Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Nothing New.

I was reading the January issue of National Geographic and there was an interesting article on the use of forensic science in Iraq and its importance for the issue of genocide in general. There are three things that stand out in my memory of this article.

The first was a diagram of the incidents of mass murder in the twentieth century given on a timeline for each nation with the size of the event marked by the radius of a circle. Many people on the right have noticed this but in the west we tend to equate terms like genocide and mass murder firstly and foremostly with the Holocaust. Not to take away from the Holocaust but it is interesting to see the size of the mass murders for the Soviet Union and China, which only come to mind after the Holocaust if at all when we consider these terms. It is fascinating that so many of us have this blind spot to these crimes. Even when we know the information consciously it takes something visual like a diagram to make the fact understood.

The other thing that stood out is the question that often gets asked when the topic of mass murder is discussed. Why was the twentieth century so bloody? Why have we become so much more vicious in modern times? The answer of course is that the change is an illusion. The only things that have changed are the modus operandi . Putting people to the sword took a lot more man hours than lining them up in a pit and shooting them. This, combined with the fact that tyrants in the past felt no need to hide what they were doing and probably did not live near the village being slaughtered meant that there were far fewer mass graves. Genghis Khan left the streets of Beijing slippery with human fat and left a mountain of bones outside the city. The Bible describes the destruction of cities where the only controversy was whether the virgin girls could be taken as wives or had to fall by the sword too. Many leaders have historically been very proud of their kills and have used them to send political messages, hence the huge numbers of crucifixions one would view on the roads to Rome.

In a simple total of deaths, the twentieth century may have been remarkable but it was also the first time in history that such huge numbers of people have been available both for killing and for doing the deed. But there are changes in the way humans interact that have their roots in the twentieth century. Wars have been declining since the end of the cold war and they have been getting less deadly. The 1990s and this decades have seen a shift towards weaponry that avoid civilians in favor of high value military targets from the carpet bombing the Germans and Allies used.

It is interesting how people see an increase in violence in the twentieth century when it was not so, yet they are blind to a decrease in war when it is real.

The third thing that stands out in my memory from this article was the descriptions of the colourful clothing of the Kurdish women in one of the graves and the hand knit baby hat with a bullet hole through it. That stands out.

Sudan's circle on that map is still growing, North Korean data is not available and I would bet that Burma's data is in need of an update. Internal affairs though - mustn't meddle.

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