Berel Lang's Genocide: The Act as Idea analyzes and defends the distinctiveness of the concept of genocide as a notable advance in the history of moral and political thinking and practice.

The Act as Idea

Berel Lang

2016 | 224 pages | Cloth $24.95
Philosophy | Political Science
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Table of Contents

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

1. The Evil in Genocide
2. Genocide and Comparative Evil: Counting Victims, Numbers, Degrees
3. Disputing ''Genocide'': Issues of Uniqueness and Group-Identity
4. The Pushback and Its Search for a Replacement

5. "Genocide'' and ''Holocaust'': Language as History
6. Raphael Lemkin, Unsung Hero: Reparation
7. From Genocide to Group-Rights
8. Arendt on the Evil in Genocide: Banality's Depths
9. Genocide-Denial

Bibliographical Notes

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


My book's purpose is a defense of the concept and term "genocide" as it has eveolved and been applie to the act of genocide that had a much longer history. Admittedly, even claiming a need for such a defense may seem questionable, since the concept is now so familiar and carries such weight in legal, moral, and popular discourse, announced in newspapers as well as learned journals, that a predictable reaction might ask why the term or concept would warrant a defense any more than the phenomenon itself would deserve one. But a defense is called for, in part because "genocide," from its first appearance and continually since, has been criticized, conceptually and in application on the grounds of vagueness, obscurity, inconsistency—in sum as inadequate for what it professes to be its purpose. Such criticism has been accompanied, moreover, by proposals for replacement terms claiming to accomplish whatever "genocide" is intended to and to do that without its alleged faults. Beyond this, moreover, it has been charged with a failure to accomplish its professed aims in the United Nations' Genocide Convention (that is, both to "prevent" and to "punish" genocide) and also with opening itself to misuses of the term, as it has become virtually a catchall synonym for atrocity. If the concept is to sustain the legal and moral weight it has acquired, then, the nest of objections as basic and varied as these warrants a response that confronts and assesses them. It is this I attempt here, incorporating proposals based on certain of the charges, yet insisting on what I will be arguing is the very important contribution that "genocide" has made to ethical and legal discourse. Far from conceding that the term should be discarded and replaced, as its most extreme critics have urged, I believe this incorporation strengthens its claims in asserting the distinctive crime of group-murder. The effectiveness of "genocide" itself, in naming, defining, and calling attention to the extreme phenomenon it refers to, is, I hope to show, compelling; the following discussion brings evidence and arguments to support this claim.

The book moves, then, along three related lines: first, analyzing the specific reference of the concept of "genocide" in its recognition of genocide as a distinctive act and crime; second, analyzing a number of objections raised in the pushback against "genocide" in its formulation and practical applications, and (as related to these) assessing the alternative terms or concepts proposed for replacing it; and third, responding with proposals for changes to certain flaws in "genocide" as identified by its critics although, as warranted, also by its advocates. The analysis as a whole revolves around the canonical formulation of "genocide" in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was passed by the General Assembly meeting in Paris on December 9, 1948 and which provides still the authoritative—unamended—definition of the crime. (The text of the Convention appears in the book's first section.) This durability at least suggests the force of the basic concept of "genocide," although the near-certain difficulty of reaching agreement on formal revision of the Convention in the present United Nations (with 193 nation-members now in contrast to the 56 nation-members at the time of the Convention's initial, unanimous adoption) has clearly been a factor. One has also to recognize—a point to be addressed later—that the same avoidance of revision has found channels for criticism through other Conventions or Declarations related to human rights (such as the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights") that might be taken to include the crime of genocide without specifically mentioning it and thus also accepting the problems found in it. In this sense, the defense here is a response also to avoidance or neglect.

Even aside from the assessment of specific points and means of criticism directed at it, the Genocide Convention has had an arguably irreversible impact on public and formal thought and practice. This effect is not itself proof of cogency, but it does suggest that any objections to the Convention and thus to "genocide" will have the burden of providing positive proposals that also take account of the specific character of genocide—in this way retaining what is at the core of the Convention. That the charge of genocide has also been misused in political, cultural, and popular discourse is indisputable, but the fault in that, it seems clear, has been in the concept's abuse, not in the concept. That the Genocide Convention has not since its adoption "prevented" occurrences of genocide as its title affirms is no more an argument against the Convention than is the violation of any other laws or regulations. The deterrent effect of laws is debatable in this instance as in others; in any event, deterrence is not the only purpose or function of such legislation.

Thus the design of my account here and its defense of "genocide": to analyze the principal objections that have challenged "genocide" conceptually and to scrutinize the alternative terms proposed as its replacements, recognizing warranted changes in the normative thinking about genocide. Why does such a defense matter? Most obviously because genocide itself matters: the act of group murder that, until the mid-twentieth century, had remained an unidentified form of murder, unspecified in both the law and moral reflection. In the view defended here, the naming and conceptualization of the act of genocide marks a notable advance in the history of moral and legal thought—progress impelled by the need to catch up with the "progress" in human imagination and conduct that produced the acts of genocide themselves.

More than anyone else contributing to this advance in legislative and practical consequences as well as its conceptual formulation, Raphael Lemkin, coiner of the term "genocide," warrants recognition. Such recognition has been slow in coming, and the discussion here, appearing almost simultaneously with several other books attesting to the theoretical and practical importance of his role, joins the effort to rectify that. It should be noted that Lemkin's efforts on behalf of "genocide" also took an arguably decisive step in advancing the concept of group-rights, a still broader political and moral principle. Although Lemkin himself rarely used the term "group-rights", the concept is implicit: to identify genocide as a crime against a group's existence without presupposing a group's "right to life," analogous to the "right to life" for individuals violated by individual murder, would be inconsistent—and this Lemkin recognized in just those words. The efforts required to realize these accomplishments were for Lemkin a life-long, single-minded, and lonely struggle against traditional preconceptions and established political interests—a struggle epitomized in his early and also solitary death. His monument was of his own design: the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.