Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

'Worse Than War'

Review by Charles Sarvan, July 24, 2010

Though the majority of the community cooperates and, to varying degrees, is complicit, Goldhagen singles out politicians. (When monks, academics, intellectuals and artists address themselves to intergroup conflict, they also become political leaders.) Where eliminationism is concerned, it is not some abstract, immutable, inherent “human nature”.  Nor is eliminationism beyond human control (518): “We need not throw up our hands in hopeless despair. The problem is [...] political (emphasised). Elimination is not an extension of politics but an integral part of it (271). It is, therefore, always preventable and always (emphasised) results from conscious political choice (300).

The above is the title of a work (New York, 2009)** by Professor Daniel Goldhagen who, for many years, taught Political Science at the University of Harvard. Perhaps, before proceeding to the “worse”, we should remind ourselves of “war”.

The Biblical ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ are usually identified as Conquest, War, Famine and Death. One notes the inter-connection, the last two often being caused by war and conquest. War means destruction and injury (physical and non-physical), trauma and grief as deep as they are persistent. Ashoka, after the Kalinga War (265 0r 263 BCE), gave up conquest, horrified by the scenes he saw of the dead, the dying and the wounded. The Duke of Wellington, inspecting Waterloo after the battle, “prayed” he had fought his last battle: "Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won." (Earlier, he had complimented surrounded French soldiers on their courage, and offered them the chance to surrender.) So what can be “worse than war”? The book’s sub-title clarifies: ‘Genocide, Eliminationism and the ongoing Assault on Humanity’. These are “humanity’s human scourge, more devastating than natural disasters, more murderous and worse than war” (519). Wars between nations have become rare, but violent domestic conflict, “domination, and repression are commonly practised around the world” (271).

Since eliminationism is a key word in the text, we must understand the meaning the author gives to the word: the transformation, repression, expulsion or extermination of a group (14). Transformation is “directed at suppressing others rather than giving them new skills or expanding their possibilities” (ibid).  Smaller mass killings, and elimination’s other forms are on a continuum, and perpetrators often use eliminationist means not in isolation but in conjunction with one another (26). Therefore, to treat genocide in isolation, by itself, violates “the reality of eliminationist policies and practices” (27). Where genocide is concerned, it is “almost always impossible” (239) to prove intent. For example, the government can withhold food from the starving, and claim the insurgency itself is preventing food delivery, or that food supplied will benefit the “rebels” and not the civilian population.

To an individual, the rest of humanity constitutes “the other”. In concentric circles, beginning with one’s own self, “the other” can expand through individuals, groups, countries, nations and continents. “Constructing others and having them constructed for you is inherent to human existence” (317). But “otherness” in itself need not lead to conflict, as the peaceful existence of several multiethnic, multicultural, countries attest. South Africa provides an excellent example. For hundreds of years, black Africans were dispossessed of their land. They were denied political rights and participation; deprived of economic, educational and economic opportunity. They suffered daily under the pass-law system and, under “petty apartheid” endured insult and humiliation, such as certain beaches, park-benches, toilets and transport being reserved for “whites only”. I recall President Kaunda of Zambia repeatedly warning that when violence broke out in South Africa, it would make the French Revolution look like a Sunday-school picnic. Yet there has been no eliminationism (in Goldhagen’s meaning) in that country.

