Why the Word “Genocide” Matters

Jeffrey Goldberg is aghast at several things I wrote in response to his arguments for attacking Iraq, mainly my questioning whether he is using the word “genocide” accurately in describing Saddam Hussein’s murder of Kurds. He and I aren’t disagreeing over how many Kurds Saddam killed, or how innocent they were, or even, in a sense, how grave a crime it was. (I vote for the death penalty, if it can be imposed without killing more innocent people.) So the debate over whether to call it genocide may seem purely semantic. But labels sometimes matter, and Goldberg has structured his argument for war in a way that makes this label matter a lot. 

But before revisiting the genocide issue, one quick clarification: Goldberg paraphrases my position on Islamic fundamentalists who want to kill Americans as follows: “The best thing to do would be to leave these people alone and hope they go away.” I’ve never believed that, and in fact I recently published an excruciatingly long war-on-terrorism series in this magazine in which I agreed that the destruction of the Taliban had been worthwhile and recommended doing lots of things other than “hope they go away”—such as implementing a fairly radical plan for dealing with weapons of mass destruction. And I’ve long said that war in Iraq is justified if Saddam Hussein defies U.N. weapons inspections mandates (as opposed to defying President Bush’s demands—which, as Thomas Friedman noted this week, have lately reached unjustified levels).

Now, as for the word “genocide” and why it matters:

So far as I can tell, Goldberg’s basic rhetorical strategy in advocating an invasion of Iraq is to short-circuit rational thought. He amasses so much detail on what a terrible man Saddam is—and there’s plenty—that you just feel viscerally that we have to kill the guy, regardless of the consequences. A key part of this strategy is to equate Hussein with the most evil man of the 20th century, Adolph Hitler. In fact, Goldberg is explicit in claiming that, if you accept the Saddam-Hitler equation, then the argument is basically over: “Saddam Hussein is uniquely evil, the only ruler in power today—and the first one since Hitler—to commit chemical genocide. Is that enough of a reason to remove him from power? I would say yes, if ‘never again’ is in fact actually to mean ‘never again.’ ”

Of course, preventing slaughter is a worthy cause regardless of whether you call the slaughter genocide. If a war would save 100,000 innocent Kurds, most Americans would support it and very few would care about the technical terminology. The trouble is that these Kurds have been dead for more than a decade, and war won’t bring them back. So if Goldberg’s “never again” argument is to justify a war, it has to do so in a roundabout way: Punishing Saddam Hussein will show future leaders that they can’t get away with wholesale slaughter. That’s a valid goal—again, regardless of what label you apply to Saddam’s crime—but it doesn’t have the same urgency as stopping slaughter. If the point of a war is just to punish one man for the sake of posterity, then an American president can afford to be prudently circumspect: weigh the costs, choose the time and place carefully, maybe even maneuver Saddam into a courtroom, as we finally succeeded in doing with Slobodan Milosevic. 

But Goldberg wants war, and he wants it now. So it does matter what we call Saddam’s mass murder of Kurds. Because if you call it genocide, and say “never again,” then you get people thinking of Saddam as Hitler, and they’ll be less likely to succumb to prudence and circumspection and more likely to go with their gut.

In this light, it’s not surprising that, after I expressed skepticism about Goldberg’s use of the word “genocide,” he replied with high-voltage indignation. (Click here for the crux of my disagreement with Goldberg and others on this issue.) And, even aside from Goldberg’s tactical considerations, I can see how, having interviewed survivors of Saddam’s crimes, he might get impatient with someone who sits at a desk thousands of miles from the site of the atrocities and argues about how to label them. Still, none of this justifies this remarkable and revealing sentence in Goldberg’s post: “Wright should also remember that genocide-denial in the face of overwhelming evidence is a particularly nasty business.”

I can think of only one possible interpretation of this sentence: Goldberg is trying to link me with that very special group of people known as Holocaust deniers. Holocaust deniers, of course, claim that Hitler didn’t actually kill millions of Jews. In contrast, I’ve never disputed anyone’s claims about how many Kurds Saddam Hussein killed, or how he killed them, or how horrible it was. But apparently Goldberg is not one to let a minor problem with an analogy get in the way of a good line.

