Once more on ‘left-wing’ genocide denial

Posted: May 22, 2012 in Bosnia, genocide, Rwanda, the left

The Guardian journalist George Monbiot has written a further article, ‘See No Evil’, on the denial by Edward Herman and David Peterson of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995, in their book The Politics of Genocide which includes a supportive Preface by Noam Chomsky.

Monbiot is responding to Herman and Peterson’s reply on ZNet to his original criticism in The Guardian,  following his unsuccessful attempts in lengthy email correspondence (reproduced on Monbiot’s own site) to get Chomsky to address his collaborators’ genocide denial.

Last year I published a review which came to similar conclusions to Monbiot’s. In preparing his latest reply Monbiot asked me and three other academic writers on genocide (Adam Jones, Linda Melvern and Marko Atilla Hoare) to write our own responses to Herman and Peterson’s new justification of their position. Monbiot refers to my review and response in his article, and has published all four comments on his site. Below I reproduce my own new response to Herman and Peterson.

Edward Herman and David Peterson, in their reply to George Monbiot, do little to respond to the wave of incredulity and revulsion which their denial of genocide and its endorsement by Noam Chomsky are causing.

They misrepresent Monbiot, a widely respected critical journalist, as a cog in a Guardian-Observer propaganda machine which – in turn – is simply churning out a version of something called the ‘Western party-line’. Such crude, amalgamated constructs not only make serious debate difficult, but are also designed to damage one of the most important arenas for critical information and debate in the mainstream media – in precisely one of the areas in which it has been strongest, reporting on and debating crimes against humanity.

Herman and Peterson do this because, as I have argued in my full review in the Journal of Genocide Research, their Politics of Genocide ‘does not stop at raising … counter-examples to the Western mainstream. Instead, it engages in what can only be described as extensive genocide denial.’ Deniers need to block out key information and misrepresent opponents to support their perverse world-views. As the sociologist Stanley Cohen puts it in a classic study, ‘One common thread runs through the many different stories of denial: people, organizations, governments or whole societies are presented with information that is too disturbing, threatening or anomalous to be fully absorbed or openly acknowledged. The information is therefore somehow repressed, disavowed, pushed aside or reinterpreted. Or else the information “registers” well enough, but its implications – cognitive, emotional or moral – are evaded, neutralized or rationalized away.’

What is the information which disturbs Herman and Peterson? They cannot accept what has now been established by extensive and rigorous enquiry, that in 1995 unarmed Bosniak men and boys from the Srebrenica ‘safe area’, who were captured by Bosnian-Serbian forces, were murdered in cold blood. They suggested in their book that the case was ‘extremely thin, resting in good part on the difficulty of separating executions from battle killings’. This is a classic genocide denial mechanism (which can be traced back to the Armenian genocide), representing genocidal killing as really only war, suggesting that the victims were not really civilians (they might have been killed in battle), or if they were, as killed accidentally in the course of fighting.

Herman and Peterson believe that their trump card against Monbiot is that he ‘fails to mention that … we point out that the Bosnian Serbs “had taken the trouble to bus all the women, children, and the elderly men to safety”.’ What this shows, however, is that do not understand genocide, which involves not just indiscriminate attacks on entire populations, but also narrower, targeted violence – as often against men of military age (as potential resisters) as against women (whose sexual violation completes the humiliation of a community).

They also cannot accept that an exceptionally large, fast campaign of mass murder was carried out by Rwandan Hutu Power forces in 1994, claiming that the ‘great majority of deaths were Hutu, with some estimates as high as two million’. Claiming that Monbiot’s objections are ‘laughable’, they ridicule him for running ‘to his readers with the scoop that we are so sloppy in our use of sources’.