But elsewhere it has been different, particularly in the so-called developing world: eliminationism occurs overwhelmingly in poor and weak countries (558).  Many of these “nations” were not natural growths over long periods of time but the abrupt and artificial creation of Western imperialism (279). When the imperial power left, there were “no policemen to make sure we loved each other very much” (quoted, 212). The people were not properly prepared to manage a multiethnic state in the modern world (280). I am reminded of the parallel Rousseau draws in The Social Contract. An architect, before erecting an edifice, examines and tests the soil in order to see whether it can support the weight. Similarly, one must first consider whether the political edifice proposed is such that it can be sustained by the people. Lord Soulbury, in his Foreword to Bertram Hughes Farmer’s, Ceylon: A Divided Nation (Institute of Race Relations, London, 1963) confesses his Commission would have been less hopeful of a solution to the ethnic problem if it had had “more than a cursory knowledge of the age-long antagonism between these two communities.”  (The Commission was appointed in 1944, and yet Soulbury had only a “cursory” knowledge. How irresponsible!) He consoles himself with the thought that no legal safeguards would have sufficed because, finally, justice and peace “depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the [Sinhalese] people who elect it.”  Prejudice, suspicion and hatred can simmer beneath the surface harmlessly (316) and there prevails a deceptive sense of inter-ethnic cordiality: one thinks of Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s moving sketch, ‘A Fatal Intersection’. Cross-group friendships are made, and even marriages contracted. But deep eliminationist feelings can be “quickly activated into violent, destructive, murderous action”. It is not a case of “the mob’s licentiousness somehow magically taking over”. Rather, it is the “activating, unleashing, and channelling” of pre-existing, pent-up animosities” (219). One act by a member or members of the “hated group” (287) can provide sufficient grounds for the unleashing of the hounds of elimination: see the killing of thirteen soldiers by the Tamil Tigers, and the pogrom of 1983 which was immediately unleashed. Eliminationist policy is implemented “only when the perpetrators are confident of success, owing to the overwhelmingly superior force they can unleash against defenceless people” (361) who, though they are fellow countrymen, are seen as foreigners and inferior. Periodic riots should not be studied separately but seen as part of an over-arching pattern and (eliminationist) purpose. Nor does comparing brutality or numbers make one eliminationist attack less repugnant than another (435).

Excess cruelty is “virtually the constituent feature” of all eliminationist programmes (435). An already defeated enemy is attacked in such a way as to cause civilian casualties, as large in number as they are horrendous in nature. The fiction that the action was necessary, unavoidable, is maintained by the government and those concerned about group honour and reputation, even though it is known not to be true. The enemy is pursued and killed with veritable “glee” (356 & 7). “They routinely talk to them, taunt them, conveying to them their belief in their deeds’ rightness and justice, and their joy in performing them” (170). As the central character in Romesh Gunesekera’s novel, ‘The Match’, reflects: “How can they do it? What could make a person throw kerosene over another human being and set fire to him? Watch his skin crinkle and burn? How could they hear the screams, see the flames wrap around a writhing man, smell the burning flesh, and then do it again?” (London, 2006,153-4). Multiple acts of savagery not only precede and accompany but occur after the death of the victims (160). Bodies are stripped naked, mutilated and displayed to men, women and even children. The perpetrators express joy, gloat and boast. “They mock the victims and celebrate their death” (180). Not only dead bodies but places of worship and cemeteries are deliberately desecrated. The rape of women is part of the display of power, intended to humiliate and visit shame, not only on the victims but collectively, on the group.

This crude and cruel conduct is the product of beliefs, values, attitudes (in short, a “culture”) that create, sanction and even applauds them. It is bad to kill fellow human beings, but very good to kill the enemy. The first and essential step is to deny (psychologically) the full and equal humanity of the victims. “When a culture of dehumanization removes a group from the family of humanity, and therefore from the moral order” (65) elimination follows. It begins in the mind, the dream of “eradicating the enemy in one’s midst or next door, of living in a purified society” (485): the language of absolute “purity” often reveals an eliminationist mindset (284). What is crucial is the eliminationists’ conception of their victims (194): they inherently lack qualities fundamental to being fully, and equally, human “in the sense of deserving moral respect, rights, and protection” (319). Inhibition (over inflicting pain, degradation, death) is removed.

