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Related Topics
Genocide's AftermathReview - Genocide's Aftermath
Responsibility and Repair
by Claudia Card and Armen T. Marsoobian (Editors)
Wiley-Blackwell, 2007
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., C.C.C. Reg., S.A.C. (Dip.)
Dec 18th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 51)

When genocide scholars meet in international forums, one cannot help but notice that historians, political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists enjoy strong representation in the scholarly crowd, but equally obvious is the penury of philosophers drawn to this subject of inquiry. Thus it is refreshing to find that, with Blackwell's publication this year of Genocide's Aftermath, philosophers are finally joining the chorus of investigators addressing this critical topic. Analysis of genocide, perhaps the most horrific of phenomena to scar the landscape of human history, is necessarily a multi-disciplinary task, as its origins are to be found in a broad array of dangerous factors that inhabit every arena of human life. The shortage of philosophical attention to genocide, therefore, has been a genuine problem to a full understanding of genocide. Philosophers bring something unique to the table of scholarly discussion, as their expertise prepares them well to clarify and articulate a conceptual understanding of the nature of the peculiar crime against humanity labeled "genocide." The collection of essays by philosophers in Genocide's Aftermath makes a valuable and much-needed contribution to the scholarly study of genocide.

The volume opens with an essay by Claudia Card, "Genocide and Social Death," in which she recounts her definition of the peculiar harm effected by genocide, first explored in her 2002 book, The Atrocity Paradigm (Oxford University Press). Card's notion of social death as the distinctive harm of genocide focuses attention away from victims as individuals and toward individual victims as members of ethnic groups left degraded as cultural entities. For Card, genocide is "evil" for the obvious reason: it composes a unilateral slaughter of defenseless civilians, including babies, mothers and old folks. But, before their death and after the genocide, social death is achieved by particularly dehumanizing treatment of the victims. Victims are deprived of control over vital trans-generational interests and other vital aspects of human life. They are dehumanized and degraded, including being stripped, robbed, deceived, sexually violated, made to witness the murder of their family members, and made to participate in their own murder; they are killed without regard for their lingering suffering or exposure, and once murdered, their corpses are treated with disrespect.  

For Card, genocide is not simply reducible to mass death, the killing of great numbers of individuals. Nor is it simply the scandalous and degrading nature of genocide's harms to individual victims that draws forth the peculiar opprobrium that Card names "evil." The crux of genocide's peculiar evil resides in the fact that social vitality is erased in the victim group so that harm extends beyond corpse counts to the murder of cultural heritage, the erosion of intergenerational connections, and the "natal alienation" of descendents of the victim group. These grave losses on the group level Card names "social death."  Social death aggravates physical death by making it indecent (p. 81) and  kills the community, as a setting for group life and for observance of a shared cultural tradition. Future generations of the victim group suffer erasure as members of a cultural heritage.

Mohammed Abed's "Clarifying the Concept of Genocide" reviews the definition of genocide established by the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, deeming it arbitrary and inadequate and clarifying its conceptual shortcomings. Then Abed explores the harms inflicted by genocide to determine whether these harms are qualitatively different from the harms imposed by other forms of political violence. He concludes that one of the greatest harms effected upon ethnic entities is one that has been consistently underappreciated in scholarly discourse and that remains unaddressed in post-genocidal reparation responses. Abed argues that many ethnic groups self-identify in terms of sacred spaces. Cultures tend to be "territorially bounded," remarks Abed, so one of the worst harms done during genocide is their group's removal from their historic dwelling places. Values, norms of behavior, mythic components of cultural life, and other symbolic mechanisms that condition and shape cultural memory are invested in ancestral territories, so deportations often cause the "destruction of the national pattern" of the group" and have a serious impact upon the psychological profile of survivors and descendents within the group (p. 37).  Social death" is most successful where peoples have been driven off their ancestral lands and robbed of their territories; Abed cites the reservation system which confines American Indians, the township and homeland systems of South Africa, and the collectivization of peasant farming by Stalin as examples of this aspect of social death.

