September 16, 2019

Stopping ‘Xenocide’ in the 21st Century

Candles burn as part of a memorial at the scene of Sunday morning’s mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio on August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Along with the recent attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Christchurch, New Zealand, the Aug. 3 attack on a Walmart in El Paso appears to have been perpetrated by a lone-wolf murderer espousing genocidal ideologies — but without the means to actually commit genocide. Instead, these solo génocidaires decide to kill as many Jews, Muslims and now, apparently, Latinos as possible.

In the field of genocide research, this is a new, 21st-century phenomenon. We came to terms with large, violent regimes committing genocide during the Holocaust, but these current individuals pose unique dangers because there are few preemptive interventions we can do, and the perpetrators have no respect for the rules of impunity.

Article II of the Genocide Convention, promulgated after the Holocaust, defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” In my 25 years of researching the Holocaust, Armenian, Rwandan and other genocides, there are certain similarities and themes consistent in every mass tragedy: ideology, dictatorial leadership, armed conflict and government perpetration.

The acts of these individual, radicalized men, and the ideologies behind their actions clearly are genocidal in nature, but are perpetrated by one person rather than a government. There are no obvious precedents of lone-wolf génocidaires in Western society. This presents a legal dilemma.

 “Creating a term for the horrific acts carried out by these 21st-century génocidaires would be an important step toward recognizing the gravity of these crimes and developing special programs to counter them.”

These perpetrators will be tried under existing homicide laws, but I believe we are seeing a new and different kind of crime — one for which we don’t really have a term.

Unlike international terrorism, a centralized organization with a hierarchical structure does not inspire any of these lone wolves. Unlike other mass shootings such as at Columbine High School in Colorado or the Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, this brand of killing isn’t indiscriminate: The shooters are targeting a particular group of people whom they deem a threat — Jews, Muslims, Christians, black and white. And unlike hate crimes, these acts are expressly homicidal, whereas a hate crime can occur without causing a scratch.

To better understand and eventually confront this menace, we need a word for it. I suggest “xenocide.”

This combines two Greek words to mean the killing of people perceived as foreigners or outsiders. It suggests, rightly, that the act is rooted in racism and xenophobia. It implies the act is fundamentally different from other kinds of killing. It also implies mass killing, because the target is not an individual; it is a group.

It is worth remembering that when World War II began, there wasn’t a word to describe what was happening to the Jews of Europe. The word “genocide,” coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944, wouldn’t be formally adopted as a legal term by the United Nations until 1946. The term “Churban” came first and “Holocaust” came later.

 “There are no obvious precedents of lone-wolf génocidaires in Western society. This presents a legal dilemma.”

By creating a legal term, the U.N. gave the international community a tool for prosecuting perpetrators and ultimately — hopefully — preventing other genocides from unfolding. The word “genocide” also was a way to express an international consensus that this type of killing is a moral abomination.

Creating a term for the horrific acts carried out by these 21st-century génocidaires would be an important step toward recognizing the gravity of these crimes and developing special programs to counter them.

If “xenocide” became an internationally adopted legal term, perhaps penalty enhancements could be brought to bear for perpetrators, along with educational programs, preventive measures and special law-enforcement engagement. And perhaps as a society, we could find a ledge to grab in this ongoing nightmare that has left so many of us feeling like we’re slipping down a cliff.

As UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education, I plan to advance the study of xenocide, so we may develop preventive educational measures. It’s now up to individual governments — in particular, the United States, where xenocide is most common — to begin implementing laws and measures to limit this new phenomenon.


Stephen D. Smith is the Finci-Viterbi executive director of USC Shoah Foundation and UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.