Understanding Genocides
Stopping Eliminationist Politics

From the book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009. For more information, please visit Public Affairs

How do we break out of this suffocating, mass murder–abetting cyni­cism and inertia? In principle, it should not be difficult. The world’s non-mass-murdering countries are wealthy and powerful, having prodigious military capabilities (and they can band together). The countries perpe­trating mass murder and eliminationist politics, or tempted to do so, are overwhelmingly poor and weak (and each stands alone). Many could easily be stopped with a little military power and probably with other available, easily employable means. The powerful countries seriously ap­plying their resources would radically change potential perpetrators’ cost-benefit calculus, heavily tilting the scales toward noneliminationist political options.

What might a world standing against eliminationist and extermina­tionist politics look like? Of a political and legal response to mass murder and eliminationist politics’ three components—prevention, ces­sation or intervention, and punishment—the international community should focus on prevention. For three reasons: First, ideally elimina­tionist assaults would never begin (precluding the need for intervention and justice). We also know—or at least can strongly presume—that prevention works. It is manifestly so that our era’s mass murders and eliminations do not constitute the full set that would have happened had no deterrents—no domestic or international preventive structures— been in place. The simple fact is that democratic political institutions, in contrast to nondemocratic or tyrannical political institutions, radi­cally reduce eliminationist politics’ incidence. This fact alone shows prevention’s feasibility and, in principle, easy achievability. Prevention works in many other realms internationally (war—how many coun­tries would attack others if there were no military deterrence?) and do­mestically (crime) to reduce undesired and proscribed deeds. Second, developing an effective prevention regime, whatever the difficulty, is substantially easier than an interventionist one, which the world’s coun­tries and their international institutions have shown no willingness to create—and, with the Americans’ (and their allies’) difficulty in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be still less likely to want, at least for the fore­seeable future. External intervention’s recent successful instances, though heartening insofar as any such intervention is better than what came before, are less auspicious than they may seem. East Timor was a rare instance today of imperialist eliminationism, so it probably has lit­tle relevance for domestic eliminationist assaults and, even there, two decades of inaction preceded the intervention. The former Yugoslavia was the closest to some kind of proximity to Western consciences and interests causing huge refugee problems and destabilizing the region, yet even there only after colossal human tolls did NATO—but not the United Nations—mobilize itself to act. So the status quo continues: Eliminationist politics, with few exceptions, stop either when the per­petrating regime finishes its job or decides for other internal reasons to halt the assault, or when the perpetrating regime is defeated in war for reasons having little if anything to do with the eliminationist politics it­self. Finally, establishing a preventive regime is also preferable to rely­ing on a justice regime, which operates after the mass extermination and elimination have taken their toll. Furthermore, instituting a pre­ventive regime is easier than developing a regime meting out genuine justice (to all perpetrators and not just a select few), i.e., justice that in­cludes some certainty of timely punishment and that fulfills the exten­sive requirements of perpetrators’ political, material, and moral repair to right the wrongs and to repair the harm as best they can.

In thinking about prevention, we should bear in mind eliminationist campaigns’ frequent unpredictability. We need general measures that by their ordinary functioning will reduce mass slaughters and elimina­tions. In certain instances, an eliminationist assault, including mass murder’s potential imminence, becomes obvious, as it was in Rwanda and Kosovo. In such cases specific interventionist measures ought to be taken (just as intervention can occur immediately, or any time, after the slaughtering begins). But in general, and this is most relevant for crafting anti-eliminationist policies, we cannot count on foreknowledge or, in instances we acquire it, assume the relevant outside actors will decisively act to forestall the assault.

Thinking seriously about prevention should build upon the analysis of the critical political and nonpolitical factors generally producing mass murder and eliminationist politics: (1) features about modernity itself and the modern state; (2) structural relationships of certain states; (3) the international context (or environment); (4) beliefs about certain groups and understandings of politics and society that lead political leaders and their followers to think eliminating those groups desirable; and (5) proximate factors producing the political opportunity and will to turn eliminationist desires into eliminationist onslaughts.

In principle, prevention can take place and therefore target any or all of these factors. But as a practical matter, all these factors are not equally susceptible to alteration. If altered, not all would be equally ef­ficacious in reducing eliminationist politics’ incidence and destructive­ness. And not all are as easily or likely to be targeted with the necessary measures. Still, examining each one, at first briefly, can help point the way toward thinking more seriously about crafting effective and ade­quate policies.

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