Naming the Worst Thing Imaginable

The documentary Watchers of the Sky forces viewers to confront genocide via the term’s dedicated, undaunted inventor.

The word by which we call a thing has power. Kill one man, for example, and 12 jurors may call you a murderer. Kill a million, and your countrymen may call you a leader. Thanks to the tireless crusade of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Holocaust refugee, the world at large has another word for these mass killings: genocide.

Lemkin, who had been a public prosecutor in Warsaw before World War II, is the central subject of 2005 MacArthur Fellow Edet Belzberg’s latest documentary Watchers of the Sky. Having studied linguistics in university, Lemkin first coined the term “genocide” in 1943 to describe the deliberate killing of a large group of people with the goal of total annihilation. Though the vile atrocities of the Holocaust inspired the word, the act itself predates modern history.

Lemkin reasoned that humanity as a whole couldn’t seem to fathom the systemic execution of 6 million Jews, or 1.5 million Armenians, or—as Rwandan genocide survivor Emmanuel Uwurukundo describes it in the film—the slaughter of 100,000 men, women, and children per day using only machetes. There needed to be some objective measure, some agreed-upon name, of such hatred and the crimes it inspired in order to effect legal prosecution.

What Lemkin himself seemed to have trouble fathoming was the reluctance world leaders would have, despite his pleas, to applying this straightforward word to the obvious atrocities it described as they were occurring. Though he fled Poland in 1941 to escape the very thing he’d pledged himself to fight (but hadn’t yet named,) Lemkin first became aware of such mass-scale horrors as a teenager studying what the Republic of Turkey to this day insists on calling “the events of 1915,” a.k.a. the Armenian Genocide. During the last 15 years of his life—time he spent, according to colleagues interviewed for the film, haunting first the Nuremberg Trials then the United Nations as a malnourished, sleep-deprived specter—Lemkin never ran out of hideous, tragic instances of genocide to call attention to, each a condemnation of political leaders who continued to allow such hatred. As the man himself said in an archival interview, “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times.”

And it kept happening, Lemkin sadly realized, because the powers that be were reluctant to name, let alone condemn, genocide as it occurred due to a variety of Machiavellian concerns. Naming a genocide implies an obligation to take the complicated and often politically unpopular steps necessary to stop it. (See: The U.S. government’s delay in recognizing the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.) Fully recognizing genocide as an inherent crime against humanity also impinges on sovereignty, some might argue, as it limits the state’s power to govern its own citizens, which apparently includes the option to murder the masses at will.

The threat of genocide, as Watchers so effectively reminds us, is ever-present and the wheels of progress turn so slowly as to appear as if they’re not moving at all. As Lemkin—a man whose intimate knowledge of atrocity could not prevent it from devouring his family, a man who held millions in his heart but whose funeral was reportedly attended by less than a dozen people—wrote, “I was shamed by my helplessness.” While these are some of the most disheartening words ever set to paper, Watchers also presents a counterpoint: a single notebook page of Lemkin’s on which a two-word phrase has been repeatedly transcribed: “I believe.”

So if the frustrated attempts of Lemkin (and those that follow in his footsteps) to pose these simple arguments to people in positions of unfathomable power make you feel hopeless, take heart. You’re in good company. If you can’t stomach the footage of Bosnian citizens being gunned down or marched off to rape camps interposed with shots of General Ratko Mladic showing off on the ski slopes, realize that humans are not designed to accept such horrors. The important thing is that we do not deny they exist. If we stare at the abyss long enough, it will stare back. But we might also get a clearer picture of its outline, so we can spot it looming on the horizon.