What's the Difference Between Mass Killing and Genocide?

The 'G-Word' Shouldn't Be Used Lightly

Aftermath of Genocide: In 1915, soldiers stand over skulls of victims from the Armenian village of Sheyxalan in the Mush valley.
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Aftermath of Genocide: In 1915, soldiers stand over skulls of victims from the Armenian village of Sheyxalan in the Mush valley.

By Philologos

Published June 22, 2014, issue of June 27, 2014.
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Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about “neo-Nazi” as a term for anti-Arab hooligans among Israel’s settler population, explaining why I thought it inappropriate. Because the Nazis, I said, have rightly come to represent the ultimate in monstrously hateful human conduct, it has become common to invoke them in condemning all forms of violent bigotry. Although this is understandable, I argued, it is not a wise use of language. The Nazis were not simply xenophobic ruffians; if they had been no more than that, millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust would have survived, however maltreated, World War II. To use the word “Nazi” as a general term of denunciation is to empty it of all content.

I had a similar thought about the word “genocide” while reading a front-page article in the June 13 issue of the Forward that was headlined “Never Again? New Number Crunchers Try To Quantify the Risks of Genocide.” It wasn’t the first time I had had this thought. A few years ago I wrote a column in which I observed that “genocide” was a word used much too loosely. Today I am beginning to think that it should be retired from our language completely.

The article in the Forward, which described the attempt of a team of Dartmouth College researchers to quantify statistically the risks of “genocide” in today’s world, thus predicting when and where it will occur next unless prevented by outside intervention, is a case in point. I started to read it with both curiosity and skepticism: Could the researchers really have predicted a year in advance, with 95% certainty, as they were cited as asserting, that the 1994 Rwanda genocide would take place? If so, there was cause for consternation, because a graph accompanying the article showed that in their opinion there was, in the remaining months of 2014, a 30% chance of something similar happening in Iraq, a 50% chance of it happening in Burma and a 90% chance of it happening in South Sudan. Add up those figures, and you have an almost 100% certainty that the world will witness another genocide before the year is out.

But wait. Accompanying this graph is a caption that reads “… Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before January 1, 2015” — and “mass killing,” further on in the article, is defined as “an episode of sustained violence in which at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group are intentionally killed within a period of one year or less.” Moreover, the Dartmouth team, it turns out, equates “genocide” and “mass killing” with each other — that is, it defines genocide, too, as any event or series of events in which 1,000 or more noncombatants from a discrete group are deliberately killed. That, and not a Rwanda-type massacre (in which an estimated half-a-million to 1 million Tutsi tribesmen were murdered by their Hutu rivals), is to what the probability figures given for Iraq, Burma and South Sudan refer. One can let out a sigh of relief.

Not that the murder of 1,000 innocents is anything to make light of. But if that’s all that it takes to make a genocide, the world has witnessed dozens, if not hundreds, of “genocides” in the past century alone. To mention only a few of the more spectacular cases, in which many, many times 1,000 unarmed civilians died, “genocide,” according to the Dartmouth definition, was perpetrated on different populations of Europe during World War I; on pro- and anti-Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War of 1917–21; on Jews in Ukraine and Galicia in the same years; on Ukrainians in Stalin’s anti-kulak campaign of the early 1930s; on the victims of Stalin’s purges and labor camps; on both sides in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39; on Chinese by the Japanese army in the 1930s and ’40s; on German civilians by Allied air raids in World War II; on Muslims and Hindus in the partition of India in 1948; on Indonesian Communists and their sympathizers after the Suharto coup of 1965; on Chinese by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution; on Vietnamese by the U.S. Army; on North Koreans by their government; on Kurds by the Turks and Iraqis; on Iraqis by Saddam Hussein; on Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians by one another; on Syrians by the Assad regime, etc., etc.

And such a list, needless to say, omits dozens and dozens of smaller-scale “genocidal” atrocities. Nor are the researchers at Dartmouth the only ones guilty of emptying the term “genocide” — which was introduced after the Holocaust to signify an attempt, like that of the Nazis, to exterminate another people in its entirety — of all meaning. On the contrary, the word has been used more and more indiscriminately in recent years, so that the world hardly blinked when Israel was accused of genocide for its inadvertent killing of 20 Palestinian civilians in its attack on a terrorist-infested refugee camp in Jenin in 2002.

Real genocides have certainly occurred in modern times: white America’s extermination of its native Indian population, the extermination of the Armenians in Turkey, the Nazi extermination of European Jewry, the Hutu extermination of Tutsis.

But when everything is genocide, nothing is. It’s time to return the word to the dictionaries and let it stay there. “Extermination” will do nicely, thank you.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com

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