The Language of Slaughter

The Language of Slaughter

In the midst of his speech at the 1993 dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel shocked President Bill Clinton and the audience by departing from his prepared remarks to observe, “Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia. I cannot sleep for what I have seen. As a Jew, I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country.”

Behind Wiesel’s remarks was not only a call for action but an equally far-reaching assertion: fifty years later we were not applying the lessons of the Holocaust to the mass killing going on in Europe close to where the Nazi death camps had been.

At the heart of this special issue, The New Killing Fields, is an attempt to come to terms with the moral and political issues raised by the widespread mass killing and “ethnic cleansing” that have occurred since the start of the 1990s. In any number of ways, this combination of mass killing and ethnic cleansing does not equal the genocide of the Nazi era. It has been anything but a model of high tech efficiency and planning. Its perpetrators have contented themselves with using murder and intimidation to revenge themselves or drive their enemies from the land they want. The Nazis’ desire to annihilate every Jew on the planet does not have a parallel in the nineties.

These differences do not, however, make the forces behind the new killing fields less worthy of condemnation; they do not make it less necessary to deny them a future. What the killing fields of the nineties have in common-whether we are talking about the former Yugoslavia, where two hundred thousand Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered while troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stood by; Rwanda, where in a hundred days eight hundred thousand Tutsis met the same fate, butchered largely by machete; or East Timor, where, according to a United Nations assessment, a quarter of the country fled or was pushed across the border into refugee camps in West Timor and twelve hundred more victims were added to a death list that totaled two hundred thousand since Indonesian occupation began in 1975-is that they are lands in which life was made intolerable through deliberate campaigns of murder and terror.

The nightmare these contemporary killing fields embody is one that, to paraphrase Wiesel, calls for action, not comparison. Yet for the West, and particularly for America, confronting this new mass killing and its cleansing of civilian populations unable and unequipped to defend themselves has consistently been a matter of doing too little too late. In an era of twenty-four-hour television coverage of the world, it has not been possible to say of the new killing fields, “We did not know.” But time and again those countries and institutions most able to help have found reasons for ignoring the new killing fields, failing to act when the cha...