a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Genocide: "Never again" or "Again? Whatever"

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 24th, 2004

At the beginning of the month, Matthew Yglesias noticed a plea for the Darfur region in the Sudan, and (no doubt correctly) concluded the prospects for extending substantial military help to the people of that region against the Sudanese government were dim. Then he got to the real point of his post (Never Again):

But then there’s this rhetorical point about the ‘never again’ business. I think people should drop it. The first — or maybe the second or third or fourth — time there was a post-WWII genocide, making this point may have been a good idea. The reality is, however, that it’s happened again and again and again and again and again and again since the Holocaust and it’s sort of time to get over it. Not that genocide happens, but that genocide happens and other people do nothing to stop it. Indeed, this is exactly what happened during the Holocaust — the US and USSR liberated the camps as a biproduct [sic] of winning a war that they undertook for different reasons and, indeed, that they struggled mightily to avoid.

It’s hard to think of a single instance of a foreign effort to stop/prevent a genocide that can properly be described as having been primarily motivated by this factor.

So if something is never a primary factor, it’s “sort of time to” do away with it. Brilliant. I can at least take comfort that “unlike many moderates, he consistently remembers that the opinions we choose to hold about questions of public policy actually have real-world correlatives.” If his fan is correct, I can assume Yglesias has weighed consigning Sudan’s Janjaweed victims to the bone pile, and found it an acceptable “real-world correlative.”

I understand wanting to throw out stale rhetoric, and normally, I’d be right on board with “A Slogan! Exhausted! Should Never Be Repeated!” But “never again” is not that slogan.

I get the foreign policy drift: nations mainly act out of self-interest. But how they and the people they are composed of define that self-interest remains up for grabs. It may be that practical self-interest demands a ‘broken window’ approach to genocide and ethnic cleansing, that stopping bloodthirsty lawlessness and inhumanity in its tracks benefits us all. Call it a hunch.

I can see why Yglesias makes the lazy equation that “never again” must always and immediately equal “military intervention,” since that’s what Patrick Belton was calling for in the post that prompted Yglesias. Yet that is not the case. And even when military intervention is necessary to prevent mass murder, it may turn out that the kind of scum who delight in slaughtering the helpless will be struck dumb by the first brave person, let alone the first real soldier they encounter.*

But practical considerations of benefit and risk by themselves are not generally clear enough or motivating enough to make enough of us want to intervene against genocide. The people who first try to end mass murder in some far-off corner of the world have only a few weapons at their disposal. One is the shame most of us feel watching those murders happen and letting them happen. The other is that many, watching or learning of some atrocity, have at least in their hearts rent their garments, gnashed their teeth and vowed to themselves to not stand by idly someday if they could help it — let alone craft jaded arguments that would effectively cause others to do so.

The decent, half-hopeful, half-hopeless response to those emotions — “never again” — is a vow best whispered to oneself, not paraded in a demonstration or screamed as a reproach to the less pure of heart. But it does no harm and it does some good to be challenged by that vow, no matter what Mr. Yglesias thinks (and whether or not it’s convenient for his current views).

Yglesias is dead wrong. If “never again” is being said too often, it isn’t the speaker’s fault. Not yet. Not these days. It’s the killers’ fault, and it’s the world’s fault for too often doing nothing about it. So it’s also yours, and mine, … and Matthew’s, whose uncharacteristically ill-judged message has earned him a small extra share of the “credit” the next time nothing happens.


*One might call this the Mbaye Diagne effect. Wallenberg, Rabe, Schindler, and Sugihara provide similar (if nonmilitary) examples as well.

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