Eliminationists see themselves as reacting, rather than acting (442). Perpetrators view the victims as “having inflicted great injury upon them and their society” (448-9). Eliminationist action is justified as being essentially retributive and, secondly, preventive of (imagined) future attack. The victims, and not the perpetrators, are seen as the “problem”: They are the cause. They are to blame. They exist. Eliminationists believe they are acting for their group, for a high and noble cause, and not for themselves (221). Horrible and horrifying cruelty is seen as obligatory, laudable, even “sacred”. Therefore, there is neither shame nor remorse. The “most horrifying acts become self-righteous [...] even aesthetically pleasurable” (435). Even the feeble and the kindest are seen as threats - and dealt with accordingly.

The aim of eliminationism is to homogenize society, to usher in some dreamed-of pure state. Eliminationists think on the lines of, “If W is achieved, then X, Y and Z will inevitably follow or be realized, and some kind of an ethnic and spiritual paradise will be realized”. The attempt is to “straighten a badly twisted” (97) country. It is “a politics of radical refashioning” (361), of destroying in order to mould into a perfect shape. “The result is a transformed public cultural life, in which previously contested or plural cultural ideas or practices, including historical understandings, disappear, initiating the reign of a far more homogenized and diminished field of culture that is more to the perpetrators’ liking” (141). Part of this cultural genocide is the destruction of museums and libraries (ibid). Of course, territorial loss on the part of the victims is an integral part of this plan (139).

Language is the principal medium for preparing people to support or perpetrate eliminationism. Personal experience does not lead people to believe that “those they target are noxious or dangerous, subhuman or demonic” (311):  it can’t, because the targeted people are overwhelmingly strangers! (As Elmo Jayawardana wrote in ‘Peace Begins With Me’, “We hate some people because we do not know them, and we will not know them because we hate them.”) Language and visual images conveyed in talk and discussion, newspapers and radio spread the notion that an entire (emphasised) group of people are subhuman and dangerous. Therefore, any study of eliminationism that “fails to give primacy to language and imagery” denies the fundamental reality of how people are cognitively, psychologically and emotionally prepared (313). Language is the soil that contains the seeds of action (342). The sword is often forged by the pen (346). In writing about eliminationism, “linguistic rectitude”, tactfulness and camouflage should be avoided. Eliminationism is carried out by human beings, and therefore human agency and identity must not be obscured by the use of the passive voice (such as “were attacked”). The active voice identifies, and makes responsible. Where soldiers are composed of one ethnic group, the use of the word “government” both obscures, and lends an unjustified legitimacy.

Such eliminationist attacks will not occur if the community in general disapproved, was shocked or expressed revulsion and distaste. In that sense, there is general complicity. An entire community contributes towards, and is responsible for, elminationism. The clergy is listened to with respect and credence, and has a powerful influence on the thought and actions of the people. They incite, absolve, make sacred. Places of religious worship are provided for meetings and planning; in some instances, for the storage of weapons. In the name of religion, irreligious acts are carried out. Since evil is in the mind and heart – and not in biological sex (102) – women have encouraged and participated in elminationism; even to encouraging “their” men to rape women of the victimised group (461). Children cooperate, for example by giving information, and are brought to witness the inflicting of pain and humiliation or to view and jeer over dead bodies. (When Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka, was asked why humiliation and cruelty were heaped upon those who were going to be killed anyway, his answer was so as to make it possible, psychologically and emotionally, for the perpetrators to do what they did. See, Gitta Sereny, ‘Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience’, Vintage Books Edition, 1983, p.101. )

Intellectuals and artists (through literature, folk songs, story, plays, and symbols) project the myth of a great, heroic and noble people victimised, in danger and having the need for defensive aggression and elimination, so that their true nature can, once again, find expression. Such works tend to be tragic, reproachful and, finally, hortatory: (Goldhagen uses the phrase literary and artistic mass murderers: 346.) University professors, academics, intellectuals, journalists and artists are no different from the illiterate and the lowest in society (398). Indeed, enjoying recognition; having status and influence, they are far worse and culpable.

