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Worse than war

Daniel J. Goldhagen
Public Affairs, 2009

"Patterns of Genocide

Evil repels analysis. Poets from the time of Homer have sung of war, but only a monster sings of atrocities. So, too, with journalism and scholarship. We are admonished not to ascribe rational motives to Osama bin Laden or Hitler, or to their followers. To admit of motives is to reduce the moral to the psychological, and thus to the comprehensible, and thus perhaps to the acceptable. Our understanding of unspeakable acts is limited on the one hand to the irreducible moral fact of evil, and on the other to the dynamics of mob psychology — of mass lunacy.

But to exclude mass murder from the realm of conscious action offers an exculpation of its own, both to the killers and to ourselves — for how could we, ordinary folk who cherish life, descend to such madness? In this magisterial and profoundly disturbing “natural history” of mass murder, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen calls for an end to such willful blindness. As he did in his celebrated and controversial “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” Goldhagen insists that even the worst atrocities originate with, and are then propelled by, a series of quite conscious calculations by followers as much as by leaders. “We must stop detaching mass elimination and its mass-murder variant from our understanding of politics,” Goldhagen writes. “Eliminationist politics, like the politics of war, is a politics of purposive acts to achieve political outcomes, often of ultimate ends and often of desired power redistribution.” “Worse Than War” is, in effect, “Everyone’s Willing Executioners.”

Goldhagen makes short work of Hannah Arendt’s claim that the Nazi machine was the supreme example of a bureaucracy at work, and thus of “the banality of evil.” Not only was Adolf Eichmann, Arendt’s chief subject, a very conscious and proud exterminator, but the millions who have carried out the legwork of murder, whether German civilians or Rwandan Hutus, have not functioned as automatons. “Their deeds’ real character is not opaque to them,” Goldhagen writes. “They slaughter people, slaughter children, often face-to-face, by shooting them at point-blank range, or by hacking or beating them to death, bespattering themselves with their victims’ blood, bone and brain matter.”

We place the Holocaust outside of history; Goldhagen embeds it in the larger, recurring pattern of genocidal killing. While noting that the Nazis were unique in the variety of victims they attacked and the means of killing they adopted, Gold­hagen points out that the institutions we associate with the Holocaust — the camps, the death marches, the mobile killing squads — recur in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, in colonial Kenya and Guatemala. Atrocities resemble one another; their differences are shaped by the perpetrators’ ideology, their specific fantasy of a purified world, their view of the victims they seek to eradicate.

Belief matters; choices matter. This is Goldhagen’s wake-up call. But who, exactly, has been lulling us to sleep with denials of human agency? Goldhagen rarely identifies his intellectual adversaries. Arendt is almost a straw man; her theories rarely appear in the contemporary literature on mass atrocities. Yet Goldhagen is quite right that “structural” explanations of eliminationism have achieved a near-­consensual status. To take a single recent example: “Mobilizing the Will to Intervene,” a study by leading Canadian and American figures, identifies “poverty and inequality, population growth and the ‘youth bulge,’ ethnic nationalism and climate change” as the chief “drivers of deadly violence.”

Why does it matter if you understand mass atrocities as a structural feature of the contemporary world rather than as an “ism” — eliminationism — to be analyzed in political, ideological and moral terms? After all, though you might not know it from “Worse Than War,” the structuralists abhor atrocities every bit as much as Goldhagen does, and fully share his determination to prevent or stop them. But they would do so differently. Structural accounts lead to structural solutions: new definitions of the national interest recognizing the dangers of permitting unchecked mass violence even half a world away, leading in turn to changes in policy designed to single out those perpetrators of mass violence.

Goldhagen’s moral and political account impels him, by contrast, to scorn the very idea of the “national interest” as the chief object of foreign policy. Invocations of the national interest, he observes, routinely facilitate mass murder by rationalizing a passive response. Our policy, rather, should be founded on the recognition that genocidal eliminationism, which Goldhagen argues has killed more people in recent generations than war itself, is the supreme moral problem of our time.

This sounds like just the kind of absolutist formulation that condemns academic theorists to political irrelevance. But if the ultimate goal is to ensure that we never again stand by in the face of a Rwanda-style genocide, public opinion will not be rallied through an earnest accounting of national interest, but through an appeal to conscience.

Intense moralism carries risks of its own, however, including hyperbole. Is eliminationist violence really the greatest threat of our time? Goldhagen acknowledges that the number of states “likely to again commit or suffer mass murder or elimination has dropped dramatically,” but then insists that since dictatorships are by their very nature “proto-­eliminationist,” the potential for mass violence remains almost limitless. He argues as well that “political Islam” — jihadism — constitutes “the most coherent and deadly mass-­murderous ideology since Nazism.”

Yet stable, ethnically homogeneous autocracies pose little imminent threat of atrocities (especially compared with unstable, heterogeneous democracies like Pakistan). And by lumping together largely peaceful groups like the Muslim Brotherhood with Al Qaeda, Goldhagen turns political Islam into an eliminationist bogy. Moreover, even Al Qaeda, with its ideology of mass murder, has not been able to marshal the resources of a state to attain its ultimate goals.

Goldhagen’s sense of urgency causes him to demand a revolution in human affairs. States must not only abandon the logic of national interest, but also reshape the global architecture around the goal of ending eliminationism. He heaps scorn on the United Nations, whose founding principles of respect for sovereignty and of noninterference in internal affairs have served, as he rightly observes, as a shield for leaders in Sudan and elsewhere who are bent on slaughtering their own people. He would dissolve the United Nations and establish in its place an organization of democracies dedicated to staging interventions. He does not pause to contemplate how very few takers such an organization would have.

Nor does Goldhagen fully acknowledge the advances, however tentative, that the existing international system has made. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the principle known as the responsibility to protect, which stipulates that states have an obligation to safeguard their peoples from mass atrocities, and that the international community must step in when states fail to act.

So far, the United Nations has done virtually nothing to put these fine principles into action. Until it does, those few states that are committed to preventing mass murder may have to act without international approval. “Worse Than War” reminds us of the imperative to act, and of the terrible cost of our failure to prevent the mass murders of the past century."

James Traub