To the great regret of humanitarians--not to mention actual victims--genocide is both a word for mass murder and an instant conversation killer. The sheer grotesqueness of gas chambers, killing fields, death marches, ditches scattered with bones and blood, and hacked and bulleted bodies, is so grave, its gravity so unspeakably large, that the very word itself brings to mind an overwhelming sense of failed humanity.
The natural impulse is to simply change the subject as eyes glaze over and the mood goes grim, which is not unlike what bystanders do when confronted with an actual atrocity. On every moral level, government leaders and even people of goodwill have surrendered to the idea that mass murder is inevitable, unstoppable, a human pathology without cure.
It is for this reason that Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's latest book, Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, is essential reading whether one is a human rights activist, a policy wonk, or a member of the general public who has never given serious thought to what is, and has been, the most urgent issue to threaten our planet and the moral development of mankind. In addition to being a surprisingly good read for such a disturbing subject, the book is a wake-up call for government leaders and a gut check for ordinary citizens. (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/books/review/Traub-t.html?_r=1
) A documentary of the same title with Goldhagen as narrator is scheduled to appear on PBS in April 2010; and on October 16, 2010, Goldhagen will appear at the Fordham Law Film Festival.
Goldhagen has broadened the term genocide to include a wider range of human suffering, recasting the problem as eliminationism. And rather than merely recite the gruesome statistics and list the geographic hotspots where genocide has and continues to take place, he confronts his subject with much larger ambition: explaining what genocide is, how it happens, why it happens, and perhaps most importantly, what can and should be done about it.
For Goldhagen, the reason why well over 100 million people have been victims of mass murder in the twentieth century--in places such as Indonesia, Bosnia, Guatemala, Rwanda, Turkey, Cambodia, Congo, Darfur, and, of course, the European Holocaust--a death toll that far exceeds the casualties of all wars fought during that time (hence, worse than war), is not because those who have committed the crimes were forced into doing it or were animated by an internal bloodlust for violence.
On the contrary, the perpetrators of mass murder undertake a conscious decision to do so. Genocide is not an accident. It is not a spontaneous combustion of undetected evil. There is nothing banal about it.
Actually, despite the magnitude and enormity of loss it produces, the reasons for genocide are painfully simple and yet all too familiar: Mass murderers are guided by a political calculation that eliminating others will enhance their power and that the benefits derived from such murderous policies will outweigh the costs. The astounding and persistent scourge of genocide in our world is traceable to leaders who believed that it was to their political advantage to commit such crimes, and that they would be able to do so with impunity--which, in most cases, was entirely correct.
It is for this reason that Goldhagen argues that the prevention of genocide--more so than intervention and punishment--offers the best chance of saving the lives of untold millions. The United Nations, after all, is a farce of impotent, anti-democratic, morally corrupt enablers of genocide; the International Criminal Court acts with all the deliberate speed of a DMV bureaucrat--it took five years after the Darfur genocide began to issue an arrest warrant against Omar Al Bashir; and the will of nations to engage in humanitarian intervention is either nonexistent or tragically late.
The best vaccine, it turns out, is one where future mass murderers come to understand genocide as an act of suicide. Goldhagen insists that leaders must be made aware that genocide is no longer a political option without consequences, that the costs of mass murder have suddenly become too high, that resorting to genocide will not enhance their power but rather will end it. And those who are complicit as enablers of genocide will suffer the same fate.
The most original idea in Worse Than War is to apply the concept of bounties--Hostis Humani Generis (enemies of humanity)--to the practitioners of genocide. This is how the world once treated pirates, making them international outlaws, forever on the run, hunted down with prices on their heads. This solution of radically altering the political landscape for genocide is not nearly as radical as it seems. In fact, Goldhagen astutely observes that the United States' Rewards for Justice Program offers million dollar bounties for the capture and killing of terrorists, many of whom have far less blood on their hands than the mass murderers who were responsible for the slaughter of millions.
Stopping genocide preemptively by convincing leaders not to give it a second thought is cheaper and morally superior to paying the costs of genocide once it occurs--given the weak impulse of nations to intervene and the equally lackluster history of punishing after the fact.
Worse Than War is a monumental work of originality that offers interesting insights and prescriptions on nearly every page. And when the book is finally closed what must be done feels like a matter of great human and moral urgency--no longer unmentionable and hopelessly abstract.
It is rare, indeed, when a book transcends the limitations of the written word and aspires to do no less than actually save the world--which, in this maddening, horrifying case, is precisely what genocide demands.
Follow Thane Rosenbaum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thanerosenbaum