This is the 37th issue of The Funambulist and I couldn’t be more appreciative of the opportunity to be the guest editor. The title of the issue, “Against Genocide,” serves a dual function: it represents a collective dedication to studying and preventing genocide, as well as a contestation of the selective application and often limited definition of the word. While obviously not globally comprehensive, the issue nevertheless seeks to offer a challenge to our understanding of state violence, memory, aesthetics, land and displacement, race-making, international law, and more.
Genocide is a crime, the “crime of crimes.” It is a supposedly rare eliminatory violence that, by our canonization, exemplifies the very worst of human political behavior because it is the attempt to destroy a people simply for who they are.
That genocide is a crime is probably the least important thing about it.
Genocide the process is not necessarily the same as genocide the crime.
Genocide emerged as a crime far removed from recognitions of the violence of coloniality because Nazi occupation was positioned as an aberrational violence beyond the laws of war observed by civilized Western states. Germany’s invasion-occupation of Eastern Europe and the extreme anti-Jewish hatred that most notably marked the genocidal campaign provided the foundation for Raphael Lemkin’s proposed criminalization of the destruction of social, cultural, and political collectivities. Genocide, Dirk Moses concludes in Problems of Genocide (2021), was underpinned by “criminal, as opposed to political motivations” — it was a violence most readily conceptualized through the language of transgression.
But genocidal processes — demarcation, exclusion, elimination, and political reassertion (a bit more concise than Gregory Stanton’s 10 stages of genocide) — are a political necessity. They are a comprehensive means of population management, a tool of conquest utilized across multiple centuries. K’eguro Macharia wrote about the ideological chasm between the Pan-African Congress’ Declaration to the Colonial Workers, Farmers, and Intellectuals (1945, the year of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Nuremberg Trials) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948, the year that the Genocide Convention was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly). Macharia describes how the former “recognized that the modern world’s primary division of power was between colonizing powers and colonized people” — that this political hierarchy was also a bifurcation “between those considered human and those considered sub- and non-human.” In its failure to indict or even cursorily name colonialism as foundational to the inequities that the United Nations purportedly sought to resolve, Macharia concludes a compatibility between and complement of the UN’s framework and imperiality. This is the premise of human rights law inherited in the postwar invention of genocide as a crime: the omission of coloniality is exonerative, it is only the crimes of postwar modernity that could conceivably registered as criminal. And even then, only a careful selection.
The concept of permanent security is derived from Einsatzgruppe D commander Otto Ohlendorf who coined the term in 1939 to justify his soldiers’ mass killings of Jews in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. For him, total elimination would enable the “pacification” of the region so it would be more amenable to Nazi security interests. Adolf Hitler made this concept even more explicit following the German invasion of Poland in October 1939, describing “the absolute guarantee of security” following the ethnic reordering of Europe after the removal of minority groups from German land.
This now-commonplace geopolitical strategy pairs prevention (the anticipation of inevitable future threats) with preemption (military actions taken to forestall said inevitability), and in attempts to reduce insecurity, animates an unending cycle hellbent on seeking out and extinguishing both internal and external threats to the nation. During the Nuremberg trials, Ohlendorf’s defense team described his actions as “putative self-defense,” which the Benjamin Ferencz-led U.S. prosecution dismissed. To accept the rationale as valid would be to entertain blatant Nazi flouting of the international rules of war; but outright rejecting it would accidentally incriminate the Allied powers. U.S. military strategy, for example, would deploy this permanent security logic in its anti-communist campaigns in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and elsewhere during the Cold War.
Imperialism as a civilizing mission was a humanitarian iteration of permanent security: good subjects were governable, and ungovernable subjects were cast as terrorists or dissidents or otherwise tainting elements that compromised the integrity of the white (or white-approved) sovereign. The willingness to enact racialized violence that blurs the boundary between the civilian and armed resister is an example of an always already genocidal impulse of states whose maintenance necessitates the racecrafting — an othering — foundational to permanent security. Lemkin’s opposition to the violences of empire was never a wholehearted opposition to the imperial form, only to particular articulations (e.g. favoring the apparent civility of British indirect rule over the brutality of German settler colonization).
