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.