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The Language of Crimes

The government of Mexico, you may have heard, has indicted former president Luis Echeverria Alvarez — who governed the country from 1970 to 1976 — along with two former aides and three army generals, for the crime of “genocide.” The six accused men are alleged to be responsible for killing 25 students who were beaten to death by a special army unit during an anti-government demonstration at the University of Mexico in 1971.

Genocide?

There is a legal reason for this oddly worded indictment. It is that the statute of limitations on ordinary murder charges already has run out in the Echeverria Alvarez case, so that “genocide” is the only crime for which he and his cronies can be brought to trial. Although many Mexican lawyers and political commentators have spoken of the absurdity of this, the Mexican government has preferred the logic of a surviving demonstrator, one of thousands, who was quoted as saying: “Even though they didn’t exterminate all of us, there was a genocidal trap laid.”

Actually, the Mexicans aren’t the first to use “genocide” charges as a way of getting around legal restrictions on prosecuting mass murderers. Before them there was the crusading Spanish judge Balthazar Garzon, who granted himself the authority to investigate the killing of tens of thousands of Argentineans and Chileans by their governments in the 1970s and ’80s, far from the shores of Spain, on similar grounds. Needless to say, these killings, as grisly as they were, were not “genocidal” either. They were part of a campaign by right-wing dictatorships to murder left-wing citizens who opposed them, not to murder Argentineans and Chileans as such.

As Jews, it is important for us to insist on accurate use of the word “genocide” to mean the deliberate extermination of an entire people, or a high percentage of it, by another people. This is not because we have been the only victims of genocide — a word coined (from Greek genos, “race,” and Latin caedere, “to murder”) in the 1940s by a Jew, the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, in the context of the Holocaust. Many peoples beside us have been the targets of genocidal campaigns, including, in the 20th century, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Gypsies of Nazi-occupied Europe and the Tutsis of Rwanda.

All victims of genocide have an interest in their experience not being confused with lesser crimes, let alone with the murder of 25 students. The common devaluation of the word “genocide” in contemporary language, like that of the word “Holocaust,” distorts our understanding and blunts our sensitivities. Although we may begin by using “genocide” for describing less than genocidal behavior, such as the atrocities committed by Serbs against Bosnians during the recent Balkan War, in order to heighten our sense of its immensity, we end up trivializing true genocide.

It might be argued that there is nevertheless a need for a word, similar to “genocide,” to describe such events as the atrocities in the Balkans, the killing of a million or more Cambodians in the 1970s (which was not true genocide because it was performed by other Cambodians), or the Japanese massacre of hundreds of thousands of Chinese in World War II (which affected less than 1% of all Chinese). What shall we call such horrors?

Two words that have been suggested are “demicide” and “ethnocide,” from Greek demo and ethnos, both meaning “people ” — demos more in the sense of the people of one’s own national or ethnic group, and ethnos in the sense of another group. Thus “demicide” has been proposed as a term for describing the systematic liquidation by tyrants like Pol Pot, Stalin or Mao Tse-tung of large elements of their own populations whose “crime” was economic or ideological rather than belonging to a specific racial or ethnic group. “Ethnocide,” on the other hand, has been proposed for attempts to suppress national cultures and identities by means short of murdering their bearers, such as banning their languages, dress, music, etc.

It is not quite clear, however, what is to be gained by this. If we speak, for instance, of Hitler’s “genocide” against the Jews rather than his “mass murder” of them, this is a useful distinction, because mass murder, as we have said, need not be genocidal. But is there a similar distinction between Stalin’s “mass murder” of the kulaks and his “demicide” of them? I fail to see what this might be — while as for “ethnocide,” if one means by this term to exclude the physical annihilation of a population, why coin it with the help of a Latin verb that means the opposite? “Cultural destruction” or “forced assimilation” is just as good.

It’s a good rule of thumb in speaking and writing to prefer simpler, everyday terms to more erudite-sounding ones as long as the latter offer no special advantage in either precision or concision. The Turks were genocidal toward the Armenians. Stalin and Pol Pot were mass murderers of their own people. The Chinese are destroying Tibetan culture. The 25 students were brutally killed by the Mexican army. This is language, as it should be used.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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