Somalia - AP - 2.3.12
Victims in Somalia, 2011. Photo by AP
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Armenia WWI - 2.3.12
Victims of the Armenian massacre during World War One.

In 2010, the last year of his life, historian Tony Judt published a small book of essays, "The Memory Chalet," most of which was written (or rather dictated ) while he was - as he put it - "free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one's own deterioration." In his case, deterioration resulting from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS ), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

In one of those extremely perceptive and moving essays, entitled "Edge People," Judt wrote about people like him, for whom identity is far from being self-evident. As labels purporting to define "identity" made him uneasy, the outspoken Judt - a nonobservant Jew, intellectual, individualist, nonconformist but conservative, by his own definition - preferred the edge, "the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another."

Judt, who was educated in England, lived in the United States and wrote about and taught European history, was born in 1948 - the year in which the State of Israel (of whose policies he was harshly critical ) was also born. He was very much a child of his generation, which may not be very different from mine and yours: post-World War II, post-Holocaust, post-A bomb, post-traumatic. While pondering his identity, he wrote: "... in the wake of a generation of boastful victimhood, [most people] wear what little they know as a proud badge of identity: you are what your grandparents suffered. In this competition, Jews stand out. Many American Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz, and that suffices."

That also goes for Israeli Jews. Indeed, according to "A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observance, and Values of Israeli Jews, 2009," a study conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Avi Chai Foundation, for nearly all Israelis - 98 percent - "remembering the Holocaust" is a guiding principle of their life. And according to the same study, among 80 percent of Israelis, that does not in any way shake their firm belief that God exists.

But the suffering of gramp's generation is also a major ingredient in non-Jews' identity - for example, witness the Palestinians' persistence in commemorating the Nakba, or "catastrophe," caused by the creation of the State of Israel; and the insistence by the Armenians that the extermination of 1.5 million of their countrymen by the Turks about a century ago be recognized by the world as a genocide.

Loving Juliet could have asked innocently "what's in a name." But descendants of hated people believe that it is vital to use the right terms to describe their plight in order to uphold their national or common identity. Many Jewish and Israeli historians insist that the Armenians may have been victims of genocide, but no one should refer to their tragedy as an "Armenian holocaust" since nothing compares to the Holocaust. That claim holds some water (and a lot of blood ) - even though Winston Churchill referred to the Armenian massacre as a holocaust in a book published in 1929. The same Churchill who announced in July 1941 that what the Germans and their collaborators were perpetrating in Poland and Lithuania, mostly on Jews, was "a crime without a name."

The issue of terminology is not only a matter of historical perspective; there are legal aspects as well: The Knesset has begun deliberating legislation that would forbid and punish use, misuse and abuse of terms associated with the Holocaust and Nazi extermination of the Jews, especially when taken out of the "right" historical context. The Knesset also recently outlawed (mutatis much mutandis ) commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba in state-funded institutions.

A new French law making it a crime to publicly deny the Ottoman Empire's genocide of Armenians was ruled unconstitutional this week by France's Constitutional Council. The Turkish penal code stipulates that using the word genocide to describe what happened to the Armenians is a criminal offense. And denial of the Jewish Holocaust, by the way, is punishable both by (among others ) Israeli and French law.

Such legislation does not only have ramifications vis-a-vis the way we view the past, recent or remote: It may also mean the difference between life and death in the present or near future. David Scheffer, U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues from 1997 to 2001, pointed out in The New York Times ("Defuse the lexicon of slaughter," Feb. 23 ) that the UN and key Western nations decide whether or not to take action in cases of ongoing killings around the globe - be it in Bosnia, Rwanda, Libya or Syria - based on "terminological certainty about the nature of the killings."

Scheffer writes apropos the debate in France and Turkey concerning declaration of an Armenian genocide, but also in view of the bloody events in Syria and what seems to be the confusion among the international community regarding how to address them. He reminds us that the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 does not demand that the parties to the treaty take military action to prevent a potential, evolving genocide, but rather that prevention "can take military, political, diplomatic or economic forms."

Scheffer advises politicians and policy makers to beware when attaching names to mass atrocities-in-progress. He writes: "It is the responsibility of historians to establish the facts of distant events and of jurists to determine whether these were a genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, human rights abuses, political repression or other crimes against civil or political rights. Using the word 'genocide' loosely can be tragically ineffective or self-defeating. It can intimidate powerful nations from reacting quickly enough to prevent further atrocities."

For practical purposes, Scheffer advises politicians to "use the phrase 'atrocity crimes' - a term with no preexisting connotations or legal criteria" to describe mass killings. I'm sure his article was read and widely appreciated in Homs, Somalia and other places all over the world.

His warning against using "loose terms" for fear that they may cause more damage than good, like loose cannons, reminded me of one of the so-called paradoxes of Zeno, a Greek philosopher (c. 490-430 BCE ). His third paradox, as described by Aristotle in "Physics," is: "If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless."

I know this sounds confusing and seems to deviate from the above train of thought, but it is worthwhile to see how this paradox is applied by philosopher George Moore (a character in Tom Stoppard's play "Jumpers" ) to the predicament of St. Sebastian, a Christian martyr killed by the Romans in the third century CE. Moore's observation about the saint, who is traditionally depicted as being tied to a post and shot with arrows, is: "Since an arrow shot toward a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was that - though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and St. Sebastian died of fright."

Coming back to the matter of naming atrocities past and present - and leaving the concept of holocaust out of the argument - perhaps we really should abstain from using the term "genocide," and possibly even forgo "crimes against humanity," "war crimes," "human rights abuses," "political repression" or other crimes against civil or political rights, for the good and just cause of "not intimidating powerful nations from reacting quickly enough to prevent further atrocities," as Scheffer puts it.

Which could have led us to rephrase, with a dose of bitter irony: Though perpetrators of mass atrocities are in some cases approaching their targets, they apparently never quite get there. Thus millions of human beings throughout the ages, until our very days, have been and still are dying of fright.