From genocide to mass atrocities

8 mins read

In 1943, Polish resistance member Jan Karski secured a meeting with American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Karski was desperate to find a sympathetic audience for the intelligence he had obtained by sneaking into Nazi concentration camps. At the time, there was little understanding in United States or Western Europe of the scale and intensity of Nazi atrocities. In Samantha Power’s telling of the encounter, Frankfurter waited for Karski to finish before saying, “I don’t believe you.” Karski protested, before Frankfurter responded, “I do not mean that you are lying. I simply said that I cannot believe you.” Frankfurter was unable to comprehend the scale of atrocities Karski was accurately describing. Frankfurter wasn’t alone. At the time, the concept of massive violence directed at civilians didn’t exist. Civilian casualties were certainly accepted as a part of war, but no specific word or phrase existed to fully encapsulate the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who had narrowly escaped the Holocaust, fought hard for years to make the world fully appreciate the realities of mass killing. Beyond his personal experience during World War II, he was also fascinated by the horrors of the Armenian genocide and other episodes of mass killing. Lemkin had a keen understanding of the capabilities of governments to murder civilians on a large scale. To help others gain the same understanding, Lemkin placed his faith in language, feeling that if there were just a distinct word to describe the extent of the crimes of the Holocaust, societal rejection of future potential mass killing episodes was more likely. In “A Problem from Hell,” Samantha Power describes Lemkin’s quest:

“Ever since Lemkin had heard Churchill’s 1941 radio address, he had been determined to find a new word to replace “barbarity” and “vandalism,” which had failed him at the 1933 Madrid conference. Lemkin had hunted for a term that would describe assaults on all aspects of nationhood — physical, biological, political, social, cultural, economic and religious. He wanted to connote not only full-scale extermination but also Hitler’s other means of destruction: mass deportation, the lowering of the birth rate by separating men from women, economic exploitation, progressive starvation, and the suppression of the intelligentsia who served as national leaders . . . Lemkin saw he needed a word that could not be used in other contexts (as ‘barbarity’ and ‘vandalism’ could). He self-consciously sought one that would bring with it ‘a color of freshness and novelty’ while describing something ‘as shortly and as poignantly as possible.’ But Lemkin’s coinage had to achieve something Eastman’s did not. Somehow it had to chill listeners and invite immediate condemnation.”

The word Lemkin chose was “genocide” which combined the Greek “genos” (meaning “race” or “tribe”) and the Latin “caedere” (meaning “to kill”). Lemkin’s persistence assured the word was in fact ingrained in international law, and almost single-handedly, Lemkin planted the notion that governments can and do kill huge numbers of civilians in the world’s collective conscience.

At the time, Lemkin’s success was revolutionary. However, it’s time to move on from using the word “genocide”. “Genocide” simply doesn’t cover all episodes of mass killing because its legal definition excludes political groups from being potential victims and stipulates that there must be an intent to destroy “in whole or in part” the victim group. The definition is too focused on the specific experience of Jews during the Holocaust, which problematizes the generalization of “genocide” to other episodes of mass killing with different characteristics. The Khmer Rouge’s action in Cambodia and counterinsurgent mass atrocities (the Syrian conflict) don’t count as genocides, but one would be right to question why certain types of mass killing are any worse than others. Does it really matter if something constitutes genocide if a large number of people are dying as a result of an intentional policy? The use of “genocide” privileges certain types of killing over others, and as activists seek to draw attention to mass violence by using the word “genocide” whether or not it’s accurate, the meaning of the word is simultaneously diluted.

Ironically, Lemkin’s success in promoting the word “genocide” allows us now to abandon it. The idea that “genocide” exists and is something that we as a global community should fight is a well-diffused norm. From my anecdotal experience telling people what I’m interested in, regular Americans with no connection to politics or academia understand the basic tenets of a genocide. Now that the concept of “genocide” has been successfully propagated, there is a perfect opportunity for civilian protection advocates to diffuse a new norm that leads to a more complete understanding of the nature of mass killing. “Mass atrocities” is the most widely used term in the academic and activist discourse on episodes of mass killing, and adopting it in place of “genocide” to describe various types of intentional mass killing makes sense in the future.

For various reasons, “mass atrocities” makes the most sense in the present historical moment to serve as a catch-all term for different variations on mass killing. Unfortunately, it is not without its flaws. From my own personal experience, different people have different interpretations of what “mass atrocities” implies. In my personal view, it’s limited to lethal attacks, but a very reasonable argument could be made that rape and mutilation should also be included. Even if we decide that rape and mutilation are a potential component of mass atrocities, can a deathless mass atrocity exist? Are a certain number of rapes and mutilations equivalent to a death? Therefore, perhaps “mass killing” is more appropriate, but it suffers from a lack of use outside of certain academic circles. Another problem is that both “mass atrocities” and “mass killing” suffer from not fully conveying that the killings must be a part of a fairly coherent and intentional plan, rather than an aggregation of totally unrelated violence. Perhaps in the future, another time will present the need to diffuse another norm.


The Phoenix