Genocide isn’t Decolonization
I normally try to avoid overtly political posts on this blog, but this one seems important
And let me tell you something,
I've had enough of Irish Americans,
Who haven't been back to their country in 20 or 30 years.
Come up to me, and talk about the resistance
The revolution back home
And the glory of the revolution
And the glory of dying for the revolution
Fuck the revolution!
They don't talk about the glory of killing for the revolution
What's the glory in taking a man from his bed
And gunning him down in front of his wife and children
Where's the glory in that?
Where's the glory in bombing a remembrance day parade
Of old age pensioners their medals taken out and polished up for the day
Where's the glory in that?
To leave them dying, or crippled for life, or dead
Under the rubble of a revolution
That the majority of the people in my country
Do not want
The Enniskillen bombing killed eleven people, a drop in the ocean compared to the 1400 Israeli civilians brutally murdered (at last count) by Hamas on October 7th. But I feel this speech captures something important that is relevant to this current moment.
I was shocked by what Hamas did, but what shocked me more was how many people in the west were eager to cheer for what Hamas had done, or were unwilling to condemn it. Hamas’s massacre of jewish civilians was praised by multiple campus student groups, DSA chapters, BLM chapters, and Democrat Groups. Lest you think this was just a fringe opinion, notoriously censorious Harvard University decided this was the one topic they were going to take a free speech stance on.
These groups justified their support for Hamas killing innocent civilians by claiming it was justified by “decolonization” - that the Jewish people are “colonizers” in ancestral Muslim land and “resistance is justified when people are occupied.”
But this is a very new meaning of the word “decolonization”.
Decolonization, as defined by the UN’s 1960 declaration is the “right of all people to self determination” - a rejection of the colonial model where a few central powers conquered distant lands and governed them without regard for the interests of their citizens. It is part of a broader set of principles like sovereign borders, human rights, rejection of ethnic cleansing, and a taboo against harming civilians, that emerged in the aftermath of WW2 in the hope that, by adopting such principles, a war like WW2 would never happen again.
The new meaning of decolonization seems to be almost the opposite - the right of any group of people to use unrestrained violence against any other ethnic group living in land that they claim is their ancestral homeland.
Multiple members of my family fought hard for decolonization. My grandfather David Ennals and great uncle Martin Ennals were key figures in the original decolonization movement, having key roles in the Anti Apartheid Movement, Amnesty International (which won the the Nobel Peace Prize under Martin’s leadership), The Commission for Racial Equality, The Gandhi Foundation, The Free Tibet Movement, The United Nations Association, and other groups. My father wrote a book, “From Slavery To Citizenship” about decolonization. Nobody in their movement supported violence against civilians and nor has any recipient of the Martin Ennals Award.
The “decolonization” used to justify Hamas has almost nothing in common with the “decolonization” we have been told to think of as good.
It’s easy to understand why some might want to overturn the post WW2 peace consensus.
For many groups, the post WW2 peace principles were pretty unfair. By making borders sovereign and banning ethnic cleansing, they effectively froze people’s territories in the state they were around the end of WW2. For the Palestinians, this was just after they had lost a large amount of territory they considered to be rightfully theirs. For the Israelis, who had just arrived in new land after fleeing the Holocaust, they found their borders frozen in an awkward shape that made their major cities near impossible to defend from attacks by neighboring hostile power.
But the alternative of undoing the post WW2 peace consensus is almost certainly worse. If it is “decolonization” to use unrestrained violence against anyone you consider to be living in your homeland then almost nobody is safe, since we all live in land previously occupied by someone else. Was the holocaust decolonization? Would it be “decolonization” for Europeans to ethnically cleanse their recent Muslim immigrants? Would terror attacks by Native Americans on US Civilians be “decolonization”? Is there anywhere a Jew can live and not be a colonizer?
We should reject this new definition of decolonization. The current status quo has very real issues, but the alternative is worse.
So how did we get from there to here?
The problem is that words change their meanings, and sometimes they do this while keeping the moral associations attached to the old meaning.
If you want to advocate for genocidal blood-and-soil ethno-nationalism rooted in intolerant islamic fundamentalism (which is what Hamas is) you don’t use any of those words to describe your ideology, because they all have negative connotations. Instead you find whatever seems to be the closest concept that has strong positive associations, and use the kind of rhetorical devices that academics are brilliant at to argue that the positive thing everyone is supposed to like is the same as the dark ideology you want to advocate for.
If you do this well, then the pre-existing positive brand you have hijacked is so strong that it becomes taboo to criticize your utterly different idea.
You can also use the same trick to redefine a morally-repugnant word like “genocide” to mean to whatever your enemies are doing, even if their behavior has little in common with the meaning the word had when society decided it was repugnant.
People keep expecting the Nazis of the future to come usefully labeled as Nazis, or with other negative badges that everyone has been trained to recognize, but that’s not how the world actually works. Don’t forget that the Nazi’s called themselves National Socialists - two concepts that had positive brands at the time.
It’s hard to avoid the gravitational pull of genocidal ethno-nationalism, because it is the default ideology of humanity. History is basically a long list of genocides. Not just in one part of the world, but in all parts of the world.
You are descended from people who were able to exterminate other races before they were able to exterminate yours. You live on land that was stolen from other people your ancestors oppressed and killed. This isn’t just true of some people in some places. It is true of all people, in all places. The fact that it was universal doesn’t mean it was okay. It was terrible, and many communities today suffer from the results of events like these that happened in the recent past.
It is a miracle that we live in a precious moment where this way of living isn’t the default. It still exists in some places, at some times, but it’s rare enough that it’s notable when it happens.
And the reason it is rare is because we have collectively chosen to enforce a set of sacred principles that prevent it. Principles like a taboo against empires (decolonization), a taboo against genocide, a taboo against invading other countries, and a taboo against using violence against civilians.
These taboos matter, and it is important that we do not let their meanings drift until they become yet another synonym for the default human ideology.
I started this essay with Bono’s speech, and now I’m going to return to it.
You will note that Bono never said whether he was in favor of a United Ireland. His objection wasn’t to the IRA’s aims (a United Ireland) but to their methods (senseless violence).
If you tell me that you think Israel should be doing more to prevent civilian casualties when they strike Hamas then I might agree with you. If you tell me that Palestinians should be treated better than they are today, then I might agree with you. If you criticize the behavior of Netanyahu then I might agree with you. If you argue that the post-holocaust refuge for the Jews should have been placed somewhere in the West rather than in Israel, then I might agree with you. These are all important questions, but they are messy questions, and I don’t feel confident I know what the answers are.
But if you advocate for pursuing your aims with depraved violence against innocent civilians then I will never agree with you.
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