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Ask Pope Benedict

When Does Genocide Purify?

by ADAM JONES

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Brazil seems to have done little to shore up the Catholic Church’s declining power in its Latin American heartland. It went a long way, however, towards confirming Benedict’s reputation as a reactionary bigot.

Benedict, of course, is the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Throughout the 1980s, he was Pope John Paul II’s enforcer in the campaign to expunge the dangerously progressive ideals of Catholic "liberation theology" from Latin American soil. What could not be accomplished by state terrorists, who killed thousands of members of Christian "base communities" in the 1970s and ’80s, Ratzinger and John Paul sought to engineer by installing conservative bishops who would stem the progressive tide. Fortunately, they seem to have failed. An account by Larry Rohter in the New York Times (May 7) notes that the movement which Ratzinger "once called ‘a fundamental threat to the faith of the church’ … persists as an active, even defiant force in Latin America," with some 80,000 base communities operating in Brazil alone. It is fuelled, as it always has been, by the "social and economic ills" that pervade the region, and that have only "worsened" under the neoliberal prescriptions of the past two decades.

This time around, Ratzinger/Benedict’s bile was directed not at liberation theology, but squarely at the historical memory of the serial genocides — probably the most destructive in human history — inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas. On the last day of his visit, in the city of Aparecida, the Pope "touch[ed] on a sensitive historical episode," in the blandly understated language of an Associated Press dispatch (May 13). In other words, he ripped the bandages off a still-suppurating wound. According to the official text of Benedict’s comments on the Vatican website, the Pope declared that "the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean" were "silently longing" to receive Christ as their savior. He was "the unknown God whom their ancestors were seeking, without realizing it …" Colonization by Spain and Portugal was not a conquest, but rather an "adoption" of the Indians through baptism, making their cultures "fruitful" and "purifying" them. Accordingly, "the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture."

So there we have it. The invasion and conquest of the Americas, which caused the deaths of upwards of 90 percent of the indigenous population, was something the Indians had been pining for all along. They weren’t just "asking for it," as sexist cranks depict women as complicit in their own rapes. They were actually "longing" for it, since salvation and "purification" came with it.

Actually, genocide came with it, as Raphael Lemkin knew. Lemkin is the Polish-Jewish jurist who, having fled the Nazi invasion of Poland for refuge in the U.S., coined the word "genocide" in 1943. He defined genocide as "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups." His framing became the foundation of the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948, and of the academic field of comparative genocide studies. Lemkin himself was keenly aware of the devastation of the indigenous people of the Americas, and considered it basic to his understanding of genocide, though most of his writings on the theme remain unpublished. (See the text of John Docker’s excellent February 2004 talk at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Raphael Lemkin’s History of Genocide and Colonialism".)

Benedict’s astounding comments attracted barely a flicker of media attention in the West — almost all of it on the wire services, and some of it problematic in itself. A May 13 Reuters dispatch noted blithely that, contrary to Benedict’s claims, "many Indian groups believe the conquest brought them enslavement and genocide." This is rather like writing that "many Jewish groups believe that the Nazi Holocaust brought Jews enslavement and genocide." The reality exists independently of the belief. As blogger Stentor Danielson points out: "In the real world, it’s a basic historical fact that the Indians were enslaved. It’s a basic historical fact that entire tribes were wiped out. The reason [that] ‘many Indian groups believe’ these historical facts is because people like Reuters’ craven reporters won’t admit when there’s a fact behind the claims."

Indian organizations and spokespeople expressed outrage at Benedict’s statements, calling them "arrogant and disrespectful." Sandro Tuxa, leader of a coalition of Indian tribes in Brazil’s impoverished northeast, declared: "We repudiate the Pope’s comments. To say the cultural decimation of our people represents a purification is offensive, and frankly, frightening" (Reuters, May 14).

Frightening indeed. Genocide scholar Greg Stanton describes denial as the final stage of genocide: "The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses" (see Stanton’s "Eight Stages of Genocide" on the Genocide Watch website). Genocidal perpetrators, and those who inherit their mantle, also seek to "purify" historical memory — as Turkish authorities unceasingly, but so far unsuccessfully, have sought to do in the case of the Armenian genocide.

Stanton also reminds us that denial is "among the surest indicators [that] further genocidal massacres" may lie ahead. That’s a thought worth pondering, as the reinvigorated indigenous movement in Latin America confronts a renewed neo-colonial assault on its culture, health, and means of subsistence.

ADAM JONES, Ph.D., is the author of Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction (Routledge, 2006) and editor of Genocide, War Crimes and the West: History and Complicity (Zed Books, 2004). Email: adamj_jones@hotmail.com