Let us begin thinking through genocide with a legal definition, thinking about international law and its problems, and the inadequacy of our courts to really deal with violence on this scale. The largest flaw that is immediately apparent to me is the lack of cultural or structural thinking about genocide. Secondly, there is a teleological approach to genocide. Genocide is a crime, a discrete act rather than a process rippling outward virtually forever. Third, given both of these, how should we then think about legal responsibility and genocide?
Further questions: How does one legally think about continual cultural genocide: the systematic erasure of a culture? How does one locate genocide within broader social structures? How has genocide been productive for the State and for states? How can we think about genocide transnationally or as a mechanism for producing and reinforcing nation state’s borders?
Within the definition, we see western norms playing out, slotted over the top of a global scale: individual responsibility for over messy collective, structural responsibility or accountability. Part of this may be purely strategic: how do you hold an entire culture or country responsible for genocide? Everything is so much messier and complicated than that.
I think of Hannah Arendt and her book on Eichmann standing trial in Jerusalem. Arendt sees Eichmann, a Nazi bureaucrat responsible for much logistical details of the Holocaust, as terrifyingly normal, evidence of “the banality of evil”: the normalization and bureaucratization of genocide during the Holocaust. To think of evil as banal highlights on the difficulty our cultural systems have in dealing with genocide or trauma on such a collective level like that. To be banal is to be invisible on a certain level, part of the everyday fabric of life. In this light, one could argue for the banality of genocide within American culture: a culture of genocide engaging in cultural genocide.
At the same time, to foreground collective responsibility is perhaps to let certain individuals off the hook with regard to their role in genocide. Eichmann, while perhaps not a monster per se, SHOULD be held accountable for his actions that resulted in the systematic murder of a people. The individual’s participation in genocide is a question of morality and agency, perhaps the best tools to which western culture has access to address the individual and individual action.
Another thing I have been thinking about regarding genocide is the HIV/AIDS crisis (specifically within North America; I’m sure much of what I am thinking is applicable to Africa but I don’t know enough to say anything for sure) and the American government’s response to it: too little, too late, underfunded and discriminatory. ACT UP, the radical direct action AIDS activist organization engaged in a lot of work deploying the term genocide to describe the crisis as a rallying cry to transform the gay and lesbian community’s response to it: from anxiety to rage. This is interesting to think about on a few different levels. If we accept ACT UP’s premise, AIDS was genocide through negation. The state was (presumably) not responsible for unleashing the disease itself but NIH’s delayed, underfunded, and inadequate response demonstrates the value of the lives of gays, lesbians, people of color, and intravenous drug users to the state: effectively nil.
Looking at the legal definition, this might be placed under Article II, section c: “Genocide by deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction”. However, it is easy to imagine “deliberately” being the legal sticking point for arguments about this. How do we locate intent within this? Individuals? This feels odd. The entire heterosexist hegemony is at fault here but unfortunately it is so banal that we difficulty seeing it, let alone its complication of conscious intent.