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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

By Ben Kiernan
Yale University Press, 724 pages, $40
The ingredients of genocide


“Thus was God seen in the Mount ... burning them up in the fire of his Wrath, and dunging the Ground with their Flesh: It was the Lord’s Doings, and it is marvellous in our Eyes.”

These comments appeared in Maj. John Mason’s account of a clash between colonists and Pequots in Connecticut in 1637 during which 600 to 700 members of the tribe were killed in a little more than one hour. According to Maj. Mason, God had “laughed his Enemies and Enemies of his People to scorn, making them as a fiery Oven ... filling the Place with dead Bodies!”

A little more than two centuries later, in 1856, the San Francisco Bulletin editorialized about clashes with the more than 100 Indian groups in California, “Extermination is the quickest and cheapest remedy, and effectually prevents all other difficulties when an outbreak occurs.” That quotation appears in a chapter with the title “Genocide in the United States” in author Ben Kiernan’s huge history of campaigns to wipe out groups of people.

-- AFP/Getty Images/Tang Chhin Sothy

Skulls at Choeung Ek Killing Fields memorial in Cambodia.

Mr. Kiernan is especially qualified to have undertaken such a pioneering work. He is founding director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University and has written or edited more than a half-dozen previous books on the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. That period is discussed in this book along with many other efforts to eliminate racial, ethnic or religious groups, but the most extensive chapters are the ones dealing with settlers’ campaigns of genocide against native peoples in the Americas and Australia.

Study of such merciless campaigns conducted by white Westerners belies the comfortable belief that only groups separated from us by space or time wage genocidal campaigns because they “have no respect for human life.”

An even more disturbing aspect of some genocidal campaigns is the religious justifications given for them, such as the ones cited above. Mr. Kiernan notes that professed Christians who sought to slaughter whole groups of people often cited passages in Deuteronomy in which God called on the Hebrews to “utterly destroy” and “show no mercy” to other groups.

However, Blood and Soil is by no means an anti-Christian book. Mr. Kiernan writes that Christian, Muslim and Buddhist forces all perpetrated genocidal massacres in Southeast Asia between 1590 and 1800. And in a section on the Muslim al-Qaeda movement , he quotes Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s declarations in the early 21st century that “God’s religion is more precious than lives and souls” and that “restoring the religion is more important than restoring the soul.”

According to Mr. Kiernan, most genocidal campaigns from the 15th century to the 21st have been based on preoccupations with race, antiquity, agriculture and territorial expansion. He notes, too, that such efforts have often taken examples from historical precedents. Two such examples were German settlers in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries citing U.S. wars with Native Americans as precedents and Hitler’s writing of the German campaign in Poland in 1942, saying, “The struggle we are waging there against the Partisans resembles very much the struggle in North America against the Red Indians. Victory will go to the strong.”

While documenting the disease of genocide, Mr. Kiernan doesn’t offer much in the way of a prescription to oppose it. He expresses the hope that it may be helpful to detect its causes and symptoms. However, as his own examples make clear, the nature of most genocidal campaigns was no secret while they were being carried out, and even in recent decades, many of the known perpetrators of such massacres held positions of power decades afterward.

Although it might not prevent such outbreaks in the future, it would be a positive step for standard high school textbooks to acknowledge the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans just as they have done regarding slavery. And just as modern biblical scholars have reexamined passages in the New Testament that were used in the past to justify anti-Semitism, so it should be incumbent upon them to re-examine Old Testament passages portraying God as the motivator of genocidal campaigns. It would certainly behoove Christians to do so before pointing the finger at the Quran as an example of how Muslim scriptures justify the massacre of enemies.

Darrell Turner writes the annual religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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