Karen Kovach shifts the focus from victim groups to perpetrator groups in her "Genocide and the Moral Agency of Ethnic Groups." Against the traditional accounting of culpability as resting upon moral individualism, Kovach refuses that individuals alone should be deemed moral agents, and she warns of the danger of failing to recognize the inherited nature of moral status across generations within ethnic groups. She insists that the completion of the mourning process for victim groups parallels the degree to which predecessors in the ethnic community of the perpetrators accept responsibility for the acts of their ancestors. To identify oneself as a member of an ethnic community, argues Kovach, is to act in the context of a history that already contains morally significant actions and events. In a troubling universalizing move reminiscent of the ancient world's "pollution" tradition, Kovach insists that ethnic identity carries with it a moral burden, which necessarily imposes responsibility on descendents of perpetrators, causing them to share in a collective guilt for the crimes of their forefathers.

Martina Oshana accepts and extends Kovach's notion of inherited guilt in her "Moral Taint," insisting that a person's moral record is "sullied by the unjust conduct of those with whom one is associated" (p. 71).  As with tainted food and tainted relationships, taint occurs, according to Oshana, by "active participation or collusion on one's part or vicariously, by solidarity and collective liability arrangements" (p. 83). Most troubling is her insistence that ties of responsibility hold descendents fast, "even where these connections are not deliberately forged" (p. 83). Oshana casts a very broad net in her quest for guilty descendents who must resign themselves to responsibility for past crimes, even where relations are "remote and perhaps even unrecognized," and indeed may be "involuntary" (p. 83). In a very disturbing conclusion, Oshana recommends the unhealthy sentiments of "shame, embarrassment, and injured pride" as appropriate starting points for "atonement" of moral errors in which the descendent-individuals had no part.

Bill Wringe's "Collective Action and the Peculiar Evil of Genocide" represents a refreshing return to moral reality, as he wrestles with the problematic term "evil" introduced by Card. He settles upon a very helpful explanation of this mythico-religiously baggage-laden term, as an "intuition" that is characterized by a peculiar reaction. In opposition to Card's opening paper in this series, Wringe asserts that the intuition of genocide as an "evil" is not satisfied by the mere notion of social death (p. 101). While social death is no doubt devastating for ethnic communities, not even the Holocaust can rightly be said to have truly suffered a "death" of their cultural heritage. Without a paradigm example of social death, Wringe doubts that this phrase captures the harm experienced in the intuition of "evil" that we feel in relation to all genocides. Wringe then fleshes out the harm distinctively captured by the intuition: "disregard of and disrespect for [the victims'] embodied rationality and hence their humanity" (p. 106). Social death speaks to the harm to cultural identity, but the intuition of genocide's "evil" speaks to its attack on humanity. Genocide is a crime of a higher order.

Stephen Winter's "On the Possibility of Group Injury" makes a stronger case for victim collective identity than the essays addressing perpetrator identity. "Group injury grounded in ethical individualism need not be simply reducible to individual interests," argues Winter, but because groups are damaged as groups by radical violence, their descendents often share in the harms suffered directly by their ancestors. Rodney Roberts continues the meditation upon victim groups and their right to rectificatory compensation for historical sufferings in "The Counterfactual Conception of Compensation," showing that our ideas about reparation to victim groups are hopelessly utopian. Since it is impossible to determine what would have happened if a certain historical injustice had not occurred, it is equally absurd to claim that injustices can be set to right. Indeed, argues Roberts, the compensation may just as well constitute a further injustice (p. 135).

Roberts offers as example a tale of a reckless taxi driver who breaks my leg by crashing his car, thereby causing me to miss my airline flight, which crashes and kills all passengers. Calculations of what would have happened had the taxi driver been a more careful driver would conclude with my owing him, rather than his owing me for his negligence. Roberts claims that this example is as absurd as the descendants of African slaves claiming compensation for personal injury from the historical injustice of slavery, since, argues Roberts, these descendents owe their very existence to the institution of slavery. On the other hand, Roberts concedes that they would have a good claim to compensations for continuing patterns of social abuse perpetrated by the institution of slavery and for deeply embedded personal attitudes and policy assumptions endorsed by morality and law at the time of slavery in so far as this history continues to have detrimental effects upon their lives (p. 140).

