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Genocide: A Perspective on a Human Curse
A world’s response to one of the 20th century strongest and most chilling words in the history of the human language: genocide. The common definition is the deliberate targeting a specific group of people for extermination, based nationality, ethnicity, political, or nationality. The phrase first came into the human consciousness in 1944 from a Polish-Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin. It has since been used to describe the killings in Armenia in 1915, the eviction and migration of Muslims from the Punjab Province in 1951, Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia in 1995, the Sudan in 2003, and the Yazidis in Iraq today.
Turn of Phrase
It is a generally accepted fact that killings of civilians during wartime and invasions was something that just happened as a consequence. Collateral damage, a fact of life, with some groups being better at it than others. When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, they killed most of the population numbering in the millions and brought the Golden Age of Islam to a bloody end. Warlords in either Asia or Europe were never beyond burning a village or two to make a point or stamp out rebellion. And the Vikings were almost as infamous as the Mongols when it came to raiding, raping, and pillaging.
However none of these were called genocide. A Massacre? Yes. Mass Murder, definitely. Even the phrase, “crime against humanity” has been used before to describe these events. And yet none of them have approached the gravitas and level of shame that genocide has. In this past year, both Pope Francis and, Ironically enough, Germany, have come out and call the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as an act of genocide by Turkey. Many have been calling for the killings to be recognized as that for years, and Turkey has ferociously denied the charge, though agreeing that the killings did take place. Their own numbers put the dead at 300,000. In contrast, the Armenians placed it higher: 1.5 million. The interest of note hear isn’t the fact that people died, it was how many and how that leveled the claim of genocide.
The Rwandan Civil War was modern example that genocide was not a relic of the World War Two
So is it the numbers then that define genocide? It is an important question because since its introduction, many groups have claimed the label as what had happened to their people. For example, some have claimed the Black experience in the Americas as genocide. And there is still dispute among scholars about whether the Native American experience qualifies for that label as well. Sadly, genocide carries a considerable…’currency’, when it comes to getting things done for the justice of your people.
However, what created the term in the first place wasn’t just the mass killings of Jews during the war. No, what set the Holocaust apart was how systematic it was. How the Nazis literally categorized and kept track of whole families and populations: the numbers taken, where they were taken to, and how many were killed. It was literally like cattle, beyond obsessive in nature and industrial in its precision.
This systematic focus is seen today with the Yazidi population in Iraq, where ISIS has turned many of its women into sex slaves. They are forced to convert and like the Jews before, documented as property by their ‘owners’ so that if one escapes, that notice is sent to every checkpoint in the territory.
Though often used as a political proxy, the weight of the label is very clearly felt on those that receive it, that if they have any sort of social consciousness about it. It carries with it a great and lasting shame that does not go away.
Germany, the poster boy of genocide, is clear case of this. Seventy-one years since World War Two, and the country has done a complete 180 degree reversal from where it was in 1933 when Hitler was elected Chancellor. It is prosperous and more than most European nations, pushes for equality and fighting against intolerance of ethnic groups, going so far as to be the first European country to take in Syrian refugees in 2015. And yet despite that, when many people think about the country, the Holocaust still comes up in the top five things its known for.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of genocide however, is how common place it has become as a word and to a certain extent, as an action. Yes, a country receiving the label of genocide has an albatross around its neck. Yet despite that, not much is done to try and prevent it. Some perpetrators don’t even care whether they’re considered genocidal or not, as is the case with ISIS. Just because an event is called genocide doesn’t guarantee intervention either, as was the case in Rwanda in the 1990’s.
In 2016, we hold this hope that we are a better world than our predecessors. Yet, this tendency continues to haunt us, along with many other injustices. And in the moment, we promise, “Never again”, and it still comes back around, hiding behind the brush of politics, religion, and eventual human, provincial apathy.
One wonders what would’ve happened in 1940 if the allied nations had officially known of Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews from existence, and if we would have gone to war for that cause…