Understanding Crimes Against Humanity: Genocide, Memory And The Future


In the aftermath of US President Donald Trump’s recent carte blanche to Turkey to destroy with impunity fragile Kurdish populations in Syria, the “civilized” world stands at the beginning of yet another unforgivable genocide. How is this possible in the allegedly law-based system of contemporary international relations? Quite literally, there can be no more important question. Accordingly, the timely essay which follows attempts a tentative and partial answer, but one presented, as plainly necessary, at an optimally conceptual level. In such extraordinarily complex matters, theory is a “net.” Only those who cast, can catch.

In the third book of his philosophical romance, The New Gods, the French writer E.M. Cioran, exclaims: “With the exception of some aberrant cases, man does not incline to the good; what god would impel him to do so?” Whether or not the good is a great, unreal force, one that exists only as a ghost of the possible, one thing is certain. From the beginning, from that primal moment when the swerve toward evil first occurred, humankind has been the author of unspeakable crimes.

Most glaringly, these myriad crimes include genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This is not even a contestable allegation. Consider, in recent years, Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the Congo. Recall, in the 1970s, Cambodia, and somewhat later, Rwanda, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. Glance, today, at Turkey’s annihilationist war against the Kurds in Syria, a genocidal war given the de facto blessings of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the open encouragement of US President Donald Trump.

There is more. War and genocide are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, as history makes perfectly clear, war is simply the “best” means by which a particular genocide or closely-related crimes against humanity can be carried out.

Now, deeper philosophical questions need also be raised. How we must finally inquire, has an entire species, miscarried from the start, managed to so egregiously scandalize its own creation? Are we all (or “merely” almost all) potential murderers of those who would normally live safely beside us? What about slavery, which continues, among other places, in Mali and Mauritania? Reference, too, the diamond mines of Sierra Leone and Liberia, and human child trafficking, especially in Nigeria and Benin but also in both North and South America. All these crimes are still far-reaching and “robust.”

All are still actively flourishing in our “advanced” 21st century

In such grim matters, death is pretty much the universal solvent. For as long as we can meaningfully recollect world history (a recollection currently out of favor in the US White House and at Goebbels-style Trump “rallies”), the corpse has been in conspicuous fashion. Today, in too many places, whole nations of corpses are being created.

As for the too long-inchoate “international community,” it stands by just as it always has, indifferently, for the most part coupled with a gratuitously self-righteous indignation; sheepish, yet arrogant, calculating and still lamenting its own alleged impotence.

All at once.

Why? The distressing answer must have several different levels, and also display several intersecting layers of pertinent meaning. At one level, and certainly the one most familiar to political scientists and legal scholars, the most basic problem lies in the changing embrace of Realpolitik or power politics. Following genuinely prophetic insights of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (the “state is the coldest of all cold monsters,” he warns in Zarathustra), the effective deification of the State has reduced millions of individuals to very tiny specks of residual insignificance. In such an upside-down world, one wherein the “self -determination” of peoples is championed but where individual human beings are expressly minimized, executions are too often welcomed, heralded as welcome expressions of something sacred.

To prevent genocide and genocide-like crimes, States must be shorn of their presumed sacredness. Before this can happen, however, individuals must first discover alternative and attractive sources of belonging. In the final analysis, the core cause of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity is not the glorification of any particular State or even the corresponding cowardliness of other powerful States, but the continuing incapacity of individual human beings to draw any true and satisfying meanings from within themselves.

In essence, the most genuinely underlying problem here is the universal and sinister power of the Nietzschean “herd” in human affairs; a power now applied by those who would create or control a state, but at any time applicable also by other herds.

At its heart, the problem of all such grievous international criminality is one of distraught and unfulfilled individuals. Ever fearful of drawing meaning from their own inwardness, human beings will draw closer and closer to the nurturing herd, like a moth to flame. Sometimes it is the Class. Sometimes the Tribe. Sometimes the Church. Sometimes the Race. Most commonly, it is the State.

Whatever the particular claims of the moment, the herd may spawn hatreds and excesses that make focused mass murder more or less welcome. Fostering a soundless but persistent refrain of “us” versus “them,” it can systematically prevent each affected person from becoming fully human – that is, governed by considerations of compassion and empathy – and can encourage each impacted person to cheerfully celebrate the wanton death of “outsiders.

Small matter, always, that the victim population, wherever it may exist, is constructed of flesh and blood itself. Since the murderous herd-based perpetrator has wittingly chosen to renounce self, he has already become impervious to reason, responding only to the irresistibly strong emotional advantages of “belonging,” and also,  as sometime corollary, to the ecstatic promise of power over death.

Always, in human affairs, there is no greater power in world politics than the power of immortality.

Always, there can be no more compelling promise.

Indeed, against this incomparable power, even nuclear weapons are inherently impotent.

Each of us contains at least the possibility of becoming more fully human, a positive prospect that could reduce destructive loyalties to the herd and thus prevent genocide and related crimes.  But it is only by actively nurturing this essential possibility that we can ever realistically hope even to endure.

The central task to creating freedom from genocide is to discover the true way back to ourselves; otherwise, we can only continue to fly with the exterminatory ideals of a delirious collectivism, with a herd-life of conformance and fear that must ultimately make defilements normal. Understood in terms of the contemporary prevention of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, this key task calls forth an immediate obligation to look beyond ordinary collective politics to the sanctity of individual persons. Philosophically, the vital center of any such desperately needed obligation can be found especially in philosophers Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Hesse, Jaspers, and Jung. In the more specifically American genre, we should think admiringly of Emerson, Thoreau and the American Transcendentalists.

But let us be candid. In the virulently anti-intellectual Trump Era, no one thinks seriously about classical American thought –  not even in the best universities, which remain collectively silent in the face of current US-president assisted crimes against humanity.

Living can be a process of continuous rebirth, but once under the captivity of predatory states or certain smaller groups, most humans will readily choose to die before they are fully born. Although we can evolve into compassionate persons only by first mustering carefully considered acts of defiance against the herd, this mass (a term preferred over “herd” by seminal Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung) retards personhood by its consuming demands for obedience. Because these generally inflexible demands carry an arsenal of punishments and rewards that may seem impossible to defy, affected individuals are often ground into cogs, literally and metaphorically.

While few will even acknowledge such a disturbing fragmentation of life, a too-willing servitude to the herd may make mass killing or genocide acceptable.

Actually, it’s an old story.

Left unchallenged by those selectively few individuals who have already become empathic persons, many national leaders will remain what they have always been – that is, hyenas making verses among the tombs. Ever ready to prey upon the weak in the interests of some purportedly aggrieved populace, these ubiquitous predators can continue to carry out their nefarious crusades only because they are sustained by an inert and willing mass.

To prevent genocide and genocide-like crimes against humanity, the ultimate task must be to migrate from the violence-based Kingdom of the Herd to the individual-based Kingdom of the Self. In this utterly critical movement, however, the individual must also want to live in the second kingdom. This critical desire is the single most difficult part of the needed migration because the Kingdom of the Herd boasts its own utterly immense attractions.

The terminal risks of continuing to live within this murderous kingdom may become sufficiently apparent only when it is already too-late; that is, when the residual possibilities of a meaningful migration no longer exist.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy

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