Haig Khatchadourian distinguishes reparative justice from a broader notion of compensatory justice in "Compensation and Reparation as Forms of Compensatory Justice." Where reparative justice requires that a party guilty of some historical harm is acknowledged as directly owing of compensation to a victim group, compensatory justice may offer an alternative that can more readily heal post-genocidal communities. Compensatory justice does not require such a wrong, an identifiable injurer, or an acknowledgement of culpability. In compensatory justice, society is seen to compensate victims without attending to perpetrator identity, much as in the case of natural disasters or accidents where perpetrators do not enter the discussion of what is owed to victims. This notion of compensation offers a healthy outlet for perpetrator descendents who may wish to see victims satisfied so they can move forward from their ancestors' wrongs (say, in the case of the Armenian Genocide) but feel forced to deny the historical crime because they are loathe to accept the label of genocideurs. Denial strives to wipe out the indignity from the record of history, but victims experience denial as a continuing affront to their dignity and the dignity of their ancestor-victims. Khatchadourian's notion of compensation offers them an alternative.

Ernesto Verdeja explores the implications of reparations for post-atrocity transitions toward democracy in "A Normative Theory of Reparations in Transitional Democracies." Focusing upon Latin American nations, Verdeja recommends an official apology and reparations to victims of atrocities as crucial to the healing the factionalism of war-torn populations, and to achieving the goal of establishing equitable liberal institutions. Reparations allow a sense of a communal "we" to arise from a fragmented population, and an apology can strengthen public trust in the emergent government.

Larry May's "Prosecuting Military Leaders for War Crimes" examines the legal foundations by which military and political leaders can be held to account for violations of international humanitarian law. May insists that, where minor figures are too often sacrificed as scapegoats to satisfy calls for justice from the international community, it is crucial that leaders rather than foot-soldiers be primary targets of war crimes prosecution. Only leaders satisfy the mens rea component of criminal culpability that should be a key indicator of guilt in war crimes and crimes against humanity, argues May, so leaders must be held responsible for the crimes of their subordinates and deprived of the defense of ignorance to their actions of their troops.

Nir Eiskovits argues for the moral importance of truth commissions in post-atrocity reconciliations in his ""Rethinking the Legitimacy of Truth Commissions." Reasoning from Adam Smith's notion of sympathy, Eiskovits asserts that political and social reconciliation requires an "active sympathy," that is only achieved by a detailed exposure of the perpetrator community to the particular circumstances of their victims' suffering.

William Bradford closes the volume with his "Acknowledging and Rectifying the Genocide of the American Indians." A responsible treatment of what is owed to victims of historical violences would remain incomplete without addressing the peculiar harms effected by 300 years of dehumanizing treatment of the aboriginals of U.S. territories. Bradford argues for recognition of the harms done as harms of genocide, and for justice as "indigenism"--that is, a profound rethinking of the premises underlying current relations with the indigenous. Indians and non-Indians are now forced by history to occupy a common geographical home; their interdependence, argues Bradford, requires reconciliation that can only be achieved by acknowledging the original crimes and by accepting American Indians as a sovereign and independent nation, worthy of self-determination. Bradford counsels seven concrete steps to reconciliation (acknowledgement, apology, peacemaking, commemoration, symbolic compensation, land restoration, and reconciliation).

This volume is a welcome addition to the wealth of scholarship on the topic of genocide, important for the heretofore penury of philosophical attention to this phenomenon. The reflections treat from many diverse angles the philosophical aspects of genocide: who counts as a victim? a perpetrator? Is responsibility inherited? How broad should responsibility for past atrocities extend? How can victim and perpetrator communities move forward in the interests of future peace and for the sake of justice? This volume will be found valuable reading, if troubling and controversial in parts, by any educated adult and would also be useful as a provocative text in university studies of genocide.

© 2007 Wendy C. Hamblet

Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., C.C.C. Reg., S.A.C. (Dip.), Assistant Professor, Division of University Studies, North Carolina A&T State University

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