Soldiers, the paramilitary and policemen play a major role in elminationism. They constitute “pre-existing institutions of violence (103) and are either “the lead killing institution or in a critical support role” (102). During a period of conflict, other countries have difficulty knowing what is happening, and this gives license to the military to act as it pleases (285). Soldiers often feel rage because of the danger they face, and because “their comrades, loved ones and people” (455) have been killed, suffered injury or harm (455). They inhabit a brutalizing and brutalized world.  (Jonathan Shay, in his 1994 study, ‘Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character’, records a US soldier who fought in Vietnam saying, “I carved him up with my knife. I lost all mercy. I couldn’t inflict enough pain.”)

Detention camps set up by the government and its soldiers are “a spatial, social and moral netherworld” (113) into which the perpetrators herd “a weakened, overwhelmed, unthreatening, and pliant population, including children” (441). “A principal operational purpose of camp systems is degrading the victims, to make them understand their subjugated, demeaned, and right-less state (424). Camps are “cruelty’s quintessential sites” and perpetrators create them in a manner guaranteeing the victims will suffer cruelty “regularly, daily and nightly” (433).

Though the majority of the community cooperates and, to varying degrees, is complicit, Goldhagen singles out politicians. (When monks, academics, intellectuals and artists address themselves to intergroup conflict, they also become political leaders.) Where eliminationism is concerned, it is not some abstract, immutable, inherent “human nature”.  Nor is eliminationism beyond human control (518): “We need not throw up our hands in hopeless despair. The problem is [...] political (emphasised). Elimination is not an extension of politics but an integral part of it (271). It is, therefore, always preventable and always (emphasised) results from conscious political choice (300). Had other people held power and influence, elimination could have been avoided (73): see, for example, South Africa above. Goldhagen argues that elimination is not a frenzied outburst; not a historically determined occurrence caused by prior acts of people long dead or continents away; not driven by the darker, barbaric self supposedly within us all. To him, eliminationist acts are political and “to understand and account for them, we must reinsert them into our understanding of politics and fundamentally change or expand our conception of politics to include them” (265). The “great man” or charismatic leader view of elimination needs modification because such individuals can lead “only where the followers are already in some sense prepared to go” (226). Though they intensify, shape and channel ideas and emotion, leaders rely on pre-existing beliefs. The tinder is already there, ready to be set alight.

Goldhagen is scathing where the UN and the international community are concerned. “The various Geneva conventions (the first one signed in 1864)” had to do with the rights of soldiers, not civilians (235). Soldiers needed protection because they fought for their governments, while political leaders “wanted impunity to slaughter or to violently repress their own people as necessary” (235). Certain small classes are protected “but not humankind’s overwhelming majority”. (Even soldiers can be reclassified, for example, as “enemy combatants” or “terrorists” in uniform, and excluded from international conventions.) Governments “do not act to save innocent lives, because the nation-state is egoistic and its leaders are self-interested” (260). The United Nations has not been a force against elimination but, on the contrary, an “enabler” (528). The requirement of the UN’s genocide convention, that there should be an explicit intent (emphasised) to commit genocide, “produced window-dressing law covering up inaction” (536). The main concern of other governments is not humanity but political support and economic advantage. “Even today the United Nations, far from being a force against eliminationist politics and assaults, de facto protects if not legitimizes them [...] Whatever claims and appearances to the contrary, the United Nations and the international legal system are organized to allow states to pursue eliminationist politics, including mass murder” (540).

Combating prejudice and hatreds is notoriously difficult and can succeed only with enormous effort from within (emphasised) the prejudiced society (564). Internationally, the emphasis must now shift from “stopping violence between countries to addressing violence within countries” (561). New legal concepts and laws are needed to deal with this “war against humanity” (emphasised, 572).  ‘Worse Than War’ is an important work, passionately argued (distressing at times in its detail) and bound to provoke thought and discussion.

** Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity



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