. The Rwandan Genocide, in which Hutu extremists slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, took place from April 7 to July 1994, a 100-day spasm of extermination that generated an average of 8,000 victims, or one whole Srebrenica massacre, every single day.
The term “genocide” was created by Raphael Lemkin in 1944. He intended the word “to signify a co-ordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”
Not surprisingly, activists and legal scholars have been arguing about the meaning of “plan” and “national groups” ever since.
Among Western scholars, for instance, the Turks’ mass murder of more than one million Armenians in 1915 is viewed as one of the great genocides of the 20th century. But to this day, many Turks insist otherwise.
When I wrote about the subject this week, a Canadian university professor of Turkish background admonished me for my “one-sided moral lecture,” and declared “many historians dispute Armenian claims. No court has ever ruled that this was indeed a case of genocide … Millions perished in [the dying days of the Ottoman Empire] not just Armenians, but many others, Turks, Kurds, Muslims. Is it consistent with Canadian values … to single out only one ethnic group’s loss?”
Apparently, it is: Canada is one of 21 nations that have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. And last weekend, at an Armenian memorial event in Toronto, federal Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney got a huge ovation when he declared the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg would feature a permanent exhibit devoted to the 1915 slaughter known to Armenians as Medz Yeghern.
Another speaker was former Toronto-area Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis, who spoke angrily about the pro-Turkish protestors who threatened to shout down an Armenian Genocide-commemoration ceremony in Ottawa he helped lead last week.
“The presence of the Turks here shows their shame is all over them, otherwise they wouldn’t be here,” he said in Ottawa. “What brainless idiot let them assemble here? I’m deeply disturbed by the presence of antagonists like this on Parliament Hill.”
Police kept the pro-Armenian and pro-Turkish crowds separate, so there was no violence. But Mr. Karygiannis’ angry tone points to an awkward fact about genocide commemoration: Although these events and exhibits are supposed to arouse a universalist appreciation of the need for tolerance, they also inevitably lead to vicious historical debates that actually exacerbate group animosities.
In other cases, the official commemoration of mass exterminations can encourage ethnic groups to fight for prominence as victims of history. Some Canadian Ukrainians, for instance, complain to me about the relative prominence of the Jewish Holocaust over other genocides — especially the Ukrainians who starved to death in the man-made Soviet famine of the early 1930s, known to Ukrainians as the Holodomor.
“The CMHR must contain a permanent and prominent gallery dedicated to the Holodomor and a permanent and prominent exhibit dedicated to the WW1 Internment Operations,” the Ukrainian Canadian Congress declared last year, after its members were given a tour of the facility.
“The planned portrayal of these two tragic human rights stories at the CMHR is insulting to human rights education and to the Ukrainian Canadian community. The Holodomor is represented on a panel buried in the back of a small gallery outside the washroom in the museum and the WW1 Internment is represented by a non-descript picture on the wall of another gallery.”
Jews also can get picky about the exact way in which the Holocaust is described. During a recent visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial and museum, I heard a guide lecture visitors in great detail about how the Holocaust was a singular act of evil that should not be lumped in as a generic manifestation of “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Yet it is exactly this idea — the Holocaust must be treated as the gold standard of epic human malignancy — that sometimes rankles activists from other groups: As many as 7.5 million Ukrainians starved to death in the Holodomor, a number comparable to the Holocaust. Most were peasants: Whole families died together, starving parents with their starving children under conditions of unimaginable anguish similar to those in the Warsaw ghetto. So why does every educated Western person know the word Holocaust, while few know anything about the Holodomor?
The same question applies to the Cambodian Genocide, one of the most arithmetically successful acts of mass slaughter in human history. In a country that had a population of about seven million in 1975, Pol Pot exterminated, either directly or indirectly, as many as three million. Even if the lower, oft-cited figure of 1.7 million is used, this still amounts to roughly 25% of the population.
In their lunatic campaign to transform the nation into a giant rural labour collective, the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities; snatched children from parents; turned farms into government-run slave camps; and annihilated anyone who spoke a foreign language, ran a school, owned a shop, wore glasses, or betrayed any other sign of education or status — filling 20,000 mass graves in the process.
And yet, to this day, scholars argue about whether Pol Pot was a true génocidiaire; and his atrocities generate only a fraction of the attention paid to other crimes against humanity.
The best explanation for this relates to motive. The original sins of Western civilization are slavery, colonialism and racism — and so we are conditioned, through guilt and civilizational self-reflection, to condemn any act of slaughter that seems animated by racial hate and bigotry.
But Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did not construct their campaign of extermination along ethnic or religious lines: Their pogroms were waged against a bizarre hodge-podge of perceived enemies: “saboteurs,” intellectuals, rebels, capitalists. Some ethnic groups did worse than others, the Cham minority, for instance. But as historian David Chandler noted, the Cham “weren’t mowed down because they were Cham. They were mowed down because they resisted.”
From a purely arithmetic point of view, it seems strange to me such fine points should make a difference: During the 20th century, totalitarian communism was at least as murderous as Nazism. But because communism always has presented itself as a universal creed aimed at perfecting human society, it usually is not spoken of in the same breath as its fascist cousin.
Yes, Stalin deliberately killed at least six million people — even aside from the many millions of others who died as the predictable result of his industrial policies. But many Western intellectuals of the 1930s, dazzled by the Marxist dream, averted their eyes. (Some still do.) Likewise, Pol Pot’s horrific Maoist-Leninist regime in the 1970s also does not fit neatly into the racist Holocaust paradigm even if, in the end, it all came to the same pile of skulls.
In a recent New York Review of Books article on the movies of French-Cambodian documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh, Richard Bernstein succinctly described the Khmer Rouge creed as one of “homicidal radicalism” and “purifying inhumanity.” He relates a disturbing interview, conducted by Mr. Panh in his 2003 film S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, of a former Cambodian camp guard named Prak Kanh. In one scene, Kanh describes how he tortured Nay Nan, a random teenage peasant who had been taken to the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, on the paranoid pretext that she was a foreign spy.
“Kanh instructed Nay Nan in the form [her] confession had to take,” Mr. Bernstein writes. “It had to be like a story, he told her, and it had to include the enemy network that she had belonged to and the names of its leaders. So Nay Nan, who worked at a Khmer Rouge hospital, duly confessed to having defecated on the hospital’s supply of rice and on its operating table in order to embarrass the hospital’s leaders [under orders of the Central Intelligence Agency]. The young woman, who was 19 years old and virtually illiterate, was taken to [a mass grave] and executed.”
Stories like this show how pointless it is to debate the question of how many corpses must dance on the head of a pin for a slaughter to be deemed a “true” genocide: In Nay Nan’s final seconds on this planet, was there any consolation in the fact her killers were ideologues, not racists — mere pawns of madmen who thought they were building a worker’s paradise on a foundation of bones? Did the Armenians who died clutching their babies in the Ottoman hinterlands suffer any less because Kurds and Turks were dying in other parts of the empire?
And herein lies the great paradox of memorializing genocides qua genocides: The whole exercise always is cast as one conducted for the victims and their suffering. Yet by agonizing and fighting over the semantics of genocide, we systematically ignore the way these victims actually die: as individuals full of individual grief and pain and love and loss. Everything else is arid semantics.
"National Post," May 2, 2014

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