An end to slaughter

National Post (Canada)
November 13, 2009 Friday
National Edition

An end to slaughter

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen offers an ambitious plan to ensure the 21st
century isn’t as bloody as the 20th

Genocide is much discussed and poorly understood. It is regularly
decried, yet little is done to prevent it.

Perhaps we fail to prevent genocides not because they can’t be
stopped, and not just because we lack the will to stop them, but
because we have misunderstood their nature. Perhaps if we understood
genocide properly, a feasible path to stopping this scourge of
humanity would become apparent.

It may seem bold to say that we have not understood genocide. But,
after studying the subject for decades, that is the conclusion I have
reached. Genocides are so horrifying, so seemingly in defiance of the
ordinary rhythms of social life, so threatening to what we believe we
know about ourselves and the world — so out of this world — that we
don’t think clearly about them. We need to start over and rethink
their every aspect.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, mass murderers have killed
more, perhaps many more, than 100 million people — a much greater
number than have died as a consequence of conventional military
operations. So genocide is, by this fundamental measure, worse than

Furthermore, people tend to think of our era’s mass slaughters — of
Armenians, Jews, Kurds, Bosnians, Tutsis, Kosovars, and Darfuris (not
to mention recent history’s long list of less-well-known mass murders)
— as discrete, unusual events. This is wrong: Large-scale mass murder
is a systemic feature of modern states and the international system.

The foundational problem, in fact, is not even genocide. Genocide,
however we define it, is but one expression of a broader and more
fundamental phenomenon: eliminationism.

Political and social conflicts among groups exist in all human
societies. In many societies, groups come to be seen as deleterious to
the well-being of the majority or, sometimes, a powerful minority. How
this happens and the character of the pernicious qualities projected
onto such groups vary enormously. When it does, people can deem the
perniciousness of such populaces to be so great that they want to
neutralize them by eliminating the group or by destroying its capacity
to inflict putative harm. So they employ any of the five principal
means of elimination: forced transformation, repression, expulsion,
prevention of reproduction, or extermination. But, whatever means they
choose, the desire and the attempt to eliminate peoples or groups
should be understood as the core problem.

Precisely because these eliminationist means are functional
equivalents, perpetrators typically use several of them
simultaneously. The Turks did so for the Armenians. The Germans did so
for the Jews. The Sudanese have done so for their victims, and so did
the Serbs.

Whenever we see these large-scale violent assaults, such as expulsions
or incarcerations mixed together with killing, we should immediately
recognize them as being eliminationist assaults, and respond to them
with all the vigor that we ought to apply to genocides. And we should
certainly not sit on our hands with pointless debates about
definitions — does it qualify as genocide? — as we have done with
the former Yugoslavia and Darfur. We should realize that the
non-lethal aspects of eliminationist assaults are as critical to
combat as the killing itself.

Appreciating this helps to make clear that the problem we are
confronting is even more vast and more urgent. Genocide and
eliminationism should no longer receive the third-rate treatment that
they currently do from our politicians: They should be at the core of
present and future international policy-making.

Beyond appreciating its breadth, there are two other crucial facts we
need to recognize about eliminationism.

First, it is a form of politics. Like war, eliminationism is the
extension of politics by other means. Political leaders use
eliminationist measures to maintain or further power, socially and
politically transform a country, defuse a real or putative threat,
purify a society according to some ideological blueprint, or achieve
any of many other aspirations. Mass murder and elimination are thus
politics not in a superficial sense, but at their core, because they
are purposeful, calculated acts of leaders meant to achieve political

Second, even though eliminationism may be grounded in widespread
beliefs among groups about the pernicious nature of other people, such
hatreds or prejudices are not what unleash eliminationist assaults.
Eliminationist assaults are not spontaneous popular outbursts. Like
other major state policies requiring large institutional mobilization
and regional or nationwide co-ordination, eliminationism is initiated
by one political leader or a small group of leaders, who at a specific
moment make a discrete decision to expel, kill, or otherwise eliminate
the targeted people.

Idi Amin initiated the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Uganda.
Presidents Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia and Jose Efrain Rios Montt were
responsible for the mass murder in Guatemala of Mayans under the guise
of counterinsurgency. Mengistu Haile Mariam masterminded and initiated
the various Ethiopian eliminationist programs. Pol Pot and the Khmer
Rouge leaders around him instituted the murderous policies that took
almost two million Cambodian lives. The Argentinean junta’s members
started the "dirty war" against their real and imagined enemies.
Augusto Pinochet authorized the slaughter of thousands in Chile. Hafez
Al Assad gave the order to indiscriminately murder people in the
Syrian town of Hama. Saddam Hussein orchestrated the annihilation of
hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Slobodan Milo?evic enacted one
Serbian eliminationist onslaught after the next. Theoneste Bagosora,
the Rwandan Ministry of Defense’s director of services, and a small
circle of associates set in motion the comprehensive assault on the
Tutsis. Omar Al Bashir and the other political Islamists who run Sudan
initiated the mass murder of Darfuris. In none of these cases was the
eliminationist assault inevitable. These decision-makers could have
decided otherwise. They could have spared innumerable lives.

