Charleston, South Carolina & the Language of Genocide


I begin this blog with a discussion of the language of genocide because its inauguration coincides with a terrible act of racist terrorism against black Americans in the city of Charleston, South Carolina. As numerous commentators have noted in the past 72 hours, the massacre at the symbolically and historically significant Mother Emanuel AME Church is a very American story, part of a history of violent and institutionalized racism that extends back to our country’s founding. But it is also a universal story with ties to the crime of genocide.

Every genocide has its own language. From the categories of people targeted, to the self-image of the perpetrators, to the forms and techniques of violence as well as their justification, atrocity is mediated through words. The Holocaust survivor and philologist Victor Klemperer pointed this out shortly after the end of World War II in his short book about the effect of propaganda on the German language under the Third Reich, LTI — Lingua Tertii Imperii (Language of the Third Reich). Klemperer, who was Jewish, was married to a Christian German woman and spent the war years as a forced laborer in Dresden. A scholar, intellectual and professor before the Third Reich, Klemperer kept his mind busy and himself sane writing a diary, which became the basis of his LTI studies.

The LTI was made up of old linguistic forms — words and concepts that existed prior to the Nazi takeover of the reigns of the German state in 1933 — that were combined and cast in new ways, as well as neologisms that gave the impression of a radical new era.  The LTI was not only antisemitic, although antisemitism was the core feature of the Nazi worldview. Through verbal tricks the Nazi lexicon managed to orient all facets of life under the Third Reich around violent antisemitism. The LTI was both a continuation of deep, and in some cases oppressive, traditions within the German language as well as evidence of a radically new praxis related to them.

The result was a deep imbrication of the Nazi worldview and Nazi violence in everything people saw, read, heard, said, thought and did. In Klemperer’s view, “Naziism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously.” He asks: “What happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or is made the bearer of poisons?”

The poisonous elements of everyday language under the Third Reich fed, as we know, the genocidal machine that resulted in the murder of almost six million European Jews in what we now call the Holocaust. Even within confidential government correspondence, the LTI was present and included a unique official language of mass murder, which served various purposes. The historian Raul Hilberg called it a language of concealment: mass murder was referred to as “special treatment” and “special action”; Jews were “sent East” and “resettled”; living human beings who arrived at the death camps in cattle cars were referred to as — and counted as — “pieces.” If the everyday LTI produced by the Propaganda Ministry under Josef Goebbels should have been enough for people to understand the depths of Nazi depravity, the official language of mass murder served to couch the depth of that depravity in some sort of normal framework.

The everyday language of the LTI and the official language of atrocity concealment were the twin pillars that held up the time and space in which genocide could play out. They were absolutely necessary to functioning of the intentional destruction of innocent life. They provided both the new reality in which mass murder was a necessity and a language that made mass murder something other than itself: a redemptive and meaningful occupation. Despite the importance of the LTI to setting up and keeping strong the apparatus of killing, when it came to the actual space in which torture, humiliation, degradation and murder took place, the LTI tended to fall away. In its place we find a language of genocide that, despite certain particularities, has universal features.

What we know about the German perpetrators during the Holocaust is that when they spoke to their victims, they were usually quite frank in their statements. During their intimate, face-to-face killings, killers’ speech acts often lacked entirely the abstractions of Germans back home and of the Nazi officials organizing their murderous work. Perpetrators informed their victims about what they were doing in stark terms. In Mlawa, Poland, for example, the Nazis assembled the town’s Jews in the synagogue and told them, while desecrating the Torah and other sacred objects, “We are fighting against you and your God! Death to all of you! Let your God show whether he can help you!”

What does this have to do with the United States, where were are not dominated by a genocidal totalitarian party and engaged in total war? To answer this I wish to turn to statements made by Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old perpetrator of Wednesday’s racist massacre.

That his crime was motivated by racism cannot be disputed. Roof has confessed that he intended to start a “race war.” From the accounts of survivors we know that he announced to one of the victims, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, who tried to persuade Roof not to kill people and died protecting his aunt: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country — and you have to go.”

What is little discussed is that Roof’s words are terrifying echoes of the language used by genocidaires to communicate with their victims. At the moment of massacre, genocidaires frequently inform their victims of the reasons they must be killed. Whether they do this to remind themselves of the abstract commitments that are driving their violence, or to embolden themselves to take the necessary next steps, or to distance themselves from the very specific and intimate reality of what is about to happen, these words betray genocidal mindsets. Roof’s statement clearly reflects four key features of genocidal ideology: (1) group-based categories that exceed all individual relationships, (2) an obsession with a sexual and reproductive threat posed by the victim group, (3) the firmly held belief that the victim group constitutes an existential threat to the perpetrator, and (4) the desire to be completely rid of the victim group.

When Roof said “you” as he shot his victims, he was not speaking to any of them individually. Six of the nine people killed were in fact women, and it is safe to assume that he did not feel that they themselves constituted a threat of rape. A core feature of genocidal ideology is that there are no individuals anymore; people are all merely the material manifestations of group-based metaphysical categories that, for the perpetrator, exist in a zero-sum relationship with one another. His charge — “You rape our women” — further reinforces the group-based nature of his intent. He spoke as the self-proclaimed protector of a reproductive unit, “our women,” whose viability is somehow challenged by the continued existence of the group he is killing. The charge of rape combined with a charge of “taking over” demonstrates a deeply-felt sense of imminent existential dissolution, which is common among threatened elites who feel the symbols of their power (in this case, white supremacy) are being challenged by the objects of their power (black bodies). And finally, his chilling conclusion — “you have to go” — acts as strong evidence that Dylann Roof was not merely interested in killing the target group “in part,” but rather in a wholesale destruction of the “you.” What he meant by “you have to go” was made manifest by his actions. This was not a call for a return to Jim Crow or for ‘ethnic cleansing.’

