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The morality of genocide

Among the thousands of pictures displayed in that monument to human depravity which is the Tuol Sleng Centre outside Phnom Penh —now part of Cambodia’s “dark tourism” circuit—, one stands out. It is the picture of a middle-aged man, eyes wide open, his identity reduced to a plastic sign bearing the inmate number “404” pinned to his collar. The image is conspicuous not because of any sign of violence—unlike other images at the former school turned-into-torture-centre, and then museum—but because of the man’s facial expression. It conveys a sense of utter bewilderment, rather than pain or fear. And it screams, in silence, one question: why?

That man’s incredulity is partly our own, for more than forty years after the Cambodian “genocide”—if that is what it was—we, too, are still asking “why.” We of course know “why” the Khmer Rouge imprisoned, tortured, and exterminated two million of the country’s eight million people: because they saw them as “class enemies” standing in the way of Pol Pot’s revolutionary project, one that was meant to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. We also know that such a project failed miserably and that the country is still paying a hefty price for it.

Yet there remains something unfathomable about the term “genocide.” Those who enter the field of genocide studies are darkly fascinated by the subject because they cannot comprehend how such inhuman acts can occur—especially in our recent decades. Outside the world of academia, too, people are drawn to these events, as evidenced by the growth of the “dark tourism” industry. People are particularly dismayed to learn that the legal definition of genocide leaves out events that are close to their hearts (the War of Independence for Bangladeshis, say, or Israel’s policies for Palestinians); and are shocked to discover that—far from being committed by monsters devoid of any kind of value or ethics—genocides are seen as entirely reasonable (indeed, as “moral”) by their perpetrators, and that this is precisely what motivates them to act.

Tuol Sleng genocide museum sign by Herman T. Salton. Used with permission.

The Genocide Convention references acts which are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group”, but excludes from its protection attacks on groups that are seen as “political” enemies. So while the Rwandan events were clearly covered by the Genocide Convention, the Cambodian ones were not because the Khmer Rouge were supposedly motivated by “political” hatred rather than by their loathing of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Likewise, Stalin’s pogroms are not, legally speaking, genocide despite the fact that the Soviet dictator executed millions of opponents; and neither are—arguably—the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army in 1971, for it’s not Bengalis as a national or ethnic group that were targeted, but those Bengalis who wanted an independent Bangladesh (unhappy with this, in 2016 the Bangladeshi authorities drafted a Liberation War Denial Crimes Act).

There is no doubt that the Genocide Convention is defective. For one thing, state-sponsored violence against a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group is nothing if not politically motivated. For another, leaving “political” groups unprotected is problematic given that it is precisely such groups that have been at the receiving end of much of post-1945 state-sponsored violence. Yet, like so many UN documents, the 1948 Convention is a compromise: far from being accidental, excluding “political” groups from its protection was deliberate and was meant to secure the Convention’s ratification by those member states fearful that the actions of their own leaders against domestic dissidents might one day lead to prosecution under the Genocide Convention.

What remains to be seen, particularly in a context of rising nationalism and highly politicized education systems, is whether the new generation understands that, given the right mix of indoctrination and nationalism, we can all become génocidaires—not because humans are inherently evil, but because we can be programmed to believe that our survival depends on the annihilation of another group of people. When that happens—and when “doing something” about the existential threat posed by another group is seen as a moral imperative—genocide becomes not only possible, but also the “right” thing to do in their eyes. Which is why genocidal regimes see education both as an existential threat and as an essential tool, and why the picture of that incredulous man at Tuol Sleng—taken in what used to be a place of learning—is so harrowing.

Featured image credit: Tuol Sleng genocide museum by Herman T. Salton. Used with permission.

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