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  • The Crime of All Crimes: Toward a Criminology of Genocide by Nicole Rafter
  • Kjell Anderson
The Crime of All Crimes: Toward a Criminology of Genocide, Nicole Rafter (New York: New York University Press, 2016), xiv + 299 pp., hardcover $35.00, electronic version available.

Nicole Rafter has provided a wide-ranging comparative criminological study of genocide. Rafter, a celebrated feminist criminologist, undertakes a multilevel inquiry drawing from eight case studies all of which she characterizes as genocide: the Katyn Forest Genocide, the Herero Genocide, the Indonesian Genocide, the Cambodian Genocide, the Armenian Genocide, the Nazi genocide of the disabled, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Guatemalan Genocide. Accessible in style, this book serves as a good introduction to the application of criminological theories to genocide. My review will focus on three empirical and theoretical facets of the book: Rafter’s application of victim-precipitation theories, her analysis of gender and genocide, and her mobilization of case studies. Overall, her study is useful but suffers from limitations in the case studies.

Rafter draws from a range of existing literature in citing impunity, state failure, war, ethnic polarization, and ideology as macro factors in genocide. She ventures into more uncertain territory when she applies criminological theories of victim-precipitation, arguing, for instance, that the Herero Genocide was (at least partly) caused by Herero violence against German imperial expansion in their territory. She argues, that victim-precipitated genocide occurs where “the victim group took the first step towards its own destruction because it had no other choice” (p. 65). It is an interesting idea, but I am skeptical that it adds much to our understanding of the causes of genocide.

The argument for victim precipitation of genocidal violence seems to assume that the perpetrator group would not have committed genocide without this “precipitation”; and (by implication) that the victim group was aware of the far-ranging consequences of their limited acts of violence. Classifying the Herero Genocide as victim-precipitated downplays the colonial context, as well as the systematic and sustained persecution of the Herero prior to the genocide. Perpetrators almost always frame genocide as victim-precipitated; yet even if Herero commanders provoked a violent response from German forces, this cannot explain the decision to exterminate Herero civilians en masse. [End Page 130]

In chapter 7, the strongest, Rafter, as in her other work, gives a learned and insightful perspective on gender dynamics. Rafter’s central position is that women are destroyed “as such” in genocide, and should therefore be a protected group under the Genocide Convention. While genocidal violence often takes unique forms against women, the supposition that women (as a collectivity) are targeted for destruction solely based on gender is questionable. For such a proposition to hold true, women outside the victimized ethnic group must also be targeted. In genocide, nevertheless, a layering of violence by gender often figures in the destruction of an ethnic, racial, national, or religious group.

Arguing that women are targeted for destruction “as such” introduces a conceptual blurring between individual and collective victimization. Violence against women in genocide is gendered, but these individual women would not be targeted without the collective campaign against their larger group. To argue that in the Rwandan Genocide Tutsi women constituted a specific group subject to genocidal destruction would ignore the wholesale and intentional destruction of Tutsi males. Thus, while I agree that the ways in which genocide unfolds are gendered, I disagree with Rafter’s assertion. Nonetheless, there is a certain continuity to gender roles and gendered violence before and during genocide, an area of inquiry that deserves further study.

Although one welcomes Rafter’s broadly comparative approach, her case analyses could at times be sharper. The capsule summaries at the beginning of the book are only a page or so each, and could offer better précises of the defining characteristics of each case. There are other portions of the book where her arguments could be more nuanced. She argues that the Rwandan Genocide was “remarkable for the refusal by the United Nations and United States to take simple steps to stop the violence” (p. 37): is this lack of humanitarian intervention remarkable or merely typical? Rafter also argues...


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