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.[1]

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 peoplesis 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 meaningsfrom within
themselves.

In essence,
the most genuinely underlying problem here is the universal and sinister power
of theNietzschean “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.


[1] This convenient metaphor is drawn
from the German poet, Novalis. Earlier, it had been embraced by philosopher of
science Karl R. Popper, as epigraph to his The
Logic of Scientific Discovery
(1959).



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