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Genocide Denial with a Vengeance: Old and New Imperial Norms

Noam Chomsky (chomsky [at] mit.edu) is institute professor and professor of linguistics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is an internationally renowned linguist, scholar, writer, and activist. This essay is the Foreword to The Politics of Genocide by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson (Monthly Review Press, 2010).

Perhaps the most shattering lesson from this powerful inquiry is that the end of the Cold War opened the way to an era of virtual Holocaust denial. As the authors put it, more temperately, “During the past several decades, the word ‘genocide’ has increased in frequency of use and recklessness of application, so much so that the crime of the 20th Century for which the term originally was coined often appears debased.” Current usage, they show, is an insult to the memory of victims of the Nazis.

It may be useful, however, to recall that the practices are deeply rooted in prevailing intellectual culture, so much so that they will not be easy to eradicate. We can see this by considering the most unambiguous cases of genocide and its debasement, those in which the crime is acknowledged by the perpetrators, and passed over as insignificant or even denied in retrospect by the beneficiaries, right to the present.

Settler colonialism, commonly the most vicious form of imperial conquest, provides striking illustrations. The English colonists in North America had no doubts about what they were doing. Revolutionary War hero General Henry Knox, the first Secretary of War in the newly liberated American colonies, described “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union” by means “more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru,” which would have been no small achievement. In his later years, President John Quincy Adams recognized the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty, [to be] among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement.”

Contemporary commentators see the matter differently. The prominent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis hails Adams as the grand strategist who laid the foundations for the Bush Doctrine that “expansion is the path to security.” Plausibly, and with evident appreciation, Gaddis takes the doctrine to be routinely applicable throughout the history of the “infant empire,” as George Washington termed the new Republic. Gaddis passes in silence over Adams’s gory contributions to the “heinous sins of this nation” as he established the doctrine, along with the doctrine of executive war in violation of the Constitution, in a famous State paper justifying the conquest of Florida on utterly fraudulent pretexts of self-defense. The conquest was part of Adams’s project of “removing or eliminating native Americans from the southeast,” in the words of William Earl Weeks, the leading historian of the massacre, who provides a lurid account of the “exhibition of murder and plunder” targeting Indians and runaway slaves.

To mention another example, in the June 11, 2009, issue of one the world’s leading liberal intellectual journals, The New York Review of Books, political analyst Russell Baker records what he learned from the work of the “heroic historian” Edmund Morgan: namely, that Columbus and the early explorers “found a continental vastness sparsely populated by farming and hunting people.…In the limitless and unspoiled world stretching from tropical jungle to the frozen north, there may have been scarcely more than a million inhabitants.” The calculation is off by many tens of millions, and the “vastness” included advanced civilizations, but no matter. The exercise of genocide denial with a vengeance merits little notice, presumably because it is so unremarkable and in a good cause.1

Imperial conquest illustrates another thesis that Herman and Peterson explore: what Obama’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice calls the “emerging international norm that recognizes the ‘responsibility to protect’ innocent civilians facing death on a mass scale.” It is worth bearing in mind that the norm is not “emerging,” but rather venerable, and has consistently been a guiding imperial doctrine, invoked to justify the resort to violence when other pretexts are lacking.

The Spanish conquistadors in the early sixteenth century were careful to instruct the natives that if you “acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world,” then we “shall receive you in all love and charity, and shall leave you, your wives, and your children, and your lands, free without servitude,” and even “award you many privileges and exemptions and will grant you many benefits,” fulfilling our responsibility to protect, in current terminology. But those who are protected also have responsibilities, the Spanish humanitarians sternly advised: “if you do not [meet your obligations in this way, then] we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can…and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us”—words paraphrased by some Islamic extremist groups in their warnings to Western infidels, doubtless also regarding them as forthcoming and humane.

The Requerimiento of the Spanish conquerors had a counterpart a century later among the English colonists settling North America. To this day, the United States is reverentially admired, at home at least, as “a city on a hill” or, as Ronald Reagan preferred, “a shining city on a hill.” In April 2009, British historian Geoffrey Hodgson was admonished by liberal New York Times columnist Roger Cohen for describing the United States as “just one great, but imperfect, country among others.” Hodgson’s error, Cohen explained, is his failure to realize that, unlike other states, “America was born as an idea,” as a “city on a hill,” an “inspirational notion” that resides “deep in the American psyche.” Its crimes are merely unfortunate lapses that do not tarnish the essential nobility of America’s “transcendent purpose,” to borrow the phrase of the eminent scholar Hans Morgenthau, one of the founders of the hard-headed realist school of international relations theory, writing on “the purpose of America.”

