Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Interview with Roger Smith

Looking Back, Moving Forward
An Interview with Roger Smith
by Khatchig Mouradian
Aztag Daily

The best way to move forward is through looking backward, it is said. This
might not be a good idea when you are driving a car, but whenever "backward"
signifies turning your eyes toward the past, memory or history, this statement rings
as true as any established cliché.

"The Armenian Genocide provides many clues to why contemporary genocide
occurs, what its warning signs are, and thus offers some hope, that if the
nations will act, genocide in the making can be prevented," says Professor
Roger Smith in this interview. In a world plagued with genocide and ethnic
cleansing, we, the human race, have often failed to look back, acknowledge
our mistakes, learn from them, and hence move forward. Unfortunately, world
leaders today are more interested in making history - no matter how twisted
it comes out to be - than learning from it. "We learn from history that we
learn nothing from history," said George Bernard Shaw.

According to Paul Valery, "History is the science of what never happens
twice." Yes, probably Armenians will not be marched to the desert and
slaughtered again. But as Armenians continue to reflect on the uprooting and
the near extermination of their people in 1915, they cannot help but see the
path that led humanity to the Holocaust, to Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and
most recently, Darfur.

"Perpetrators of genocide have learned from their own "study" of genocide
that they can commit the crime under the cover of war, in the name of
self-defense, will receive impunity, can deny that they committed genocide,
and that the world will forget," says Roger Smith. The message is loud and
clear. If you want to have the killing of 1.5 million Armenians in the
Ottoman Empire acknowledged worldwide, if you want the millions of Jews and
Gypsies slaughtered in Europe to rest in peace, then do something about
Darfur now! And act in a way so as to prove that Bernard Shaw was wrong and
that Paul Valery was right.

Roger W. Smith is Professor Emeritus at the College of William and Mary in
Virginia, where he taught courses in political philosophy and the
comparative study of genocide. Educated at Harvard and the University of
California, Berkeley, Smith has written widely on the nature, history, and
the possibilities of preventing genocide. He has dealt, among other topics,
with the roles of gender, denial, and the thirty-five year-long reluctance
of the United States to ratify the Genocide Convention that was broken only
in 1988. Smith has written the introduction to a recent edition of
"Ambassador Morgenthau's Story" (first published in 1918), a classic account
of the Armenian Genocide. His other works include "Women and Genocide" and
"Professional Ethics and the Denial of the Armenian Genocide," both
published in the journal Holocaust and Genocide studies in 1994 and 1995
respectively. One of Prof. Smith's most recent publications is "American
Self-Interest and the Response to Genocide," published in The Chronicle of
Higher Education on July 30, 2004. He is also the author of the entry on
"Perpetrators" in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against
Humanity, which will be published in November 2004.

Professor Smith's public lectures have taken him to Armenia, Western Europe,
Canada and to numerous prestigious universities across the United States. He
has also given interviews to the Voice of America, the National Public
Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Public Broadcasting
Service, participated in documentaries on genocide, and provided testimony
before the US Congress.

Professor Smith is co-founder and past president of the International
Association of Genocide Scholars. Currently, he is Program Director of the
Zoryan Institute's Genocide and Human Rights Program in Toronto (Information
about the course is available at ).

In this interview, he looks back at a century of Genocide.

Aztag- In an article published lately in the "Chronicle of Higher
Education," you say: "Relatively small, well-organized lobbying groups are
more likely to be effective in moving policy makers to act against genocide
than broad, but somewhat amorphous public opinion." Citing, among others,
the facts that public opinion doesn't have direct access to policy makers
and that human-rights groups have the expertise to be persuasive.
How effective have human-rights groups dealing with this specific issue been
when lobbying for a more assertive stance against genocides? Do you envisage
a better strategy for a more effective functioning of such groups?

