Weekly Read: “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide

There is no such thing as a magic word.

As a writer, much less a writer of fantasy, that’s a hard thing to remember some times. But the reason words can hold sway in fantasy is precisely because the story being told isn’t set in the real world. Here in reality, even that most magic of all words – “Abracadabra!” – only has power because the magician uttering it has convinced the audience to buy into the trick their performing (as someone in The Prestige points out, the audience wants to be fooled).

Pro se litigants in the criminal justice system often think words have some kind of magic power. If only they can find the right sentence in a Supreme Court decision then the judge will have to overturn their conviction or vacate their sentence! I’ve seen it over and over in my years practicing law. That the law is rarely that clear and that their ultimate fate is left in the hands of another human being, with all their flaws and biases, can be hard to accept.

I thought about that a lot while reading A Problem from Hell. Samantha Powers’ 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner is an exhaustive examination of how the United States did (or, more often, did not) respond to genocidal crises that arose in the 20th Century, from the Armenian Genocide during the First World War through the multiple rounds of horribles in the former Yugoslavia.

Power spends a good amount of time on Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled at the earliest inklings of the Holocaust. He eventually came to the United States and made it his life’s work to create some international law that would address the systematic destruction (or attempted destruction) of an entire people. It was Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” and helped shape the Genocide Convention that was passed by the newly formed United Nations in 1948.

Make no mistake – this was a big deal. After the Holocaust and the Nuremburg Trials it wasn’t a given that the international community would make a fairly unified statement that genocide was a crime against humanity. And yet, the fact that there was a name for such horrors (along with a legalistic definition) didn’t magically change behaviors. Not only did further atrocities occur, but the international community, now committed to the idea of “never again,” nonetheless let it happen repeatedly.

One reason is that once the atrocity has a name, it gives the parties involved a way to argue that this particular set of killings or expulsions doesn’t rise to that level. In other words, if it’s not “genocide,” then there’s much less incentive to do something about it. That’s because, very often, there are other considerations in play than just stopping someone from doing evil. At best there’s the fact that exactly how to deal with genocide while it’s underway is always hard to figure out. In fact, Powers, for all her catalogs of what the United States didn’t do, doesn’t offer many alternatives, aside from the use of military force. That can be a hard ask in the 21st Century (not for nothing, but Powers’ book was written just as 9/11 happened and before US quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan). At worst, the people doing all the killing are allies, even if we’re reluctant about calling them that (US policy towards the Khmer Rouge was basically driven by “yeah, but they hate the Vietnamese, too” thinking).

As a result, a lot of time is wasted on terminology. So long as perpetrators can drag out the question of whether something is genocide or not, the killings go on and their plan comes closer to fruition. Since there are no magic words, what’s the point in wasting time making sure we’re using the right one? That dance of nomenclature is one of the themes of Powers’ book.

One of the others is how bipartisan US politics was when it came to dealing with genocide. The champions of ratifying the Genocide Convention – which the US didn’t do until 1988 – came from both parties. Indeed, in classic American fashion, the final ratification wasn’t a triumph of principle, but a political gambit to deflect from a scandal.

The other thread that I found really interesting in all of these genocides is how unready the world is to believe it’s happening. Part of that is down to people just not wanting to believe something so horrible is going on. There’s an anecdote about Lemkin trying to convince a Supreme Court Justice (I forget who, specifically) that the Holocaust is happening and the Justice’s response is, basically, “I can’t believe you – I just can’t wrap my head around the barbarity of it.” Beyond that, though, there’s two related lenses through which people look at these situations that keep prompt responses from happening.

The first is that information about atrocities often comes first from people who survive them, mostly refugees fleeing to other places. Repeatedly, authorities downplay the reports of refugees until they reach such a critical mass that they can’t be ignored. While we know more and more about how unreliable eyewitness accounts can be, it can be all too easy to let prudence and caution roll over into dug in skepticism. The second is that there are repeated examples of the outside world doubting atrocities are taking place because it’s not a logical thing for the perpetrators to do. Who would risk the opprobrium of the international community by trying to kill off or otherwise destroy an entire population? But, of course, history shows that perpetrators usually get away with it, at least to a certain extent. And for true believers, what’s the big deal about after-the-fact punishment if you succeeded in your goal?

Ultimately the problem of how to deal with genocide is the problem of international law at its most acute. Put simply, international law only works as well as the nations committed to it allow it to work. There is no outside force, no world police, to enforce promises nations make to one another if those nations aren’t willing to enforce them. One of the provisions of the Genocide Convention was to allow one state to take another to an international court to stop an ongoing genocide. It took until 2019, when The Gambia took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on behalf of the Rohingya, for that to happen and it’s still not clear whether the court’s ruling will really have any impact.

It would be great if words were magical, but the hard truth of history is that they aren’t. It takes more than a label to get people and nations to do the right thing, even if it should be as simple as stepping up and saying, “stop killing defenseless people.” That’s why something like genocide really is a “problem from hell.”

FromHell

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