The [neo]colonial paradigm of total war functionally eradicates the possibility of civilian innocence, exploiting the ways that certain racialized and minoritized populations are not and have never been afforded innocence. They are burdens, blemishes, demographic anxieties, existential threats. Nation-states are bounded territories where populations have been defined by a set of national criteria, some socio-biological identifiers (e.g. Americanness as whiteness despite the enduring analogy of the “melting pot”). Therefore, permanent security represents, per Moses, the “preventative killing of presumed future threats to a particular ethnos, nation, or religion, [with]in a bounded territoriality.” Geopolitics as interactions between these bounded identity-defined territories facilitates a clearer understanding of identity-targeting violence as not anomalous crime explained by the “just because” punishment of difference, but as core to state formation, function, and interaction.
The transformation of civilian into threat becomes especially fraught in considering intent as a central definitional factor of genocide. This is the further muddying of the distinction between genocide as the ultimate crime of crimes and the common mistreatment of groups of people because of discriminatory categorizations within political systems.
At the end of 1951, the same year that the Genocide Convention was ratified, the Civil Rights Congress submitted a petition to the United Nations charging the U.S. government with the genocide of its Black citizens. They accused the U.S. of the “mass murder of its own nationals, with institutionalized oppression and persistent slaughter of Negro people in the United States on a basis of ‘race,’ a crime abhorred by mankind and prohibited by the conscience of the world.” Buttressed by a damning mountain of evidence, the petition offers two main arguments. Using the Convention’s language, they first accuse of “killing members of the group,” exemplified by “killings by police, killings by incited gangs, killings at night by masked men, killings always on the basis of ‘race,’ [and] killings by the Ku Klux Klan.” The second is a social and economic argument: that the government is guilty of “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part.” They explain how the “American Negro is deprived, when compared with the remainder of the population of the United States, of eight years of life on the average.” It connected the enduring traumas of the transatlantic slave trade, to the indignity of the southern plantocracy’s evolution into the exploitative system of sharecropping, to how Jim Crow segregation forced Black people into “filthy, disease-bearing housing, and deprived by law of adequate medical care and education.”
The petition used the criminalization of identity-based targeting to contest white supremacy’s creation and enforcements of racial hierarchies, including the deprivation and precarity to which so many Black people were and are still subjected. The petition was roundly opposed by the American delegation, as well as by Lemkin himself, because of how the Convention was being used to challenge quotidian practices of colonial white supremacy deliberately elided in the formulation of human rights discourses and international criminal law. Using W.E.B. Du Bois’ framework of the racial color line, the Congress also internationalized their claims, linking the Klan lynch mob to past and present colonial warfare, including the then-ongoing war in the Korean peninsula.
As demonstrated by the We Charge Genocide petition and the subsequent moves to quash the claims made by the Congress, anti-Blackness — the identification and elimination of the security threat presented by Black people — is a necessary part of the U.S.’ genocidal domestic securitization structure. Arguably, carcerality is also a part of this. This encompasses the pointedly anti-Black prison-industrial complex and police brutality, the regime of border security (literally departmentalized during the “global war on terror” as “homeland security”), civil liberties-eroding “counter-extremism” strategies, and the historical dispossession, internment, and extermination of Indigenous peoples — an originary sin. The military engagement between the settler colonial government and various Indigenous nations in the three centuries of the so-called “Indian Wars” established a crucial frame through which U.S. preemption-prevention would be enacted in its imperial frontiers overseas.
The expectation of civilian casualty is part of a strategy that either targets and harms civilians or completely fails to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants (see: the deliberate legal nebulousness of the “unlawful enemy combatant”). Because conflict is not restricted to engagements of clearly defined combatant groups, and because combatant and non-combatant categories are often deliberately collapsed into one another, the entire population can be targeted and killed. But at what point can this totalizing need and aspiration to eliminate be deemed genocidal?
