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  • Genocide: The Act as Idea by Berel Lang
  • Douglas Irvin-Erickson
Genocide: The Act as Idea, Berel Lang (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), ix + 209 pp., hardcover $24.95, electronic version available.

Outside the field of genocide studies, colleagues who study civil war, violent conflict, or political violence often find it hard to believe that we spend hours at conferences debating whether or not people who died in conflict were the victims of genocide or some other kind of horror. Such is the character of our field, where seemingly endless discussions over the meaning of genocide constitute a core issue,1 and the moral capital of the word “genocide” is studied as a sociological phenomenon.2 In Genocide: The Act as Idea, the distinguished philosopher Berel Lang jumps into the breach. “My book’s purpose is a defense of the concept and term ‘genocide’,” Lang writes on the first page. “If the concept of ‘genocide’ is to sustain the legal and moral weight it has acquired,” then the criticisms of the concept—as too nebulous yet too narrowly defined, too moralizing, too much a catchall synonym for any atrocity—must be met.

In the first chapter, Lang attempts to reaffirm genocide’s position as a unique evil, set apart from murder and mass murder by its goal of exterminating the social group to which the victims belong and from which they draw their identities (p. 29). In Lang’s understanding, genocide can be committed only against the racial, ethnic, religious, and national groups that the UN Genocide Convention names as protected groups. What is contentious, however, is the argument laid out in chapter 3, where Lang explains that attempts to exterminate groups such as an economic class, a political party, or groups such as bridge clubs, bicyclists, and redheads, would not qualify as genocide because these groups do not meet the necessary criteria of groups whose membership is involuntary and that contribute significantly to human social identities (pp. 77, 95).

In chapter 2, Lang places efforts to hold genocide above other international crimes as especially evil within the long tradition in moral history and ethical practice of placing different acts into a moral hierarchy. Lang contributes to the literature with his rejection of rationalist conceptions of evil, common across the Platonic tradition and in seventeenth-century Enlightenment thinkers such as Spinoza and Leibniz—notions that hold that people commit evil because they do not know any better or that they do not really understand what they are doing. This means, first, that thinkers such as Hannah Arendt would have missed the full evil of figures such as Adolf Eichmann (a topic Lang covers in chapter 8). It would also mean those good-willed activists who believe genocide can be prevented by increasing people’s awareness of the humanity of others, doing so through tolerance training or by making state functionaries aware of the consequences of their actions through good-governance training, are mistaken. For Lang, genocide is an act of mass murder that deliberately destroys and negates [End Page 128] the value of the targeted group, “affecting not only the potential recognizable in all human beings, but also the means (through group-identity) by which, and only by which, that potential can be realized” (p. 37). For Lang, the most important facet of this evil is that the people who undertake this destruction understand what they are doing, and do it anyway.

Lang, however, repeats a myth entrenched in the received scholarship of genocide studies, that the drafters of the Genocide Convention, including Lemkin, had firm reasons for protecting certain groups and not others. Yes, Lemkin wrote that races, ethnicities, religions, and nations should be the only groups included in the Convention because their membership was non-voluntary and their group properties made more important contributions to world civilization than economic or political groups—but he wrote this when the Latin American delegations and the Soviet bloc were about to withdraw support for the Convention. Lemkin was conceding ground with the hope of coaxing these delegations back into supporting the Convention, and then inventing a justification for this concession after the fact. Where Lang states “there is...


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