So let this post begin with a thousand-and-one mitigations: Turkey clearly has a lot to come to terms with, vis-à-vis the mass killings of Armenians at the beginning of World War I; it is absurd that Turkish scholars researching the question should be subject to death threats and criminal prosecutions for positing that a genocide occurred; and whatever one chooses to call the killing of 600,000 Armenians (a conservative estimate), it was doubtless a shameful, uncivilized act that ignobly began the history of a new republic, Turkey, that has prided itself on what may well be a delusion of civilization.
But something is frustrating about the myopia and vigor with which activists and scholars pursue this term “genocide.” One sees it everywhere. Activists became outraged when the American government lagged in its declaration that the mass killings in Darfur constituted a “genocide.” (They believed — naively, and on the basis of an unenforceable international convention — that a declaration of this sort would spur the West into action.)
And then, from the academy, one occasionally runs into a phrase like this (from Scott Jaschik’s piece in today’s Inside Higher Ed), which induces a reflexive cringe:
the International Association of Genocide Scholars issued a letter in which it said that the “overwhelming opinion” of hundreds of experts on genocide from countries around the world was that a genocide had taken place.
Let us contemplate for a moment the notion that there is such a thing as a “genocide scholar.” Might that not imply a priori that a determination of genocide is something a bit too technical, a bit too rigorous, in other words a bit too unaligned with the mass cataclysm that the very term “genocide” is supposed to imply? Does it not seem a bit topsy-turvy that this unifying body derives its credibility from a claimed specialty in “genocide” and not in, say, Ottoman or Sudanese or Eastern European history? (It reminds me of Jack Gladney, the dubious chair of the Hitler Studies Department, in Don DeLillo’s White Noise.) In any case, is it really necessary to have an “international association” of such “genocide scholars” who, self-appointed, make pronouncements on these matters?
What’s so frustrating about this recent dispute is that no party in the current U.S. debate disputes that mass killings occurred, and that the Young Turks who would come to lead the Turkish republic were largely responsible. Rather, it’s “genocide” that is the issue — that is, not whether killings occurred, but what the killers were thinking when they did it.
And, pace the haughtiness that courses throughout Jaschik’s discussion of this aggrandized notion of “intent,” there is quite a lot of room to debate the matter. As Richard Cohen points out in the Washington Post:
The substantial Armenian communities in Constantinople, Smyrna and Aleppo were largely spared. No German city could make that statement about its Jews.
To paraphrase: If Armenians were spared in urban centers but not in their traditional land-holdings, could the killing have had more to do with control of land than with the pathological desire to exterminate a people?
My point in asking that question isn’t to say that the question matters. In fact, it matters very little to all besides the historians to whom this question would best be relegated.
The great irony of this myopia on “genocide” is that, contrary to all the “never again” talking points, the worst abuses of human rights nowadays, in terms of numbers killed, aren’t precisely genocidal. The catastrophe befalling Darfur once was, rather unassailably, genocidal in nature. Ironically, violence in Darfur has only increased, even while anarchy has taken hold and the ethnic/racial division of the violence — those who perceive themselves as Arab versus those perceived as “black” — has crumbled. (Now, Arabs kill other Arabs, too.) In other words, what’s happening in Darfur has probably stopped being a genocide even while more people are being killed.
I find it incredible that something that can be reduced to a fine-tuned bit of academic sophism has so captivated the American political debate.