Like the Spanish, the English colonists were guided by Rice’s “emerging humanitarian norm.” The inspirational phrase “city on a hill” was coined by John Winthrop in 1630, outlining the glorious future of a new nation “ordained by God.” A year earlier, his Massachusetts Bay Colony received its charter from the King of England and established its Great Seal. The Seal depicts an Indian holding a spear pointing downward in a sign of peace, and pleading with the colonists to “Come over and help us.” The charter states that conversion of the population—rescuing them from their bitter pagan fate—was “the principal end of this plantation.” The English colonists too were on a humane mission as they extirpated and exterminated the natives—for their own good, their successors explained. During his second term as president a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt explained to a group of white missionaries that “The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries…has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place,” despite what Africans, Native Americans, Filipinos, and other beneficiaries might mistakenly believe.

The vulgar politicization of the concept of genocide, and the “emerging international norm” of humanitarian intervention, appear to be products of the fading of the Cold War, which removed the standard pretexts for intervention while leaving intact the institutional and ideological framework for its regular practice during those years. It is not surprising, then, that in the post-Cold War era, as Herman and Peterson observe, “just as the guardians of ‘international justice’ have yet to find a single crime committed by a great white northern power against people of color that crosses their threshold of gravity, so too all of the fine talk about the ‘responsibility to protect’ and the ‘end of impunity’ has never once been extended to the victims of these same powers, no matter how egregious the crimes.”

That outcome was forecast sixty years ago in one of the earliest decisions of the World Court, which ruled unanimously in 1949, in the Corfu Channel case, that “The Court can only regard the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation of a policy of force, such as has, in the past, given rise to most serious abuses and such as cannot, whatever be the defects in international organization, find a place in international law…; from the nature of things, [intervention] would be reserved for the most powerful states, and might easily lead to perverting the administration of justice itself.” Intervention is like the Mississippi River, international law specialist Richard Falk once observed: it flows from North to South.

Much the same conclusion was drawn in 2004 by a high-level panel convened by the United Nations to consider the newly fashionable concept of “responsibility to protect,” invoked by the United States and its allies to justify military intervention without Security Council authorization. The panel rejected this thesis, adopting the view of the South Summit—representing the traditional victims—which had condemned “the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention” in the wake of the NATO bombing of Serbia. The UN panel reiterated the conditions of the UN Charter that force can be deployed only when authorized by the Security Council, or under Article 51, in defense against armed attack until the Security Council acts. Article 51 is generally interpreted to allow the use of force when “the necessity for action is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation,” in Daniel Webster’s classic phrase. The panel concluded that “Article 51 needs neither extension nor restriction of its long-understood scope,…it should be neither rewritten nor reinterpreted.” The panel added that “For those impatient with such a response, the answer must be that, in a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk to the global order and the norm of nonintervention on which it continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted. Allowing one to so act is to allow all.”

Allowing all to have the rights of Western power would evidently be unthinkable. Thus, when Vice President Joe Biden says (July 6, 2009) that Israel has the “sovereign right” to attack Iran, and that the United States cannot hinder any such action (with U.S. equipment) because Washington “cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do,” he does not mean to imply that Iran has the “sovereign right” to attack Israel if it takes seriously the regular threats of aggression by the reigning nuclear power of the region, while the United States stands by quietly. It is always necessary to recognize the maxim of Thucydides: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This is the fundamental operative principle of international order.

The traditional imperial powers are alone in adopting Rice’s “emerging international norm” in the conventional form that she doubtless has in mind. Again, that should hardly come as much of a surprise. As for the term “genocide,” perhaps the most honorable course would be to expunge it from the vocabulary until the day, if it ever comes, when honesty and integrity can become an “emerging norm.”

Notes

  1. No letters appeared in reaction. However, four months later (Oct. 8, 2009), the editors published a “clarification,” which reads as follows: “In his review of Edmund S. Morgan’s essay collection American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America [NYR, June 11], Russell Baker, drawing on the estimates mentioned in Morgan’s 1958 essay ‘The Unyielding Indian,’ wrote that in North America at the time of Columbus, there may have been scarcely more than a million inhabitants. However, archaeological evidence and demographic research in recent decades suggest that the number was much larger, with estimates ranging up to 18 million.”
    The “clarification” is perhaps even worse than the original. Baker was not referring to North America (“from the tropical jungle”). Over thirty years ago, it was well known that in North America (as defined in NAFTA, including Mexico) the numbers were in the tens of millions, far more beyond; and that even in the United States and Canada the numbers were about ten million or more. It was also known, even well before, that the “sparsely populated…unspoiled world” included advanced civilizations (in the United States and Canada too). This remarkable episode remains “genocide denial with a vengeance,” underscored by the “clarification.”