When is murder genocide? Obama drops the “g” word.

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The word that gives gravitas.

It was, perhaps, his most statesmanlike moment: a president brought to the decision he didn’t want to make, to defend a far-off nation he’d hoped was part of our nation’s past. “Earlier this week, one Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” President Obama said in a somber statement delivered from the State Dining Room. “Well, today America is coming to help.”  The New York Times described the situation with a certain amount of prissiness:

Speaking at the White House on Thursday night, Mr. Obama also said that American military aircraft had dropped food and water to tens of thousands of Iraqis trapped on a barren mountain range in northwestern Iraq, having fled the militants, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who threaten them with what Mr. Obama called “genocide.”

Dropping the “g” word gives gravitas to any presidential statement. What Mr. Obama “called” genocide presumably included not only the attempt to wipe the small tribe of Yezidis off the face of the earth by allowing them to die of thirst and hunger on a mountain, but also the attempt to erase 2,000 years of Christian history in Iraq, along with its Chaldean, Assyrian, and other adherents (some of whom are the last speakers of Aramaic anywhere – we wrote about that here), along with the massacre of hundreds of young Shia men at Takrit, with more, much more, to come.

If that’s not genocide, what is? What does it take to get the scare quotes off? It’s a more complicated question than might first appear. The current definition includes the planned elimination of national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups. In that case, the definition definitely embraces what is happening in Iraq today, even if carried out by a non-governmental actor.

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Genocide as “the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.” (Photo: John LeSchofs)

However, Norman Naimark, author of  Stalin’s Genocides, argues that we need a much broader definition of genocide, one that includes nations killing social classes and political groups. His case in point: Joseph Stalin. I wrote about this a couple years ago, here – it turns out that the Soviet genocidaire had a hand in deciding how we define the word genocide.  The Soviet delegation to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide vetoed any definition that might indict its own leader, who killed 15-20 million of his own people.

Accounts “gloss over the genocidal character of the Soviet regime in the 1930s, which killed systematically rather than episodically,” said Naimark. In the process of collectivization, for example, 30,000 kulaks were killed directly, mostly shot on the spot. About 2 million were forcibly deported to the Far North and Siberia.

He argues that the Soviet elimination of a social class, the kulaks (who were higher-income farmers), and the subsequent killer famine among all Ukrainian peasants – as well as the notorious 1937 order No. 00447 that called for the mass execution and exile of “socially harmful elements” as “enemies of the people” – were, in fact, genocide.

“I make the argument that these matters shouldn’t be seen as discrete episodes, but seen together,” said Naimark, who argues that social classes and political groups should be considered in the definition of the “g” word. “It’s a horrific case of genocide – the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.”

Read “Stalin killed millions. A Stanford historian answers the question, was it genocide?” here.  (We’ve written about Norm elsewhere, here and here and here and here.) Also, Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum, and Norm on genocide here.

Postscript: Here’s more: “Isis persecution of Iraqi Christians has become genocide, says [sic] religious leaders” in The Guardian. You mean marking homes with a “nun” sign; torturing, mutilating, raping Iraqi Christians; the destruction of 1,800-year-old churches and shrines; beheading children and crucifying adult adherents; burning homes and driving thousands of people from their homes with a warning to convert or be put to the sword – that didn’t count already? Is it  only the success of the mission what determines the label “genocide,” rather than the intent? In that case, the Holocaust was not genocide because it failed to kill every Jew.


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