A further problem with Goldberg’s amazing slur is that, in insisting on a strict definition of “genocide,” one thing I’m trying to do is keep Hitler in a category of nearly unique evil—a goal that your average Holocaust denier doesn’t share. Hitler wanted to exterminate an ethnic group—not just kill some of its members to intimidate others into fleeing (like Milosevic) or kill some of its members to put down a nationalist rebellion (like Saddam), but actually kill all of them. I think we should have a special word for that. If Goldberg wants to define “genocide” so that it doesn’t serve that purpose, then I wish he’d at least think up a new word to take its place.

But if he did that, then Hitler would again be in a special category of evil, and Goldberg would have to work harder to convince people that we should invade Iraq. He might even have to address the questions Michael Kinsley raised in the post that started this dialogue, or some of the questions Steve Chapman has raised. How much easier to just equate Saddam with Hitler—and then, if anyone should have the audacity to question that equation, make a sleazy attempt to obliquely link him to Hitler.

But give Goldberg some credit. After insisting in the first round of this dialogue that invading Iraq would make Muslims “respect rather than hate” America, he has now admitted that this formulation was too simple, and that in fact American military action in the Middle East makes some Muslims hate us more. His new position is this: Even if invading Iraq would increase the amount of hatred, not invading Iraq would increase the amount of contempt. He paraphrases Bernard Lewis as saying that “America is more or less powerless to  turn hate into love, but that it still possesses the means to turn contempt into fear.” This dictum, Goldberg suggests (again citing Lewis), is borne out by the dearth of anti-American attacks since the Afghan war.

There’s a simpler explanation for the dearth of anti-American attacks, and it’s the conventional one: 1) the Afghan war and ancillary activities seriously disrupted al-Qaida’s infrastructure (for which the Bush administration deserves credit); 2) al-Qaida has always been the kind of organization that focuses on a series of big, ambitious projects, so even when it’s not disrupted, it takes a long time to reload between atrocities. Just about every analyst I’m aware of expects al-Qaida to rear its head again, to say nothing of the ease with which new groups can sprout up. And now that al-Qaida will become a “virtual organization”—lacking a fixed infrastructure in a sponsor state—disrupting it will get harder. It will be a fluid, mobile, nearly invisible organism whose lifeblood is hatred and that we nourish by generating more hatred. Jane’s Intelligence Digest recently estimated that al-Qaida is actually stronger than it was before Sept. 11—not because it has more physical assets, but because in Islamic states popular support for its anti-American political goals is so high. (I notice that in yesterday’s Pakistani legislative elections the pro-Taliban, anti-American parties did well—doubling their seats in areas near Afghanistan. I guess the Pakistanis forgot that the war in Afghanistan had turned their contempt into fear.)

But if Goldberg now grudgingly concedes some American influence over Islamic hatred, his basic position seems to remain that America should make no attempt to moderate that hatred. He still writes warmly about an epiphany he had more than a year before Sept. 11, while in Pakistan and Afghanistan: “Their hatred of America, I realized, was rooted in their culture, in the theology of Islamic supremacy, in their jealousy and rage at American success.” Here he seems to echo his hero, conservative icon Lewis, but it turns out he’s more extreme than Lewis. Lewis admits that some American policies—support of authoritarian regimes in Muslim states, of Israel, etc.—have helped feed Muslim rage. Goldberg, in contrast, concluded during his travels that Islamic hatred was “independent of American action.” Thus, he realized, “there was nothing left for us to do but fight them.”

What a bleak vision: an ongoing, global war with people who are energized by a hatred that we are basically powerless to influence, with our only hope being to fill the Muslim world with fear of American might. And in the real world this scenario will turn out to be bleaker than Goldberg realizes, because technological evolution is raising the conversion factor by which hatred of America translates into American deaths. Also, the terrorist menace will less and less require state sponsorship and less and less have a return address, so striking fear into its heart will get trickier, to say the least.

To summarize: 1) Even Goldberg now concedes that waging war increases Islamic hatred. 2) His hope that this effect is outweighed by a conversion of contempt into fear lacks supporting evidence. 3) In any event, technological trends are making it easier for hatred to morph into violence and harder to fill our increasingly elusive enemies with fear.  

So I continue to suggest that we start factoring into our policy deliberations the quantity of hatred that proposed policies generate—certainly including such policies as going to war. And I suggest that anyone who seems essentially indifferent to this quantity is someone who doesn’t get the picture, and whose advice we shouldn’t value highly.