Roger Smith- Human rights groups in recent years have multiplied, but the
effect on policy, whether in Bosnia or Rwanda, was not great. Budgets are
small, agendas differ, and resources and efforts tend to be scattered. But
mainly, they have run into the reluctance of the United States and other
countries to take action to prevent, or end, genocide. But things change:
Somalia cast a shadow over involvement in Rwanda; now the costs of not
acting in Rwanda cast a shadow over Darfur. In the present climate, perhaps
direct lobbying of decision-makers, whether in national governments or the
United Nations, will be more productive. But human rights organizations
must also create ways to lobby more effectively; this will require access to
greater resources, but in some instances internal changes and change of
focus; for example, away from individuals and toward policy and
institutions. Some organizations (Amnesty International) have been oriented
toward prisoners of conscience (that is individuals) rather than mass
killing; Human Rights Watch has taken a different approach, concentrating on
policy and institutions. Other organizations have been primarily concerned
with providing relief, and have seen themselves as having to be neutral
between perpetrators and victims (perhaps even removing such distinctions
from their vocabulary). Fewer, but stronger, organizations might also be
needed: effectiveness is not necessarily increased by a multiplicity of
groups. Nevertheless, I believe that human rights organizations, unlike a
somewhat amorphous public opinion, can help move policymakers to act against

Aztag- During the annual meeting of the institute for the Study of Genocide
you said, referring to Samantha Power's Pulitzer prize book "A Problem from
Hell": " My one concern for Power's book is that in a few years she will
have to issue an updated edition, listing yet another genocide: one in
which, yet again, the United States stood by."
What is your take on the West's reaction to the atrocities in Darfur? Do you
think the chapter on Sudan will not differ from the previous ones?

Roger Smith- I am hopeful that Darfur may turn out differently, that the
world's reaction may bring the killing and destruction to a close. But
there are mixed signals: the US Congress calls what is taking place
"genocide," but just what it proposes to do other than some kind of
sanctions through the UN is not clear; on the other hand, the European Union
says that genocide is not taking place in Darfur, and thus would not be in
favor of active intervention. The UN Security Council has given a month's
deadline to Sudan to show improvement; the African Union seems to more
active than in the past, and various countries (including Rwanda) intend to
place monitors in the region. But Sudan continues to maintain that no
intervention is necessary, that the militias are outlaws, not proxies for
the regime. It is hard to say what will happen next, but my guess is that
no direct intervention will take place.

Aztag- In your testimony before the House Committee on International
Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights you
said: "The Armenian case is the prototype for much of the Genocide that we
have seen since 1945; it was territorial, driven by nationalism, and carried
out with a relatively low level of technology."

Can you please draw parallels between the Armenian Genocide and the other
genocides in terms of territory, nationalism, and technology?

Roger Smith- Many scholars and the general public thought of the Holocaust
as the model of genocide: they saw it as driven by racial ideology, that it
was transnational, killing persons from all over Europe, and that it used a
complicated technology to transport and kill in assembly line fashion
millions of persons; by those standards, genocides that took place before or
after the Holocaust tended to be described as "tragedies," but not genocide.

This had the effect of demeaning the victims of those genocides and
blinding us to the ongoing nature of genocide in the 20th century.
But most of the genocides that have taken place since 1945 do not fit the
characteristics ascribed to the Holocaust. Whether it was Bangladesh,
Burundi, Rwanda, or Bosnia, there was a pattern that the Holocaust did not
illuminate to any extent: where the killing was largely territorial, the
ideology was nationalism (Cambodia is different in this respect), and the
technology employed was at a relatively low level (hoes, machetes, bullets,
fire, death due to exposure, and starvation). Rather, the Armenian Genocide
of 1915 was where the parallels could be found; indeed, it is the prototype
for much of the genocide that has taken place since 1945 and is taking place
now in Darfur. In addition to the elements already mentioned, there is the
perpetrators claim that they were only defending themselves against
revolutionaries and subversives; that what took place was civil war, not
genocide. The Armenian Genocide provides many clues to why contemporary
genocide occurs, what its warning signs are, and thus offers some hope, that
if the nations will act, genocide in the making can be prevented.

Aztag- During a panel organized by the Zoryan Institute you said that "a
precondition for reconciliation is a shared, accepted historical account."
What do you think about the attempts to sidestep the issue of genocide in
order to achieve reconciliation (for example TARC)? Do you think "a shared,
accepted historical account" is achievable when the Turkish government
continues the policy of denial and the education system in Turkey is
bringing up generations with the same distorted view of history?

