How is genocide an act which concerns us today? I’ll come right to the point: We must stop seeing genocidal thinking as something foreign, done by other people with obviously-horrible beliefs. (Even the Nazis thought they were the good guys, so we are going to have to apply a more-active intelligence in order to exercise moral judgment where the largest atrocities are concerns.) First, many Americans will say, with varyable solemnity, that American settlers with intermittent but ultimately-systematic assistance from the US Federal Government in the 1800s, were the first people to commit a genocide properly so-called. I happen to agree, though I think this fact is only theoretically-relevant in the sense that we need a wider conception of the kinds of places where genocide is possible, and why. The US Government, by Executive Order, interned about 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants living on the West Coast from 1942-1946 because of assumptions that they posed a potential subversive arm of the Empire of Japan. (The most-serious domestic massacre plot by Axis spies during World War II came from Germans targeting New York City.) What prevented the murder of our fellow Americans and other Japanese non-citizens already detained in those camps? Some would argue it was our political system and our values, though 70 years before these elements of political culture didn’t protect American Indians from planned starvation and disease, and they didn’t prevent the institution of the camps for tens of thousands of innocent Americans because of racial, cultural or religious suspicions considered rational within government at the time.
I’ll invoke a provocative (and to me, convincing and even perspective-altering) central argument in different ways by both Benjamin Valentino and genocide scholar Manus Midlarsky in The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century: It was time and space that made Japanese-Americans’ and Japanese civilians’ fate in the interment camps different from the mass murder of Jews and Gypsies in the Holocaust. By “time and space” I mean that the Empire of Japan could not invade our shores and make inroads into our interior, thus pushing our government into an (imaginary) corner where it has a large suspected 5th column being approached by enemy relief. Consider that the Wansee Conference authorizing the Holocaust throughout Europe was held in January 1942; the previous month Hitler had declared war on the United States and the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the Soviet Union stalled out into its first Russian winter; the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was formalized in (imaginary) desperation following the real prospect that the war would be lost.
Do I believe the United States is a net force for good in the World? Absolutely. But this belief and the facts I can submit in its support has little if any bearing on what was done to the American Indians who had already been recognized as Americans by the Marshall Court, or what could have happened to Japanese-Americans because of an unexamined assumption–still popular–bromide that the Japanese were fanatical because that’s how the Japanese are. (Note the irony; always note the irony.) Perhaps we find ourselves resort to curt insistence that such measures were or would be necessary before politely steering the subject back to the cognitively-congruous. Recalling that the definition of genocide is not ”something the Nazis do,” we might gently but emphatically deny them the easy distance from evil, even in some cases where it would be impolite to do so.
We should be concerned what genocide is because it’s remarkably easy to consent to it.