the intervention ratchet’s lexicon: confronting the teleology of mass atrocities prevention

This is the second post in a series on the lexicon of intervention’s slippery slope. The series is intended to educate human rights advocates about the opportunities, costs, and opportunity costs of coercive responses to mass atrocities.

Alex de Waal, Jens Meierhenrich, and Bridget Conley-Zilkic, three genocide scholars, have penned an exceptional essay on the analytical shortcomings of the present discourse on mass atrocities prevention. Disaggregating historical models of atrocities termination, de Waal, Meierhenrich, and Conley-Zilkic complicate popular trends in atrocities scholarship. The authors outline three dominant characteristics of the “genocide and mass atrocities” narrative: the teleological sliding scale of genocide’s emergence, the epistemological assumption of military intervention’s effectiveness, and the subsequent ethical imperative underlying our cognitive perceptions of mass atrocities. For the authors, the policy-based, moral, and analytical fixation on the Holocaust and Rwanda as historical atrocity models lays the foundation for a deterministic, static paradigm for prevention:

In its simplest form this [“essentialist logic of violence”] seen as a graduated scale of warnings of genocide that corral the full complexity of conflict and inter-ethnic relations into a one-dimensional slippery slope that leads inexorably to genocide, and reduce the varied instrumental political logics of violence to evil motive alone. These cases model only two possible outcomes: either a completed extermination of the target group or an external military intervention to bring an end to the killing.

The essay is worth reading in full. Given this blog’s focus on mass atrocities prevention and policy, I’m planning over the next week to address each component of de Waal, Meierhenrich, and Conley-Zilkic’s analysis, starting with an assessment of the “teleology of mass atrocities.” The authors’ conclusions are apt, but generally unattributed, and I’d like to expand on their analysis of literature trends, cognitive narratives, and these narratives’ implications for policy formation and implementation.

So, to the teleology. It’s worth starting our assessment with James Young’s “texture of memory”–that is, the ways in which public discourse, memorial institutions, and narratives shape our collective understanding of the Holocaust, in particular. During high school, I spent two summers working as an education intern at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, the city’s relatively nascent Holocaust memorial museum. Compared to its counterparts in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Jerusalem, MoJH sits squarely in the middle of the “Jewish particularism vs. Holocaust universalism” spectrum. The core exhibition progresses chronologically, but also thematically: the first floor emphasizes the cultural origins of Eastern European Jewry, where the third floor focuses on the moral universalization of the Holocaust. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s interactive, cinematic, and LA-style Museum of Tolerance, on the other hand, features a “Tolerance Center,” transferring the Holocaust’s moral lessons to postwar and contemporary civil rights, human rights, and anti-bigotry struggles; similarly, DC’s US Holocaust Memorial Museum hosts “From Memory to Action,” a semi-permanent exhibit on post-Holocaust mobilization surrounding mass atrocities prevention and international human rights.

The moral project of Holocaust remembrance underlines public perceptions of subsequent crises, united under the essential ethics of common human dignity and justice. See, for example, President Obama’s 2009 Holocaust Remembrance Day address at the DC Holocaust museum, which articulates the post-Holocaust, moral stain of mass atrocities: [W]e have the opportunity to make a habit of empathy, to recognize ourselves in each other, to commit ourselves to resisting injustice and intolerance and indifference…[by] doing everything we can to prevent and end atrocities like those that took place in Rwanda, those taking place in Darfur.” The moral narrative of mass atrocities demonstrates de Waal et al.’s “graduated scale” of early warning and preventive opportunity; the “lessons-learned” understanding of humanity’s universal, collective responsibility offers little distinction between the rights hierarchy. Under this ethical logic, hate-crime prevention and anti-bigotry education are the natural, fluid counterparts to atrocities prevention–as de Waal et al. observe, the resulting narrative is “one-dimensional,” defined by genocide’s inevitable emergence. Thus, the teleology: if we perceive genocide or large-scale atrocities as the unavoidable end-point of political violence, our cognitive approach to policy formation and implementation becomes maximalist. Resolving localized outbreaks, internal political disputes, and regional divisions becomes a moot point, because the perpetrator’s underlying immorality transcends the political power of short-term, non-coercive interventions.