So why did they decide to do it? Even the most monstrous leaders have
also been pragmatic and purposeful politicians. All sought power and
all made every effort to keep it. Even when political leaders are —
like their followers, who willingly implement their policies
–animated by hatred, even when they dehumanize the targeted people,
they are still politicians, which means they are still interested in
power. They will pursue eliminationist policies only if they believe
these policies will succeed at enhancing their own power or furthering
cherished goals — that is, only if they believe the benefits to
themselves will outweigh the costs.

Recognizing that eliminationism — not only its most murderous
variant, genocide — is a widespread problem, and that it is a form of
politics, and that it is pursued by leaders who believe (almost always
correctly) that it will benefit them, how can we respond politically?

Past efforts have accomplished little. The 60-year-old U.N. Convention
on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide has proven
itself almost useless, and the United Nations, as the international
community’s lead institution, has been a foot-dragging disaster, doing
more to enable eliminationist leaders than to stop them. Special
tribunals and the International Criminal Court (ICC), all necessary
and good, have been too late, too slow, and too partial to be
effective — the ICC took more than five years from the start of the
Darfur genocide just to issue an unenforceable arrest warrant for Al

A robust anti-eliminationist system would contain three substantial
and interrelated components: prevention intervention, and punishment.

Currently, there is no prevention regime, only infrequent attempts at
intervention, and rarely any punishment. All three parts of such a
system need to be thought through, but preventing eliminationist
assaults, more than intervening to end them or punishing the
perpetrators after the fact, should be our initial focus.

Prevention works in two ways. First, changing the mindset of leaders
and creating conditions that make eliminationism utterly unworkable
removes it from the toolkit of political leaders so that pursuing such
politics does not even occur to them. Democratic institutions do this
effectively. Mass murder and elimination have ever more become
domestic rather than international matters. And not only do today’s
democracies not practice such domestic politics, but, it is fair to
say, eliminationism is not even a consideration for their leaders. A
world of democracies would be a world without mass murder, or, at
worst, with an enormously reduced incidence of it.

Second, and far more immediately effective and doable, is radically
altering the cost-benefit calculus of political leaders and the
immediate subordinates upon whom they rely, to make the price of
eliminationist politics so costly that leaders will not opt for it.

Let’s look at two possible measures for raising the price of
eliminationism. If leaders knew that initiating eliminationist
assaults would turn them into permanent outlaws — that is, the legal
doctrine of hostis humani generis (enemies of humanity), until now
applied to pirates, would apply to them for the rest of their lives
–and, if they understood that they would be relentlessly hunted until
they were brought to justice, their cost-benefit calculations would
radically change. If not just leaders but all their high-ranking
civilian and military subordinates were similarly declared
international outlaws (by dint of serving in institutions that,
according to international law, can clearly be deemed criminal
organizations) and subject to the same penalties as the political
leaders, those leaders would calculate their chances of enlisting
their subordinates, and relying on their cooperation, very

Of course, as the ICC has shown, indicting an eliminationist leader is
easier than bringing him to justice. But what if the democratic
countries of the world were to adopt a modified version of the United
States’s Rewards for Justice program — which has led to the capture
and killing of major terrorists and, when instituted after the fact,
Rwandan genocidaires — guaranteeing that any eliminationist assault
would immediately trigger million-dollar bounties being placed on the
heads of political and military leaders and their high-ranking
subordinates? Then the critical conditions of deterrence would be met.
No political leader, wanting the good life, would want to be wanted
dead or alive.

There are other deterrents available as well. Most dictators rely on
their militaries to stay in power. If dictators understood that their
eliminationist policies would trigger the destruction of their
country’s military capability, then this also would be a powerful
disincentive. Under such a policy, political leaders would quickly
learn: If they choose to initiate an eliminationist assault, the
world’s democracies, led by the United States, would bomb their
military bases and forces (steadfastly avoiding population centers and
civilian infrastructure).

If in 1900 you had said that it would be possible to end imperialism,
few would have believed you. Imperialism, after all, had been a fact
of the human condition for millennia. Likewise if you had said that it
would be possible to stop war from being the principal means by which
a large percentage of the countries of the world relate to one
another. Yet each has occurred. The notion that we could end
eliminationism– a phenomenon that has existed as long as humanity
–may seem similarly fanciful today. But it is much less unrealistic
than it sounds. – Daniel Jonah Goldhagen is the author of Worse Than
War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity,
from which this piece is adapted.