Looking back at the rubble

David Simpson

  • The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War by Robert Bevan
    Reaktion, 240 pp, £19.95, January 2006, ISBN 1 86189 205 5

Thucydides claimed that posterity should not judge the power and dignity of states by their architectural remains. The power of Sparta over much of the Peloponnese and beyond could not have been inferred from an inspection of its built culture – a collection of villages with no grandiose temples or monuments. Conversely, the importance of Athens would be overestimated by anyone in later times who based their opinion on the spectacle of its architectural remains. Does it then follow that the physical destruction of ancient Sparta would have been a less decisive blow to Spartan self-identity than the same destruction would have been to the Athenians? Do all cultures, or the same cultures at different times, invest the same beliefs in a strong correlation between what they build and who they are?

Theorists and legislators have wrestled with this and other such questions since the term ‘genocide’ began to be extended to describe something called ‘cultural genocide’. Is the prohibition of a language or a religious practice tantamount to an effort to destroy a people as a people? The 1948 Hague Convention did not mention cultural genocide, for fear, perhaps that this kind of subcategory might diminish the power of its major effort to restrain the murder of human beings; but the case for an extended application kept appearing, so that by 1994 UN draft declarations would refer to propaganda directed against a people as an instance of cultural genocide. Here the intention to incite discrimination or violence against a group comes to matter as much as actually burning books and demolishing buildings: a strong assertion is being made that the slippery slope begins much sooner than had been supposed. Rafael Lemkin, who is credited with inventing the term ‘genocide’, came out somewhere in the middle, proposing that the term should describe any destructive behaviour aimed at annihilating a group of people. Could the term be applied to the actions of Israeli bulldozers in Palestinian villages, which seem to exceed the claim that they are to punish those ‘harbouring terrorists’? Probably not, or not by general agreement. It is even less likely to be applied to the ‘surgical’ strikes carried out by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan – surgical only to those not on the receiving end, and often operating apparently on the wrong patients.

Malcolm Bull has recently explored the slippery implications and latent paradoxes of genocide and its definitions: that it might be more likely to be perpetrated by democracies, for example, and thus can be construed as a symptom of democracy’s bad faith, its unconscious revulsion against egalitarianism.[*] One problem with such terms as ‘genocide’ is that they invite statistical speculation on degrees of comparative suffering and the demotion of those who don’t seem to have suffered enough. At the same time, the rhetorical associations of such a term can serve to ratchet up the importance of an event that might, if described in a different way, not attract as much attention. The destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 could never have been received as routine news, but the rapid denomination of the site as ‘ground zero’, a term which now seems set in place as part of the common language, generated all sorts of implications of equivalence, most obviously with Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘ground zero’ is a term previously associated with the effects of exploding nuclear bombs. The term had appeared in relation to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, but didn’t catch on: there weren’t enough dead bodies. In 2001 it appeared instantly and has never lost its hold. To call something a ‘genocide’ similarly means to define it as an act of maximum destructiveness and culpability. Hence the sardonic appeal of a locution like ‘ethnic cleansing’, with its suggestion that nothing more than a routine housekeeping task is involved.

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[*] LRB, 9 February.