Under the moral narrative of mass atrocities, conscientious policymakers bear overwhelming responsibility for the prevention of the world’s worst crimes; transgressions against said responsibility are redeemable through decisive displays of courageous, moral leadership. Again, the teleology of mass atrocities prevention is in play. Political leadership emerges as a rough approximation of Godwin’s Law: as atrocity events escalate, the probability of an ahistorical, misappropriated comparison to past atrocities approaches 1. The penchant for non-rigorous, comparative analysis undermines responsible discourse and, at the formation level, intervention: conflict resolution approaches become “intervention by analogy,” an inexcusably shoddy model for public policy. Rwanda 1994 is no longer Rwanda 1994, but an unhappy synergy of Somalia 1993 and Rwanda 1994; Libya 2011 is no longer Libya 2011, but a misplaced moral reflection on Rwanda 1994, Darfur 2004, and Libya 2011; etcetera.

Public textures of atrocity memory carry significant relevance for academic and policy understandings of mass atrocities, not least because high-level policymakers perceive and depict the common policymaking discourse on mass atrocities through a moral lens. The field of anthropology has long fixated on the social origins of inter-communal conflict, violence, and atrocities memory (for an excellent example, see Liisa Malkki’s Purity and Exile, a field study of ethnic politics in the aftermath , constructed through the lens of Burundian Hutu refugees in Tanzania). Over the past decade, sociocultural anthropologists have proposed an “anthropology of genocide,” which probes the social foundations of dehumanization, “Otherization,” and inter-communal animosity. Similarly, two decades of experimental research on the collective and individual psychology of mass atrocities, victimization, and perpetration has extended academia’s perceptions of atrocities’ social origins.

Disaggregated, socially-oriented research is important, particularly for policy and programmatic approaches to trauma relief, post-conflict reconciliation, and restorative justice. But, for public perspectives on mass atrocities, the “socialization” of genocide research possesses an unfortunate side-effect: an over-emphasis on social dynamics, perceptions of the “Other,” and the “psychology of evil” de-politicizes mass atrocities, reducing the social phenomena to easily replicable models of “eliminationism” (to use Daniel Goldhagen’s uniquely unhelpful term). Anthropological and psychological frameworks for genocide and mass atrocities explain how individuals and groups mobilize against civilians, and how basic, human goodness declines into the world’s worst crime. But they don’t explain why. Crucial questions remain: Why do political institutions perpetrate atrocities? How do atrocities expand, limit, and perpetuate national, regional, and local political priorities? Justice, empathy, and human dignity are important, but the moral narrative of mass atrocities doesn’t begin to address the incentives and disincentives that transform institutional actors into perpetrators, third-party bystanders into interveners, and targeted communities into victims.

In carving a path forward for non-teleological research, de Waal et al. reference Meierhenrich’s disaggregated framework for atrocities termination, presumably present in his forthcoming Oxford introductory surveys. Meierhenrich differentiates between three characteristics of genocide’s emergence: genocidal acts, which are one-off instances of massacre (periodic outbreaks of ethnicized violence in northern Nigeria, for example); genocidal campaigns, which may include instrumentalist forms of genocide-by-counterinsurgency, genocide-by-resistance, and genocide-by-occupation (de Waal et al. cite the Ethiopian Red Terror as one such example); and genocidal regimes, whose existence, survival, and political legitimacy is reliant on a genocidal ideology (Hutu Power in Rwanda, Germany’s Nazi regime). In some sense, Meierhenrich’s model represents a confluence of trends within the larger research literature on conflict emergence and political violence. Large-scale genocide studies, such as Ben Kiernan’s Blood and Soil, have disaggregated historical models of mass atrocity throughout time, rather than Meierhenrich’s institutional distinctions. Meanwhile, advances in data collection technology (geographic information systems, especially) have allowed civil war researchers to prioritize the spatial disaggregation of conflict onset, duration, and termination (see, in particular, Cederman and Gleditsch’s 2009 JCR issue on “disaggregating civil war” (ungated), including excellent papers on ethnic marginalization, absolute/relative economic disparity, and geographic terrain, all gated). Atrocities analysis might apply a similar research model, using GIS data to trace complex local, regional, and national overlays of violence to determine the trajectory of and interaction between genocidal episodes.

In addition to the Intervention Ratchet’s Lexicon series, this post is the first in a three-part assessment of contemporary narratives of mass atrocities prevention and genocide termination, sparked by de Waal et al.’s essay. Check back in a couple of days for the second installment, which will address the “epistemological assumption” and its implications for policy formation.

Hat-tips: to AIPR’s Alex Zucker, for the essay recommendation; and, to Holger Schmidt, my Georgetown professor, for the “disaggregated civil war” literature.

5 thoughts on “the intervention ratchet’s lexicon: confronting the teleology of mass atrocities prevention

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