Reflections on the Unthinkable ; the Unending Need for Healing

Article excerpt

The 20th century may have coined the term "genocide," but it did not invent the notion that one group improves its lot by annihilating another.

When 13th-century Mongol horsemen swept across Asia to the gates of Vienna, they made it a policy to kill every man, woman, and child in any city that resisted their advance. Contemporary accounts tallied the dead in the millions.

For a less brutal account, take a close look at the north-wing pediment of the US Capitol. The sculpted figure in the lower right corner is a dejected Indian chief, flanked by his family and a grave. Artist Thomas Crawford described this corner of his work: the "extinction" of the American Indian; the pediment, which was completed in 1863, is called: "Progress of Civilization."

Over the last millennium, humanity has grappled with ways to curb this harshest face of war, especially to make some distinction between fighters and noncombatants. From the 10th into the 12th centuries, Christian church councils debated the terms of a "just war." Soldiers developed their own approach to this issue: Codes of medieval chivalry extended protection to noncombatants. Professional militaries in the 18th century turned this distinction into codes of conduct. And by the end of the 20th century, international conventions formally defined - and outlawed - the practice of genocide altogether.

Nonetheless, the last century began and ended with some of the most brutal assaults on civilians in human history. These include the expulsion of Ottoman Armenians from their ancient homeland in World War I, the systematic annihilation of European Jews and other groups in World War II and slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Rwanda in 1994, and the revival of the concept of "ethnic cleansing" in such places as Cambodia (1975), and more recently, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, and East Timor.

For those on the receiving end of genocide or "ethnic cleansing," recognition of what was done often comes late, if at all. World news media have been slow to pick up on what was actually happening in a genocide, especially one that occurs in the context of a war. After the fact, the victors or those with the best-organized lobby may weigh in more heavily in sorting out suffering than others caught up in a tragedy. The battle over who did what to whom, when, and how often goes on in scholarly and diplomatic circles decades after the events.

The Holocaust was barely mentioned in the years immediately after World War II. It was not until the 1960s that accounts of survivors were widely disseminated. And Armenian survivors of the 1915 death march are still lobbying strenuously for recognition of their ordeal as a "genocide."

In response to such concerns, many European nations, along with Canada and Australia, passed legislation outlawing writing or speech that denies the Holocaust. This month, British historian David Irving lost a $3 million libel suit against an American writer who labeled him as a Holocaust denier. (Irving has written that Jews were not killed in gas chambers and that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler did not order the annihilation of European Jewry.)

"It's a very destructive thing when people deny the Holocaust. Banning that discussion prevents some destructive and hurtful public discussions," says Steve Hochstadt, professor of history at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

The term used to describe such events is important, because a key aspect of genocide is denial that it is occurring or has occurred, experts say. …