August 26th, 2012


Platonic Crimes

Most crimes admit degrees - that is, we recognize that they may be more or less serious, according to various circumstances. Crimes carried out in "cold blood", for example, are generally treated more harshly than the same crimes carried out in the heat of the moment. (Although sometimes the principle is reversed, as numerous rioters found to their cost last year.) The amount of harm caused, the degree of intentionality, the extent to which the offender was responsible for their actions, and so on - all these are usually taken into account.

But there have always been crimes that have had a kind of absolute, or Platonic, status, so much so that it may even seem offensive to suggest that the kinds of factors listed above should be considered. Rape is the obvious example at the moment, but I'm not going to add to the ample recent discussion on that subject here. Murder used to be another. For people like Hercule Poirot it was the ultimate crime, and its special status is still reflected in British law to the extent that (unless this has recently changed) a life sentence is the only one available for murder, although what that means in practice varies a good deal. I don't know if I'm alone in feeling a slight dis-ease with the separate American crimes of first and second degree murder, which seem to offend against murder's "absolute" status. Having said that, I'm not sure exactly what second degree murder actually entails, or how it differs from manslaughter.

And then there's genocide. When I was growing up, I don't remember that word being regularly applied to any event other than the Holocaust, which had acquired (and still has) a unique status, as the crime beyond all others. Accordingly, as its ultimate perpetrator, Hitler became the uniquely, Platonically evil person, and remains so today. He may have killed fewer people than Stalin or Mao, but they have no Godwin's law.

Maybe I just hadn't been listening before, but through the '80s and '90s I began to hear more about other genocides: the Turks and the Armenians, the Israelites and the Amalekites, the Spanish (and other Europeans) and the Aztecs (and other Native Americans). Nor were they all safely interleaved in the history books: the genocides of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda, and of the Bosniaks by the Bosnian Serbs, were both on the telly - if not as much as they deserved to be. Much more recently, I've seen references to the Great Famine in Ireland as a genocide by the British - on the grounds not that the British were actively killing the Irish, but that the government continued to export grain from Ireland throughout the crisis, displaying a culpable disregard that amounted morally to murder.

Each of these horrible events has its own unique character. Some of the genocide labels are controversial, others less so, but in every case there are complicating factors. The mass-murders at Srebrenica were certainly part of a deliberate attempt to eradicate a particular ethnic/religious group, but are 8,000 or so deaths "enough" to count as a genocide? Native Americans were killed by the Europeans in large numbers, but much of their population was lost to smallpox rather than violence, which - except in the case of the would-be genocide Lord Amherst - is perhaps misfortune rather than murder, however convenient for the settlers. The British may have been responsible for many deaths in Ireland, but it would be a push to call it an active campaign of extermination, as genocide usually implies. (Or would it? Arthur Hugh Clough's sarcastic couplet, written around that time, hints that such distinctions may be casuistic: "Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive / Officiously to keep alive.") I've seen objections to classing the Famine as genocide both from Brits who don't want their nation tarred with that brush, and also from some who don't want the special status of the Holocaust being "diluted" by association with less obviously murderous events.

When the discussion takes that kind of turn, I know it is going nowhere - or rather it's going somewhere I don't want to follow, to a place in which genocide becomes a Top Trumps game with authenticity as the stakes, and categories such as Number Killed, Deliberateness of Murder, Ethnic/Religious basis, etc. A game where the Holocaust is the best card you can draw.

That's the trouble with talking about Platonic crimes - that either are, in all their horror, or are not. So much depends on the label that discussion tends to spin from what actually happened, away into the meanings of words. Deeds become the playthings of language, inflated or downplayed to nudge them to the desired side of a semantic boundary. And that's not what the victims of genocide, or even of mass murder or culpable neglect, really need.