Yet the principal academic reference for Herman and Peterson’s claim is an unpublished paper, ‘Rwandan Political Violence in Space and Time’, which they attribute to Christian Davenport and Allan Stam and source to Davenport’s website, dated to 2004. Yet on page 37 of the same paper (which while citing a database compiled jointly with Stam, is attributed only to Davenport and dated 2008), are printed in black and white the following unequivocal conclusions: ‘we find that the majority of killings take place in the zone under government control (accounting for approximately 990,000 deaths). They are the ones directly responsible for almost all of the political violence.’ (Accessed on 17 October 2011)

A charitable explanation could be that Davenport’s paper has been updated since 2004, and this conclusion added since then, although 2008 was still well before The Politics of Genocide went to press. But Herman and Peterson can hardly have missed a clear line of argument which, while qualifying previous accounts of the Rwandan genocide, does not undermine the conclusion that the majority of killing in Rwanda in 1994 was committed by Hutu Power forces. The difference is that Davenport and Stam want to raise questions about the narrative of genocide; Herman and Peterson want to fully overturn it.

So they are sloppy with their sources: it is they, in the nice phrase they use against Monbiot, who are ‘hit-and-run intellectuals’, scooping up quotes and references without due care. As Cohen says, in denial ‘information is … somehow repressed, disavowed, pushed aside or reinterpreted.’ We find bucket-loads of all these tendencies in Herman and Peterson – and their patron, Chomsky. Indeed one suspects that, as Cohen continued, ‘the information “registers” well enough, but its implications – cognitive, emotional or moral – are evaded, neutralized or rationalized away.’

The remaining question is why do the Chomskyites do it? The obvious answer is political: they have such a huge investment in the idea that the USA and the West are the source of all the world’s evils, that they can only process information to fit this case. More complex answers might include, that like their fellow deniers in the former LM coterie, they are building an intellectual and political niche out of contrarian positions. The danger is that such nonsense, with its pseudo-scholarly apparatus of extensive footnotes and media science, finds a ready audience among the political idealistic.

  1. What you are doing with your labels of ‘genocide denial’ is setting up boundaries around what may be talked about, and what may not. Thousands of people were killed at Srebrenica. There is a lot of evidence about what happened, but there is also lots that one might disagree upon. The killing had a context, and that context was civil war. Many people died in the civil war. Some of those killed around Srebrenica in late 1992, when the region was controlled by the Bosnian Muslim commander Nasir Oric were killed because they were Serbs. When the area was taken by Bosnian Serb forces later on many more were killed because they were Muslim.

    No-one argues with the fact that thousands of people were killed because of their ethnicity. But instead of embracing the opportunity of understanding what went on, your approach (and, since you mention him, George Monbiot’s) is to try to rule one line of debate out of order, by calling it ‘genocide denial’. It is an approach that seeks to put certain matters beyond argument – to place limits on what is and what is not acceptable speech. This pose masquerades as high purpose, but is really babyish. ‘Nyer nyer nyer nyer nyer’ would be a more considered contribution to the debate. What you are really saying is that anyone who disagrees with you is Hitler.

    To kill 8000 people is without doubt a terrible thing. But it is not genocide, or even genocidal, it is war. That is not meant as an apology. War is a terrible thing, and should be fought.

    No doubt you would say that this is ‘genocide denial’ – well, you can name call as much as you like. You can wish that the debate was disallowed, but that has always been the fantasy of people with a weak brief to argue. The experience of the last twenty years is that even with the law courts and the police closing down discussion, the spark of free speech and free enquiry cannot be extinguished by fiat.

    Do you disagree with Noam Chomsky? Does George Monbiot? In all seriousness, Mr Shaw, what have you, or Mr Monbiot, done, or got to say that should make me think, ‘Noam Chomsky, what a fool – I should have listened to Martin Shaw and George Monbiot’.

  2. Heather says:

    Hi, I have stumbled on your blog via a NZ blog http://wasteddays2012.blogspot.co.nz/ and its reference to the George Monbiot article. Now reading the above article and having a look through at some of your other articles I’m very grateful to know that I can count on your scholarship as you discuss different international political events.

