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« The Forensics of Urbicide | Main | More On Intent »
Thursday
12Mar

Integrating Genocide and the Urban

I think it's interesting that the discussion thus far has raised several issues that are foundational to genocide studies, while simultaneously missing or avoiding the point of them. I don't mean for that to be as confrontational as it seems; please treat it as a provocation, and I'll welcome whatever barbs might be returned.

I'm going to name drop a little here: I studied with Frank Chalk, one of the pioneers of the field (along with Helen Fein, Robert Melson, and a few others). My views on genocide and related activities are a reflection of that training, rooted in historical method and case study, and necessarily minimalist - emphasizing the importance of perpetrator intent but also recognizing the role of material evidence in understanding whether a case of political violence can be considered genocidal.

This is, I think, is critical, since genocide is above all a crime. My sense has been that a fair number of academics, with what might be considered committed but non-specialist interest in genocide, have in their zeal to maintain a maximalist approach to the issue propped up a moralizing rather than objective and empirically guided framework. Some of this maximalist approach suggests that intent is next to irrelevant, all mass killing is genocide, etc. Its proponents have skirted difficult but critical questions that arise in the absence of such an important dimension. Emphasizing the dogma of legal procedures and standards in determinations of genocide need not be a considered a disciplinary or professional fetish. Nor should it be considered a stumbling block to non-legal scholars. My instinct it to reject the notion that intent should be discarded as a means of understanding the phenomena. Yes, detemining intent is difficult. So what? In my view, it's another benchmark that social scientists can use, and more importantly, one that binds their work to the real world of consequences and penalties.

There's another dimension to this, I think, that's equally important: understanding the idiosyncrasies of perpetrator intent, as arcane an investigative art as that might be, can also help us to understand the problems of process and dimension that Martin Senn, Marc Tyrrell, and Bryan Finoki have raised thus far. Genocide is, according to William Schabas, an inchoate crime - not a single event, but an accumulation of events. More than that, it relies on a longer term accumulation of historical and psycho-social dynamics that enable the deliberate targeting of populations. That targeting, and its outcome, need not necessarily be lethal or even physical in nature. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide - the benchmark in international law for this, and the culmination of Raphael Lemkin's efforts - offers a taxonomy of genocidal acts that includes both lethal and non-lethal acts. It also offers, as Schabas points out, a much maligned but still useful four-point set of distinguishing critieria (religious, racial, national, and ethnic) from which various permutations of victim identity can be inferred.

This, arguably, is perhaps more anthropocentric than the urbicide argument will allow. It's also, perhaps, a recommendation against too close a reading of genocide scholarship in trying to outline an ontology or urban destruction. But extensions in the genocide literature - to cultural destruction ("ethnocide") and gendered targeting ("gendercide") - are entirely relevant here. Where I remain uncertain is the bridge between the various human oriented "cides" and the physical environment. To be sure, the many forms of identity politics that play into perpetrator/victim dynamics are not divorced from the material world: nationalism (and its often violent consequences) is a perfect example, linking as it does human populations and the territories they inhabit via complex threads of belief and belonging. I'm reminded, for example, of the Khmer Rouge, Year Zero, and their depopulation of Cambodian cities (rather than their outright physical destruction).

There is an argument to be made for a closer examination of the links between genocide and the urban, and even - if one were inclined to pursue a broader Arendtian tack - between the totalitarian exercise of power and its impact on urban environments. Surely this would be more constructive than divorcing the destruction of the latter from the inescapable perpetrator intent of the former.

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