The Rhetoric of Genocide

The White House is reeling from a public argument against advisor Susan Rice placed recently in the NYT suggesting she has “a blind spot for genocide.” The problem of genocide is beginning to envelope the administration as it limps toward the finish line of the second term. There are a number of important contributions to the lacuna in the administration’s vision for stopping the serious problem of genocide. These problems can be overcome and become a basis for ending genocide:

  1. The false binary between war and peace. Candidate Obama was eager to challenge the prudence of American military activity in Iraq.  He derived great rhetorical power from the nascent notions of withdrawal founded in the Vietnam era of American foreign policy. His current secretary of state pioneered some key notions of American soldiers as more malicious than benign. The naive notions of ‘giving peace a chance’ have made American foreign policy ever more shortsighted in the effort to discern and prevent genocide. Whether withdrawing from Southeast Asia to make the world safe for the Cambodian genocide or withdrawing from Somalia to make the world safe for a Rwandan genocide, the idea that pulling out will make the world safer and less violent has clouded American presidential vision toward preventing genocide for decades. 
  2. Denying the Genocidaire. Americans and our policymakers know genocides as places rather than the results of perpetrators. Perpetrators are dissolved into a scene that is overwhelming and incomprehensible. It is all part of an epistemic cynicism designed to convince Americans they can never win against the dark world of genocide. Whether Vietnam, Korea, Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Afghanistan, or Iraq, it is a stage full of sound and fury signifying nothing. There is no Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Joseph Kony, or Taliban to blame specifically and agitate against. We cannot see an enemy. That would be too simplistic and result in “propaganda.” State Department experts like Marie Harf explain that it is a scene not agents that create genocide. If the scene changed to one rich in jobs and economic opportunity, then there would be no genocide. It is not Hitler or Stalin that create the genocides and mass killing, it is our lack of social planning. These distorted paradigms have for decades laid the rails leading to camps from Dachau to Camp 14 near Pyongyang. We must become willing to name the names of those who advocate for genocide. 
  3. Victims, Villains or Victors? Our soldiers are not terrorists. Until our epistemic leaders are willing to maintain the obvious distinctions, we will lack the will to confront genocidaires and their agents.  When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton falsely maintained that an Egyptian Coptic Christian filmmaker exercising free speech caused the violence that killed an American ambassador in Benghazi, how did that lead to the world where 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded as a spectacle on the beaches of Libya? When we have the courage to confront cynical answers such as: “What difference does it make?” we will make a difference on the important question of genocide.  American soldiers have since World War II fought heroically against genocidaires, but now they fight media warriors at home who morally equivocate and suggest that they are no better than those they fight. Without moral distinctions at home, it is nearly impossible to project strength abroad against the genocidaires. We are not the monsters we are fighting.
  4. Anti-Semitism -- the root of global prejudice. Making up barely 15 million among the global population, Jews remain the absurd exaggerated enemy of many genocidaires. Honduras, Argentina, Venezuela, France, Jordan, Iran, Sudan, the Congo, and so many other locales share an exaggerated sense of the Jew as ultimate devil. Here in America, anti-Semitic hate crimes are nearly three times as likely as anti-Muslim hate crimes. The world is experiencing a dangerous renaissance of Jew hatred. The U.S. State Department takes a lax view of its Congressional requirement to report annually on such activity. Standing firm in 2015 with the Jewish people is a beacon act against the darkness of genocide. A Jewish state as a bulwark against the vast international project dedicated to a second Holocaust is hardly absurd – it’s an existential necessity.   

In his 2007 State of the Union speech, President Bush graciously applauded the triumphant Nancy Pelosi for her party’s victory in the 2006 midterms. He also offered prudential advice about what the world would be like without continuing American military presence in Iraq. The world of chaos, elminationism and genocide reigning in Iraq and Syria today is directly consequent to the reactionary intellectual culture that mocked President Bush in 2007. Until American exceptionalism in the cause of saving the innocent and the weak is more legitimate as an ideology than the moral equivocation of our current epistemic communities, no political figure can permanently defeat the genocides inflamed around the world. The most we will offer are humane vacations for populations dominated by the sovereignty of genocidaires. Hollywood stars sit on their hands as a blockbuster movie extolling American heroism is presented as a reluctant token to a public deemed xenophobic and prejudiced. Narratives of American decline and moral depravity dominate the minds of our public advocates and obscure the vision of ending genocide. The United States and her allies easily have within their power and resources, the means to defeat genocide in this century. This does not begin with weapons, politics, or jobs for terrorists. It begins with wise words consequent to a moral vision for defending the innocent. Elie Wiesel provides a useful starting point: “What hurts the victim most is not the physical cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.” Wiesel’s recent support of the speech by the prime minister of Israel is grounded in that urgent reality and the growing need for moral vision to defeat this ongoing genocide that we seem unable to see. 

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of Communication Studies and director of debate and speech at Southern Methodist University.  He is an advisor for the Bush Institute.  He worked in 2006 and 2007 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with Holocaust survivors.  He authored at 2014 book on these questions called: The Rhetoric of Genocide:  Death as a Text.  

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