    I like your thinking around how we name events and explore the context.There was an interesting episode in NZ politics when the word holocaust was used to refer to a 19th Century event where British colonial forces subdued a passive resistance movement by Maori in the Taranaki region following land appropriation. Two of the leaders were arrested and held without trial and land was confiscated although there were no deaths directly attributed. http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/nga-poropiti-maori-prophetic-movements/4

    I’m amused about the comments on Chomsky from James H above. I too enjoy Chomsky but suggesting that he can’t be fallible and make errors suggests sainthood rather than mortality. I think we all have to look critically at our own beliefs and where this might lead to narrowed thinking.

    I’ll look to future articles with interest.


  3. Mark Cottle says:

    I have to take issue with the statement by James Heartfield in the preceding comments that:”To kill 8000 people is without doubt a terrible thing. But it is not genocide, or even genocidal, it is war.”

    It certainly is not “war” when men held as prisoners are taken away and executed solely because of their ethnicity and age. There is a great deal of solid evidence to substantiate that this is exactly what happened to thousands of men in Potočari and other locations around Srebrenica. Mr Heartfield concedes as much. Whether or not you agree with the findings of the International Criminal Tribunal and the International Court of Justice that the killings at Srebrenica were genocide, the evidence – testimony from UN troops and other observers, excavations of mass graves and so on – is graphic and overwhelming. What happened was an atrocity and it has no place within the legitimate conduct of war.

    Although Just War theory contains many contended concepts and remains a field of intense debate it has helped to lead us to a certain amount of broad consensus, for example in international law. In most democracies even the military establishments teach a doctrine that war has certain moral boundaries – only action within those boundaries is the proper business of soldiers. It is sadly true that atrocities often occur in war zones, but that does not mean we should regard them as “war”, nor should it mean we accept them as excusable consequences of difficult times. The mere fact that there was war going on in the vicinity of Srebrenica does not mean that all killing in the area was justified. It would surely take a fairly twisted or deluded mind to justify the killing of unarmed prisoners just because they are men of military age. Yet it seems pretty clear that is what happened. And it happened on a substantial scale as part of a wider campaign to remove a specific ethnic population from the area.

    I believe there is still a great deal to be learned about the conflict in Bosnia and events surrounding it. I am also open to the possibility that atrocities may have been committed by Bosniaks against Serbs on other occasions, although I have yet to see evidence that they were on the same scale as those committed by Serbs at Srebrenica. That does not change the nature of the Serb actions at Srebrenica. Those actions cannot be excused by describing them as “war”.

    The one point where I might have any sympathy with Mr Heartfield is the question of whether it is permissible to debate the definition of genocide. This seems reasonable as long as the parties are sincere and rational and take account of the evidence and of the context provided by international treaties and law. There are obviously legitimate questions about the interpretation of definitions – such as to how to interpret the meaning of “part” within the phrase “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. However those questions have a context, which includes case law and tribunal findings. I could just about see room to debate whether individual acts at Srebrenica, if considered in isolation, could constitute “genocide” on their own. But that would really be an academic debate in the worst sense of the term. It is surely difficult to dispute the killings and other brutality as “genocidal” given the extreme hatred involved and the nature and objectives of the wider campaign.

    As a believer in the importance of free speech I have to voice a certain concern about the idea that the term “genocide denial” might get misused as a way to shout down legitimate but inconvenient points of view. However I am also sensitive to the dangers of providing opportunities to propagandists. Not that everyone who questions the established view is a propagandist – we have to recognise the existance of well-meaning skeptics. The challenge then is to allow rational, fact-based debate without allowing semantic argument to provide a metaphorical trojan horse to apologists for the inexcusable.

    The important point remains that there was a profound wrong done and it is a mistake to try to deal with it by trying to substitute the word “genocide” with the word “war”. Even if it were an accurate use of the word it would not lessen the underlying magnitude of the wrong. It is inaccurate because it flies in the face of the meaning of war and military ethics. Worst of all, such a substitution – however well meant – plays into the hands of propagandists who seek to excuse.

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