Told  /  Etymology

“Genocide” Is the Wrong Word

We reach for the term when we want to condemn the worst crimes, but the UN’s Genocide Convention excuses more perpetrators of mass murder than it condemns.

Language often turns limp in the face of atrocity. Confronted with a vast catastrophe, we reach for something that can sum up the cruelty of the present. What term is more culturally potent than genocide? By December 1948, when it was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Genocide Convention, an international treaty that forbids any “intent to destroy … a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group,” was already embedded in the tapestry of international law as a self-evident good beyond contest. In its concatenation of Greek and Latin, the term itself seems to come to us from deep within the bowels of antiquity. Other crimes—even those proscribed during the Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis by the Allies—sit in the shadow of genocide, and we speak of it with a solemn frown, reverent of its gravity. Genocide is a kind of negative sublime, the ballast by which all other human wrongdoing is measured: something not of this earth, the gravest of deeds, the crime of all crimes.

Of course, it is precisely those ideas that seem obvious and self-evident that deserve to be questioned. It is even more important to do so when they are invoked as a talisman of justice in moments of profound crisis. Look a little closer, and it becomes apparent that genocide is a flawed idea, a compromised theory whose hollow clauses don’t support its moral weight and lead us no closer to justice. The term is somehow too narrow and too ambiguous; its definition is too strict and too indistinct. As a piece of law, the Genocide Convention excuses and exonerates more perpetrators of mass murder than it condemns. It is so full of holes that academics have spent the last 75 years confecting new interpretations to make it work. Genocide is supposed to be a crime so total and unimaginable that only a few other events are allowed to join the Holocaust as the preeminent exemplar of human evil; in this way, it leaves out all the other mass slaughters for which the twentieth century is so notorious. What if, as the historian Dirk Moses, author of The Problems of Genocide, has suggested, “the house of international criminal law was built on shaky conceptual foundations”? What if genocide “is a part of the problem of civilian destruction rather than its solution”?