Dylann Roof’s statement is drawn from the dark history of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, when the specter of the rape of white women by black men supported the entire edifice of white supremacy in addition to being used to justify horrific atrocities against black men’s bodies. But his statement is also drawn from the universal lexicon of genocide, expressing the state of mind of people who wish to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such,” to quote from the Genocide Convention.  Dylann Roof may not have thought about his actions in terms of the word “genocide,” and in fact he seems to have spoken to friends about his plans more in terms of “civil war,” but his words are produced by a genocidal logic that lies within particular ways of thought — what we might call America’s LTI.

Further evidence of genocidal nature of Roof’s massacre are his parting comments to one of the women victims, who survived. He told her “that she was going to live so that she can tell the story of what happened.” It is not uncommon for genocidaires to leave a witness alive, at least temporarily, as a message to the rest of the world about the perpetrator’s designs. Consider the story of Grigor Tonoyan, a survivor of the Armenian genocide: “Grigor was 8 years old in 1915 when Turkish soldiers burst into his family’s home in an Armenian village. They slashed his father’s throat, raped his mother and older sister in front of him before killing them and an older brother. The assailants deliberately left him alive, they told the young shell-shocked witness, ‘so you can see what we are capable of.'” During the Rwandan genocide, women were sometimes left alive after being raped and witnessing the murder of all their family members, because, the perpetrators told them, they will “die of sadness” on their own.

Roof also cruelly mocked his victims, “Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.”

It cannot be overlooked that Roof committed his crime in such a sacred and historically important place. It cannot be overlooked that he killed Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a prominent pastor and politician, for whom Dylan Roof apparently asked when he entered the room in which Bible study was taking place. Genocidal killing is always laden with symbolism; it always draws in cultural and spiritual dimensions, using them to amplify the horrors and the suffering of the targeted people, their families and their communities. Particularly when perpetrators are not convinced of their ability to completely eradicate their perceived enemies, they resort to this symbolic cruelty because through it they can cause deep wounds far in excess of their immediate crimes. Cultural institutions, clergy, community leaders: these are typical symbols of group dynamism targeted by genocidaires. The aim of genocide is to destroy not just the bodies of the group targeted, but also its spirit. And by targeting Denmark Vesey’s church, perhaps Roof was intentionally targeting another pillar of the black community’s strength: the history of resistance. We will most likely be hearing more about his specific choices in the coming weeks and months.

In the United States we are not accustomed to speaking about violence against black people as a matter of genocide, despite the clearly genocidal dimensions of plantation slavery. We are not accustomed to speaking about violence against black people as a systemic problem. In the statements of a home-grown mass murderer, however, we see the roots of genocide as coded within a lexicon of white supremacy that is a cornerstone of this country’s system of power. What Dylann Roof was telling us is that the control of black bodies is not good enough. In his estimation, they must now be eradicated.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has issued a statement that rightly identifies the Obama presidency as one of the proximate causes of all this white rage. Much as the end of the end of the monarchy, the loss of war, and the advent of democracy in post-World War I Germany instilled in right wingers like Adolf Hitler a sense of racial panic, we have seen many white Americans, particularly white men who feel they are now excluded from access to redemptive and creative power, a race panic that expresses itself in so many dangerous and violent ways. In this sense, the analogies between the present-day and the Era of Reconstruction are clear. While the country is very different now than it was then, while many important strides have been made in civil rights, especially in law, genocidal threats — however far off — can be more critical precisely when an existing power structure is called into question. If anything, the progress that has been made in terms of race relations in the United States seems to have convinced far too many people of the necessity of radical change of a sort not possible through the electoral system.

Out of this panic is growing a new lexicon of power, a genocidal lexicon, and it behooves us to take this development very seriously. Now we must not only target the obvious far-right and white supremacist hate groups and their recruiting tools, but also comb through our public and private lexicon for all the words and phrases, concepts and expressions, that provide both normalcy and concealment to the murderous potential of not just the established right wing parties, but also the vast number of disaffected white people who are now in search of power and meaning (see the debate about the word “thug”). Genocide is equal opportunity. It can happen anywhere if the pieces fall together in the right way. Few societies can see themselves falling into barbarism decades before they do so, but preexisting lexicons of violence and power can help us identify weaknesses that may end up buttressing the worst horrors imaginable.

It is painful to consider what Dylann Roof also told investigators on Friday: that he almost did not go through with the massacre because everybody was so nice to him.  Perhaps, had there not been so many linguistic and symbolic supports for his genocidal thinking in mainstream white society (his racist jokes were not taken seriously at his high school, for example), not only might Dylann Roof not have ended up with a semiautomatic handgun at Mother Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday, June 15, 2015, but also, once there, he might have laid down the weapons in his mind and found a route to a better expression of his frustrations and fears. However, this young man’s mind had become so warped by America’s particular genocidal lexicon that he killed nine kind human beings despite his reservations, because, he said, “I had to complete my mission.” According to the police account, Dylann Roof was unrepentant.

Calls for gun control are important in the aftermath of another mass murder. No other industrialized nation suffers under the regime of violence and terror supported here by the NRA.  But even more important in the long term may be a thoroughgoing accounting for and dismantling of America’s genocidal racist lexicon, starting with the Confederate flag and extending outwards to media institutions, political parties, government agencies, police forces, grassroots movements and everyday microaggressions like racist jokes that grease the wheels of hate.


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