— Fragments

The right to ask a question

Today I have been confronted with something extremely unpleasant – a bitter fight between two writers and thinkers I very much admire. George Monbiot, in his most recent article for The Guardian, argues that for leftists to reject the characterization of the Srebrenica Massacre as a genocide is an insult to the victims, an indictment of the the world left, and a case of genocide denialism.

The least pleasant part of Monbiot’s argument is his publication of private email correspondence with Noam Chomsky. In it, Monbiot presses Chomsky to disavow the opinions of Edward Herman (his collaborator on the classic Manufacturing Consent) and David Peterson on the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre, as expressed in their book, The Politics of Genocide (which I have not read). Chomsky, contributor of a foreword to their work, adamantly refuses to comply.

For Monbiot, the massacre of 8000 Bosniaks in 1995 constitutes an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” and therefore, a genocide. Of course Chomsky does not deny that the killings occurred, or that they constitute a major crime. In fact, the eminent linguist calls them “outright murders without provocation.”

The Srebrenica massacre was surely the ugliest week that Europe has known (on its own soil) since 1945. There is no question that the Bosnian Serb soldiers of Ratko Mladić killed those 8,000 people. What is unknown is the precise proportion of those who were killed by military assault, and those who were summarily executed after they had been captured. Does stating this fact make me a genocide denier? I entreat George Monbiot to supply me with the correct figures.

The thesis (as I understand it) of The Politics of Genocide is that the genocides that have been committed since 1945 have tended to be overlooked when they are perpetrated by Western powers, and harshly condemned when conducted by enemies. It is for this reason that Herman and Peterson have have suggested that the number of those actually executed (as opposed to killed in extremely unequal combat) might be 800 of the 8000 dead, and therefore perhaps not a crime on the scale of some of those that have committed in the name of freedom. Is this the same as denying the Ukrainian famine?

Chomsky, in his email exchange with Monbiot, takes the line that “The mass slaughter in Srebrenica, for example, is certainly a horror story and major crime, but to call it “genocide” so cheapens the word as to constitute virtual Holocaust denial, in my opinion.” Chomsky’s view is that Srebrenica cannot be compared with Treblinka or Sobibor. Is this so objectionable?

What we are left with is a difference of opinion. Monbiot prefers a strict definition of the term genocide, and Chomsky prefers to avoid its use almost entirely. But ultimately, in a free society, we must be allowed to ask the question, and answer it for ourselves: was the Srebrenica massacre a genocide?

Monbiot expresses great concern for the memory of the victims of Srebrenica. Rightly so. But what do those who were cruelly murdered care if they perished in a genocide or a mere massacre? The way to honor them is to see that the people who perpetrated the crime are brought to justice, and to work tirelessly to stop violations of human rights, wherever they occur.