Genocide: “That kind of shakes you up, gets your attention.”

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Jonah

13th century Tomb of Jonah. It’s history now.

On Friday, we said the “g” word has a lot of gravitas. An unnamed government official agreed in the most literal way: “That word has a lot of weight.” But this weekend post from Politico has left me more confused than ever:

But Thursday morning, the urgency to act in Iraq became clear: Obama’s advisers warned that there would likely be a genocide.

“I had not heard the word ‘genocide’ used in the Situation Room before,” the official said. “That word has a lot of weight.”

The reports from the intelligence community and the State Department were vivid and compelling, the official said: People were dying of hunger and thirst, women risked being enslaved and the existence of a religious minority looked imperiled. It more than met the legal definition of genocide, aides told Obama.

“While we have faced many difficult humanitarian challenges, this was in a different category,” the official said. “This was qualitatively different from even the awful things we have confronted in different parts of the region because of the targeted nature, the scale of it, the fact this is a whole people. That kind of shakes you up, gets your attention.”

I’m somewhat flabbergasted by this report. Tens of thousands of Yazidis had been cornered on a mountain, and were already burying scores of children, the ill, and the elderly in shallow graves after they had died of hunger or thirst. Clearly the ISIS intent was to kill without mercy adherents of the fascinating “devil-worshipping” religion – and those plans were not a possible genocide, but one that was well underway. As we wrote on Friday, Norm Naimark defined genocide as “the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.” So how many have to be “eliminated” before it is considered genocide? How many murdered to determine intent (even when the intent has been openly stated already)?

obama3I’m glad the horrific situation with the little-known Yezidis finally inspired some action, but I have been tracking the genocidal intent toward Iraqi Christians for months and waving my arms and jumping up and down about it (read the links on the Wikipedia entry here for some of the history). It’s too bad the ancient Chaldean, Melkite, Syriac Armenian, and Assyrian churches in Iraq, who numbered 1.5 million adherents a decade ago, failed to capture the public attention in quite the same way. About 200,000 are now fleeing their homes, given the choice of leaving fast with nothing but the clothes on their backs or being slaughtered. This may be about the total of all the Iraqi Christians left, and Mosul for the first time in 2,000 years has been emptied of them.

Clearly, words matter. This raises another question about genocide: is it only the most camera-ready situations that get labeled genocide? Only those people who manage to capture the public fancy?

If it hadn’t been for the Yezidis and the Kurds, would we be allowing the remainder of these Christians, and other minorities, to be robbed, beaten, raped, mutilated, beheaded, crucified, and otherwise killed or put to flight? What about the horrific massacres of Shia minorities (read about it here)? If no one calls it genocide, did it not happen? If a tree falls in the forest…


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