Responsibility to Our “Unworthy Victims”

On Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide.

Many years ago, I wrote a critical study of acclaimed moralist Elie Wiesel in which I tried to account for his trajectory from being on the margins of Western culture (a young, unknown Holocaust survivor living in France in the 1950s) to reaching the heights of cultural and social power by the late 1990s (Nobel Laureate, advisor to U.S. presidents). To analyze Wiesel’s human rights advocacy, I drew on the collaborative research of U.S. dissident intellectuals Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. In their 1979 two-volume work, The Political Economy of Human Rights, Chomsky and Herman differentiate three kinds of contemporary bloodbaths– constructive, nefarious, and benign—based on how they are presented in U.S. culture. Almost a decade later in their Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the authors examine the distinction in the U.S. ideological system between “worthy” and “unworthy victims.”

Recently, Herman joined with David Peterson to update and apply this critical analysis to events over the last couple of decades. This is their summary of “the politics of genocide”: “When we ourselves commit mass-atrocity crimes, the atrocities are Constructive, our victims are unworthy of our attention and indignation, and never suffer ‘genocide’ at our hands—like the Iraqi untermenschen who have died in such grotesque numbers over the past two decades. But when the perpetrator of mass-atrocity crimes is our enemy or a state targeted by us for destabilization and attack, the converse is true. Then the atrocities are Nefarious and their victims worthy  of our focus, sympathy, public displays of solidarity, and calls for inquiry and punishment.” [103]

Herman and Peterson categorize such well-known cases as Darfur, Bosnia, and Rwanda (“nefarious”) and Guatemala and El Salvador (“benign”). For example, the authors point out that Sudan is “a predictably well-qualified candidate for a focus on villainy: That its government is dominated by Muslim Arabs, that the Sudan possesses oil, but that it is China rather than the United States or the West which has developed a strong relationship with Khartoum; and that the United States and Israel need distractions from their own human rights atrocities and those of the allies plundering the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.” [39]

What U.S. citizens need to attend to are the “unworthy victims” of the U.S., for example, in Iraq. The authors address the mass death caused by the U.N./U.S.-backed sanctions since 1990: “This thirteen-year-long mass killing was Constructive; Iraq’s hundreds of thousands of victims were unworthy of official notice and therefore of no interest to the establishment media and intellectuals. The deaths inflicted by the ‘sanctions of mass destruction’ are thus not mentioned in establishment accounts as a U.S. ‘failure’ to respond to the crime of genocide in this ‘age of genocide.’ Nor, with the United States a perpetrator rather than a bystander, is the question of accountability ever raised.” [32]

Herman and Peterson then turn to the U.S. invasion in 2003: “When serious studies estimated Iraqi deaths since the start of the war in March 2003 at 98,000, then climbed to 655,000, and then again to more than a million, with the overwhelming majority of these deaths attributed to violent causes, the media and intellectuals rarely treated Iraqi deaths as a consequence—direct or indirect—of the invasion-occupation, let alone as a deliberately imposed bloodbath, crime against humanity, or ‘genocide.’ Readers may be sure that in the context of Iraq coverage, the media never quoted Nuremberg’s Judgment or alluded to the U.S. war as a ‘supreme international crime’ and to its statement that the ‘accumulated evil of the whole’—hence, responsibility as well—flows from the central act of aggression.” [34]

American architects and policy-makers have not been held accountable for wreaking such devastation on the Iraqi people: They walk freely, serve as consultants, write their memoirs, give speeches, and receive hefty paychecks.

Though Herman and Peterson don’t specify so, I think their analysis calls for three long-term civic responses to U.S. policy that generates such unworthy victims: remembrance of what actually happened, resistance to continued U.S. military and corporate presence in Iraq, and responsibility for holding U.S. officials accountable and articulating the case for reparations.

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