Roger Smith- I think that a precondition for reconciliation in any genocide
is a shared, accepted historical account. But this is lacking with Turks and
Armenians, both at the State level and the individual level. The issues
have little to do with actual history: rather Turkish denial and the
rewriting of history involve a defense of Turkish self-image and political
concerns. A mythological history would have to be replaced; but identity has
been built on this history; change would have disturbing effects, leading to
confusion and questioning the very legitimacy of the state. But in the long
term, this is the only way Turkey can master its past; the acknowledgment of
the Genocide will, if it comes, coincide with a greater democratization of
Turkey, and with a more open and pluralistic society. We will know that
Turkey has come close to democracy when its citizens can openly discuss what
was done in 1915 and how it has been denied and covered up for 90 years.
The Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) was an attempt to
bypass a common version of history. Its very title tells us something: it
contains "reconciliation," but not "truth." But ultimately, is not truth,
acknowledgment, necessary if full reconciliation is to be possible? The
commission was ill-conceived: it lacked legitimacy in how it came into
being, and in terms of its members, who were hardly representative of the
Armenian community. It was widely-viewed as a dodge, created by the State
Department and the Turkish government to delay Congressional and
international resolutions affirming the Genocide.

Partial steps toward reconciliation without public acknowledgment by Turkey
of the genocide could happen: Japan has never accepted responsibility for
its war guilt, yet enjoys good relations with the U.S. Some steps Turkey
could take, but may not unless pressured by the European Union: diplomatic
recognition of Armenia; opening borders; lift embargo against Armenia, allow
for free development of Armenian culture within Turkey; allow for free
public discussion of the Genocide; rescind its policy of educating its youth
(Armenian included) in genocide denial; stop building monuments blaming
Armenians for genocide; and abandon denial. But the issue of genocide would
remain; until this is acknowledged, no full reconciliation is possible.
It seems to me doubtful that Turkey will acknowledge the genocide. And what
would follow if it did? Armenians are not of one mind about this. But for
now, I think Armenians are right to look to public opinion in many countries
and to seek affirmation of the Genocide by national and international
bodies. Even the Pope has signed on.

Aztag- A New York Times book review mentions that there are 37,000 works on
Nazism, 12,000 of which have appeared in the previous five years alone.
The Armenian genocide, among others, is far less researched and documented
and, adding insult to injury, the campaigns of denial force historians to
dedicate much time and effort in order to falsify the claims of deniers and

What are, in your opinion, the challenges facing historians dealing with the
Armenian genocide a century after the fact?

Roger Smith- Although works on Nazism and the Holocaust continue to appear
at a rapid pace, there is increasing awareness among scholars that the 20th
century presented numerous other examples of human destructiveness There
is now an effort to research the many other cases of genocide, and to put
them in comparative perspective. What do the cases have in common? How do
they differ? Why were they previously ignored? How has denial affected
writing about them? What can genocides other than the Holocaust teach us
about the dynamics of destruction, warning signs of genocide, and possible

The Armenian Genocide was well-known at the time it took place, but after
the 1920s almost dropped from sight. When I began teaching about genocide
some 20 years ago, there were few materials available on the Armenian
Genocide that I could assign in class. That has changed greatly in the past
few years; in fact, I am currently reviewing five books on the Genocide that
were published last year alone. But much needs to be done: research
completed, dissemination of the historical record, making the story of the
Genocide available to a wide audience.

But there are special problems that face those who write about the Armenian
Genocide. First, there are the linguistic skills needed. Then there is the
fact that many of those who deal with the genocide spend more than half
their time refuting the denial and falsification of the Turkish government
and its accessories in academia and the foreign offices of the U.S., Israel,
and Britain. There is also the problem of audience: outside the Armenian
community, there has been little public interest in what took place 90 years
ago. The Armenian example does not stand alone: how much do we hear about
Pol Pot and his utopian experiment of only 25 years ago? To reach a broad
audience and place the narrative of the first major genocide of the 20th
century before the public may require that the story be incorporated into a
larger, even universal, history. Several recent books, for example, have
attempted to connect the history of the destruction with the rise of an
international humanitarian movement in the United States. In this way, the
Armenian case remains what it is; a crime against a particular people, but
it also becomes part of a broader history. The challenge is to find
additional ways in which such connections can be made.

Aztag- In a recent interview with Professor Ben Kiernan, I asked him about
the importance of comparative genocide studies. Part of his answer was:
"While perpetrators of genocide seem to have benefited from their own
comparative analysis of the potential and possibilities for genocide in the
modern era, the rest of humanity has failed as yet to learn lessons from the
past that could lead to meaningful intervention in such catastrophes".
What have we learned from the comparative study of genocides? How realistic
is the belief that these studies will contribute in driving policy makers to
actively oppose genocidal campaigns wherever they happen?