I still remember when the government didn’t find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq despite trotting out a venerable Black four-star general and Secretary of State to convincingly argue fabricated evidence about aluminum tubes and biological weapons to the UN Security Council. And I remember how, partly in an effort to reduce the casualty count of U.S. soldiers, the war effort pivoted to drones. “Surgical strikes,” they’re impressively called; and we mockingly call our Nobel Peace Prize-winning and first ever Black head of state “President O-bomb-a.” I’ve never been good at math so surely there’s a complicated calculus I don’t understand, but how many Iraqi or Yemeni or Somali or Afghan wedding guests equals the life of one U.S. infantryman? The accountants in Operation Enduring Freedom and the soon-to-end Operation Freedom’s Sentinel are cooking the books.
The colonial imaginary of total war hit home in a recent conversation with a Zimbabwean scholar some years older than me. During the liberation struggle, the Rhodesian military corralled swaths of rural native populations into “protected villages,” fenced internment spaces patrolled by soldiers to prevent civilians from resourcing, interacting with, and joining the freedom fighters. My mother lived in one for a couple of years; she describes them to me as concentration camps. This scholar was explaining to me that the Rhodesians were right to collapse the boundary between civilians and the guerrillas. Because when young people were out in the fields with their cattle, when they were up on hills and rocks surveying landscapes and signaling and alerting the movements of friends and enemies alike, were they not some part of the war effort?
No one is killed simply for possessing an identity: this is the depoliticized formulation of genocide in its liberal deployment. The real cruelty and terror of collectivized punishment is the fact that, at any given time, it is possible to observe one or more of the five legally defined acts of genocide in many many parts of the world — including within U.S. borders — being performed against some group in a way, and it is legal (or maybe not) and perfectly normal.
Horrifyingly enough, it is possible to study genocide without studying people.
Genocide Studies (originally and often as Holocaust Studies) is the postwar discipline, and then there’s the study of genocide as the political and cultural evolution of a people. Not evolution in a way that reifies Social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” and racial capitalist ideas of scarcity-driven competition for space and existence, but a global macro-evolution of political institutions and nation-states whose imperialistic hierarchies have always marked some to live and some to die.
Captured by disciplinarity, Genocide Study is the study of necropolitics in which violences are made legible through enumerations, analysis of aggressor goals and intentions, and historiographic comparisons. As a study of people, however, genocide inhabits a different affective register. It is the discovery of the mass graves of Native children at the assimilatory horror shows euphemistically referred to as “residential schools.” It is the pleading for human remains and invaluable artifacts from museum institutions: public institutions that exclude portions of the populous from “the public” so that the bones these excludeds wish to lay to rest can be trapped behind glass and displayed or incarcerated in the archives for study in perpetuity. It is to read in history books that you no longer exist and that your struggle for a self-determining survival was disruptive to “peace” and thus dishonorable. It is your tongue tripping over an alien language that is your birthright; it is watching architectural monstrosities erected on lands stolen from you and your family and your community. It is new military aggressions reiterating long-existing campaigns and occupations; it is diaspora scattered by force, helplessly and worriedly watching assaults and humiliations from afar. It is the denial of phenomenon again and again and again, even as survivors and their descendants present historical records and their own recollections and bodies as evidence. To use Marius Kothor’s own words to answer her question, our “affective response to this history [does] constitute a source of historical knowledge.”
Where witness-bearing is marketed as a kind of collective empowerment, studying and living and recalling genocide is the attempt to express the incommensurable: to register pain and violence and humiliation and fear and devastation and fatigue and whatever else that, to paraphrase Elaine Scarry, actively destroys language because of its unshareability. “The unnameable war is about the capacity to wage war,” Felicia Denaud writes. To know the ease of mass death by selfish neglect (the nearly two years of COVID-19 has been a harrowing testament) or pointed elimination brings into focus the workaday necropolitical functioning of the Westphalian structure: someone must die so life can be preserved.
