Understanding Genocides
What We Can Do

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

Can there be any doubt that if the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda had been small countries nestled next to the United States, say immediately south of San Diego, then those countries’ leaders would not have embarked upon their eliminationist politics, let alone their ex­terminationist programs? Would Slobodan Milošević have tried to expel 1.5 million Kosovars into California, let alone slaughter eight thousand men (as he did in Srebrenica) in a city where Tijuana is today? Would he have set up concentration and rape camps and had roaming Serbian killing units within shouting distance of the American border, slaughtering men and raping women systematically in town after town? Would Théoneste Bagosora and the Hutu leadership have begun an at­tack to hack and club to death hundreds of thousands of people in full view of the American public and polity?

To ask these questions is to answer them: No. Milošević would not have dared. Bagosora and the Hutu leaders would not have dared. And had either done so, swift and massive American intervention would have ended the eliminationist assault, whatever its form. What does this thought experiment teach us? We can find out, if we ask why, prox­imate to San Diego, no political leaders, no matter the circumstances, would initiate mass expulsions and exterminations. What factors would make such a “solution” to any “problem” unfeasible, or unthinkable, even for political leaders wishing to adopt an eliminationist program and who, in other geographic settings and circumstances, would ea­gerly implement one? Slaughtering or expelling people by the hundreds of thousands in such a hypothetical North American country would be so unfeasible and unthinkable that we would not consider calling it prevention if a political leader, fearing intervention, would choose not to implement an eliminationist ideal. Because it would not be preven­tion in the narrow sense of taking action that forestalls an imminent assault, it is difficult for people to see that, in a broader sense, preven­tion is precisely what it would be.

The topic of prevention must be rethought. Doing so requires em­bedding its analysis in a discussion of several other themes that have emerged from this investigation. Just as eliminationist assaults are pred­icated upon a preparatory eliminationist discourse laying out the con­ceptions of problems and people putatively causing them, which provides the foundation for thinking that acting against those people is necessary and urgent, preventing such assaults requires an analogous, countervailing anti-eliminationist, or pro-human, discourse. This dis­course has several components: an accurate recognition of the problem of exterminationist and eliminationist assaults and politics; an accurate understanding of the domestic and international failures producing our catastrophic state of affairs; and an agreement that we must urgently act to stop current and prevent future exterminationist and elimina­tionist assaults (including smaller ones), to send eliminationist politics on the road to extinction. This anti-eliminationist discourse must be structured around eliminationist politics’ most fundamental facts: They have been a politics of impunity with the perpetrators’ subjective ben­efits far outweighing the costs. Hence the frequency.

Such an anti-eliminationist discourse prepares the way for redressing the catastrophic state of affairs. This also has several components. We must recognize that the possibility of effecting change in this large, dif­ficult area, though unacknowledged, is real, practical, and achievable. We must establish it as right to do. We must create the necessary re­solve to exercise our power for acting upon our duties. And we must devise the measures and policies that will effectively end eliminationist politics. In sum, we must reverse our time’s and human history’s pre­vailing equation by ensuring two things: Eliminationist politics will no longer be a politics of impunity, and when political leaders examine the social and political landscape they will know that initiating an exter­minationist or eliminationist onslaught will incur for them enormously more costs than benefits.

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