Roger Smith- I agree with Professor Kiernan that perpetrators of genocide
have learned from their own "study" of genocide that they can commit the
crime under the cover of war, in the name of self-defense, will receive
impunity, can deny that they committed genocide, and that the world will
forget. Even many of the techniques of destruction are transportable and
easily available: concentration camps, deportations, destruction of food

Comparative genocide studies can help us understand the conditions under
which mass violence, including genocide, is likely to take place; it can
help identify warning signs of the impending violence; and it can suggest
ways in which genocide can be prevented. But it will also, as discussed in
my essay in THE CHRONICLE, indicate the patterns of governmental inaction
where genocide is concerned and the reasons for that. Thus, the problem of
prevention of genocide is not simply a question of knowledge, but of
political will. My own view is that the single most effective means to end
the slaughter of so many millions is for states to expand their concept of
national interest to include the prevention of genocide. The arguments for
this are humanitarian, but also follow political realism: genocide
frequently spawns regional wars, leads to the outflow of huge numbers of
refugees (some 10 million from Bangladesh in 1971, millions from Rwanda and
Darfur), the economic costs are far greater than the cost of early
intervention. Whether scholars and human rights activists can persuade
policy makers to redefine national interest is not clear, but it is a goal
that should be high on their agenda.

There are many other things that I have learned from the comparative study
of genocide: differences between ancient and modern genocide; the fact that
genocide throughout most of its long history was committed almost
exclusively by men, but that this began to change in the 20th century; the
evolution of the technology of destruction, yet the reappearance of many of
its "primitive" methods (fire, starvation, handheld weapons) in the
contemporary period. I also learned that in ancient times rulers boasted of
destroying whole groups: no denial for them. Indeed, they erected monuments
so that their annihilation of whole groups would not be forgotten. And,
yes, I learned much about human nature.

Aztag- You have taught courses on Genocide for 20 years. In what way have
your approaches to teaching methods changed? In what way has the approach of
student to the subject matter changed?

Roger Smith- My seminar on genocide had 15-20 advanced undergraduates and
graduate students. The course was comparative in scope and dealt with the
following questions: what is genocide? Why does it occur? Who is
responsible? How can genocide be prevented? My approach was to involve the
students as much as possible in discussion and to get them to confront the
issues instead of just taking notice of them. Much of the discussion was on
responses of students themselves: their assumptions about human nature,
about how it is possible for anyone to commit genocide, about our
responsibility as citizens, about our own stereotypes and prejudices.
My own approach to the course did not change much over the years, but I
added new material and we had to add new cases studies. But one had to
guard against becoming "numb" after confronting so many cases of genocide
over the years. I remember too that students worried that they would fall
into either despair over their inability to prevent genocide, or, faced with
so many examples of mass killing, throw up their hands and say about yet
another genocide, "What's the big deal?"

I do think, though, that the students changed somewhat over time in how they
responded. When I first started the course in 1981, the students were
fixated on the horror of genocide and could not believe that anyone other
than monsters could commit such acts. As we proceeded, they came to realize
that ordinary men and women could do these terrible things. But the groups
I had in the 1990s had greater awareness of the frequency of genocide; they
grew up, so to speak, with Bosnia and Rwanda. Their focus was less on the
horror and more on how they could prevent genocide, how they could become an
active force for the protection of human rights.

I retired three years ago, and since there are still few scholars who work
in the area of genocide studies, no one at my university has continued the
course. On the other hand, the past three summers I have taught in the
Zoryan Institute's Genocide and Human Rights University Program, a two week
intensive course (9-5) at the University of Toronto. Again, this is a
seminar, with about 22 students, who come from many different countries and
ethnic groups. There are Armenians from Canada, Lebanon, Uruguay, the U.S.;
Turks and Kurds from Turkey; students from Germany, France, the Netherlands,
and several countries in Latin America. The students have found it a
powerful experience: they bond closely, rid themselves (to a large extent)
of misunderstandings, and, in many cases, leave the course determined to
pursue further study in genocide studies. In its own way, on a small scale,
the seminar contributes to dialogue, understanding, and maybe personal
reconciliation. As one of the students said, "We became family."

No comments: