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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

The Crime of Genocide (p. 121)

From chapter "Giving Back the Land"

A person, or more likely a culture or an institution, like a nation-state or corporation, can commit mass murder without committing genocide, and can just as surely commit genocide without killing a single individual. Genocide consists, according to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (which, by the way, the United States refused to endorse until 1988, and to this day explicitly refuses to comply with), of any one or more of a set of specific “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such.” Mass murder committed without the intent to destroy (in whole or in part) one of these groups would not be considered genocide. Thus familial child abuse, which cuts across national, religious (some more so than others), ethnical (though not all), and class lines, would not be considered genocidal, even though it results in widespread deaths. A case could be made, on the other hand, that child prostitution has genocidal implications—setting aside for a moment the question of intent on the part of pimps and johns—because so many of the victims are poor children of color belonging to impoverished ethnic groups from impoverished regions of impoverished nations, meaning that, in great enough numbers, child prostitution tears at the fabric of these communities, which is the essence of genocide.

The 1948 Convention lists five acts as possibly constituting genocide. One consists of killing the members of a group outright. This is the act that most of us are most familiar with, and leads to the images of Treblinka and Wounded Knee. Another consists of deliberately inflicting on a group conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. One example would be the intentional slaughter of bison in order to bring the Plains Indians to terms. Another would be the destruction of the great runs of salmon in the Pacific Northwest in order to break the cultural backs of the region’s Indians. A third act considered genocidal is to impose measures intended to prevent births within a group, through involuntary sterilization or forced abortion (the words involuntary and forcedbeing crucial here). When the state imposes birth control as a matter of policy on targeted groups so they cannot conceive and/or reproduce, with the ultimate intent that the group disappears, that is genocide. An example of this would be the approximately three thousand per year involuntary or coerced sterilizations performed at Indian Health Services hospitals on American Indian women of childbearing age during the early 1970s (given the small American Indian population, this would have been the equivalent of sterilizing about four hundred thousand non-Indian American women per year). The fourth act covered by the Convention is that of forcibly transferring children of one group to another group, and training them to see themselves as something other than part of the cultural context into which they were born. When that happens, the culture cannot, for obvious reasons, perpetuate itself. During much of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth (at least until this most recent generation) upward of 80 percent of American Indian children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, or adopted into white families, where the children were denied the right to speak their language, to practice their religion, to dress in a manner representative of the culture of their birth. They were, in short, raised to be brown-skinned, black-haired, dark-eyed white kids. This is a form of genocide under the law. The final act covered by the

1948 Convention consists of causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of some group, so that members “voluntarily” separate themselves from the group, dissolving the community to spare themselves this discomfort. An obvious example of this would be the choice of Christianity or death offered so often for so many centuries to so many indigenous peoples worldwide. A less obvious but perhaps ultimately even more damaging example, John said, might be television, which causes mental harm, and causes the dissolution of communities. He mentioned also that television trains children to be part of a social context other than the one in which they were born.

“But what about intent?” I asked. “The U.N. Convention emphasizes intent.”

He looked at me sharply. “You don’t think there’s intent?”

I shook my head, then said quickly, “Now that I say this, I’m not sure intent matters.” My thoughts hurried. I hoped I could catch them. Things get tricky when we start talking about motivation. As I hope is clear by now, only the most unsophisticated take their hate pure. Most of the time we mix ourselves a brew of self-interest, tradition, economics, and old-time religion. Even the Nazis had their claims to virtue, keeping their focus on nothing so indelicate as mass murder or genocide but instead always on the need to purify and protect the Prussian culture.

If intent is crucial, I thought, we need to make clear whether we’re talking about conscious and stated intent, or intent unspoken, intent hidden, even, or especially, from those who find themselves swept up—whether by sudden fury at the insolence of those they would prefer to despise than to hate, or by the inexorable logic of economics, science, or religion, or by the deep, smooth, swift-flowing current of tradition—into committing reprehensible actions. As the doctors at Indian Health Services hospitals opened specula inside Indian women’s vaginas, as they pierced vaginal walls, as they tied fallopian tubes, did they intend—consciously—to rub these races out? Or did they assemble each time a logic that led them, each time, to make decisions that at the time seemed to them appropriate? This woman,a doctor may have thought, cannot without government hand outs support the children she has, so am I not doing her and her children— born and unborn—a favor by preventing her from conceiving?

To put the question of intent into another context; If race-based slavery makes economic sense (for the enslaver)—by which I mean that the conscious intentis not explicitly to destroy that other race as a group or community, but instead merely to exploit it (even at the cost of extinguishment)—does that mean race-based slavery is not an act of genocide?

To switch contexts again, what are we to make of the 1991 internal memo (leaked to environmentalists) by World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers: “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]? . . . . The measurements of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. . . . I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted…. Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.” Is killing people in impoverished countries by polluting their homeland not genocidal because the economic logic is impeccable? It should be noted that Lawrence Summers was not censured for his articulation, which in fact guides World Bank policies to this day (Summers also noted in that same memo that “The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.”) When Summers’s memo became public in February 1992, Brazil’s then-secretary of the environment Jose Lutzenburger wrote to Summers: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane. . . . Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in. . . . If the World Bank keeps you as vice president it will lose all credibility. To me it would confirm what I often said . . . the best thing that could happen would be for the Bank to disappear.” Unfortunately for members of the underpolluted regions of the world, neither the World Bank nor Summers disappeared. Lutzenberger, on the other hand, was fired shortly after writing this letter. Summers remained with the World Bank until joining the Clinton administration, where he eventually became secretary of the treasury, and, more recently, president of Harvard.