Sometimes we witness these violences in realtime, and other times we visit and revisit the archive hoping to make a little more sense of what we see. The breakneck speed of telecommunications has dramatically changed the role of the atrocity image and what it means to show and attempt to humanize (or dehumanize) a dead body or vulnerable people when slaughter is produced in excess and corpses and refugees have never been easier to find. As we look at these images, “the moment of the other’s suffering engulfs us,” John Berger writes. (“Engulfment is a moment of hypnosis,” says Roland Barthes: witnessing is a transfixion, we can’t and we must look away.) And while we may try to assimilate the facts of those images into our own lives, “the reader may tend to feel this discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy,” continues Berger. Photographic permanence tends to extract a photographed moment from the ones surrounding it: the image, in a way, comes to exist singularly even as we know events both immediately preceded and followed that moment. The image becomes a canvas for personal projections of morality. And once an image of atrocity is morphed into a universalizing reminder of the human condition, the moment effectively becomes depoliticized. So, too, “genocide” becomes a noun or adjective (“genocidal”) used to punctuate a harm because you’re not supposed to ignore the word when you encounter it.
The difference between genocide and Genocide is at the level of abstraction. Abstraction not necessarily as outright denial, but as a distancing. There are no people in many of these disciplinary debates, no stakes beyond argument. There is no orality as reliable historical narration, no ancestral land thieved, no peoples displaced or cattle or orchards stolen, no waters polluted or privatized or made undrinkable, no languages and entire lifeworlds lost, no humiliation and anger at cheap attempts at reconciliation or public memorialization, no denied right of return to mourn, no movements for reparations or repatriation, no asking permission to access ancestral lands for burials, no humans involved. Only economies, only states.
The contributors beautifully responded to the theme from their respective materialities, identities, geographic and diasporic locations, politics, and artistic mediums. While Ju-Hyun Park challenges the historical legacy of Korean partition and the devastating bombing campaigns during the Korean War, Ayantu Tibeso and J. Khadijah Abdurahman describe real time responses to the ongoing genocide in Tigray against the backdrop of the Ethiopian Empire’s ethnopolitics. Considering political dynamics of denial, Zenzele Ndebele broaches the fraught topic of the Gukurahundi genocide in Zimbabwe: a brutal four year campaign that is still denied by the government. Related to this national history through denial, Nicole Froio’s interview with Dr. Tábita Hünemeier illuminates the dark underbelly of the founding myths of Brazilian racial democracy with an unconventional enumeration of genocide: genome sequencing. In the same vein as this political honesty, Jo Bluen presents a fragmented and poetic challenge to the origin story of international justice as told through courts: from the watershed trials in Nuremberg to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Duly challenging political storytelling, Nicholas Mirzoeff’s engagement of monumentality and the removal of Confederate monuments from public space forces us to consider the fixity of history: the necessity for revision and more democratic authorship. Monumentality presents the opportunity for another kind of witnessing, as does photography, and I’m grateful to be able to publish the work of one of my favorite photographers, Nazik Armenakyan. Her series of photographs of Artsakh before and after war illustrates a continuity of regional conflict inflected by the continuity of attacks against Armenians, from the 1915 genocide into the present.
Our cover illustrator, Thandi Loewenson, created an original piece for this issue. Her translation of photographs and sketches of the land in Kabwe, Zambia into etched-carved-cut graphite blocks and then into digital art brings a textural, haptic, material dimension. She told me that during early colonial mining excavations in Zambia — then, British South Africa Company-administered Northern Rhodesia — a skull was disinterred. The Broken Hill skull or, more crudely, “Rhodesia Man,” is currently being held in the Natural History Museum in London.
It feels especially weighty to put together an issue about mass death in the second year of a catastrophic pandemic, accelerating global ecological crisis, and multiple refugee and IDP-producing conflicts — preventable death is devastatingly abundant. In the preface to her play We Are Proud to Present…, Jackie Sibblies Drury writes that “the most tragic death is the death that is elided over as history is canonized”: that this dehumanized death is, “if not a fate worse than death, perhaps a death worse than death.” This issue is dedicated to the memories and imaginations of the ancestors in whose names we fight and whose names we don’t always know, and to a never-ending solidarity with the living. Thank you so much to these writers for trusting me with their words, and thank you so much for reading. ■