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To Kill an Intellectual 2.

A Serial in Five Parts.



No shelter from the storm.

WHEN I STARTED LOOKING INTO the real killings of intellectuals in modern history, I almost had to stop. I’m not generally squeamish—you can’t be in this line of work—but this was more than I could stomach. The most terrifying part was that almost no place on the planet could serve as a refuge for intellectuals.

At the top of the list of perpetrators were the Nazis and the Soviets—in some cases killing the same groups. The Nazis had spent nearly two years preparing a Special Prosecution Book for Poland. The list included over 60,000 names of Polish elites—including scholars, activists, officers, and other public figures—who, once Poland was occupied, would be either sent to an internment camp or shot on the spot. The Intelligenzaktion, or the mass murder of the intellectual class, took place from November 1939 to May 1940. It ended with the killing of over 100,000 people. At the same time, on the east side of Poland, which Hitler ceded to Stalin at the war’s outset, the Soviet army rounded up the Polish intelligentsia under their rule and killed another 22,000 people, many of them in the dense forest around Katyn, which is how the Katyn massacre got its name.

You’d think the Nazis and the Soviets had something specific against the Poles. But, in reality, they’d both been well-practiced at killing their own intellectual classes. The Soviets had already undertaken two major purges by the outset of World War II. The Red Terror, which started in 1918 under Lenin and lasted four years, ended with more executions than could be reliably counted—with some estimates putting the number as high as 200,000. The Great Terror, which was initiated by Stalin in 1936 and which lasted less than two years, is believed to have killed nearly 1.2 million people. It was designed, in name and reputation, not only to upstage the previous purge, but to be the purge of all purges. Between the two, Stalin had also unleashed the Holodomor—death by starvation—in Ukraine, which killed anywhere from 3 to 5 million people. Not everyone who died in these mass murders was an intellectual. But most of the intellectuals who were anywhere nearby when these purges took place ended up dead. Only the intellectuals who fled had any chance of survival.

I remembered all too well what I’d learned from Jean Améry: in Auschwitz, intellectuals fared no better or worse than anyone else.

As for the Nazis, their purges were not as deadly or as widespread in their initial stages, but their precision was itself a clear omen of their coming depravity. First came the book burnings—and, as Heinrich Heine wrote in 1821—and as has been repeated over and over—where books are burned, people will soon burn too. Then came the arrests of intellectuals and activists—individuals who believed in ideas and ideals, and who served as guinea pigs for the early system of concentration camps. Soon came the racial targeting and dehumanization of Jews—first through riots and boycotts, then through laws that isolated them from the rest of German society, and later through forced evacuation—a process that ended with their being the principal victims of what was to become a network of death camps. And I remembered all too well what I’d learned from Jean Améry in one of my earlier investigations: in Auschwitz, intellectuals fared no better or worse than anyone else.

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Looking a little more carefully into the violence of the early days of Nazi rule in Germany, and searching for a voice that might have tried to speak up for the oppressed, I again found that the main targets were intellectuals. On March 4, 1934—a year after Hitler’s rise to power and just weeks before the Night of the Long Knives, in which up to a thousand people, both within and without the Nazi party, were killed in a matter of three days in a major consolidation of power among Hitler’s own political ranks—the New York Times published an article with the headline, “Nazi Persecution of Liberals Rises.” It was a strange piece of writing that revealed just how much everyone wanted the Nazi menace to simply go away and never come back—a kind of hopeful thinking that, as even the most unseasoned investigator knew, did nothing but embolden the Nazis.

“Liberal thought in Germany,” the article began, “recalling in calmer perspective those months of physical, mental and spiritual violence, feels that the world has not sensed Germany’s greatest tragedy—the loss free speech and liberal leadership.” I read these words with my mouth open. I simply couldn’t fathom, knowing everything we knew now, that there was a time—years before World War II—when people looked back at the early days of Nazi rule with even a slight measure of relief. “Petty persecution and physical violence have abated or disappeared,” the article went on, “but the suppression and harassment of the liberals, with the exile of distinguished intellectuals and the banishment from their activities of leaders in science and the arts . . . continue and increase.” The temporary reprieve from violence, which turned out to be nothing more than a veil for the coming purge, allowed civl society to take stock of what had already been lost in a matter of a single year.

The next sections of the article bear the titles “Five Nobel Men Lost” and “Noted Conductors Barred,” pointing out that the Nazis “have ‘coordinated’ everything that reaches the general public.” And this public, it seems, was content to have its thoughts and beliefs dictated by others: “to the overwhelming majority of the German people,” the article ends, “National Socialism is not a political system, subject to change in the process of time, but an unalterable religious creed. It is not the result of logical thought. It is something accepted on faith.” After burning books, and incarcerating the people who read them, the Nazis then banned the people who wrote them, and soon there were few individuals left to stand as models for independent thought. Germany—one of the most culturally influential nations on the planet—was able to eradicate centuries of intellectualism in a single year. And it didn’t happen without arresting and killing some real-life intellectuals.

The Nazis and Soviets were the anti-intellectual supervillains of the modern era. Yet both were eventually replaced by other regimes…

The Nazis and Soviets were the anti-intellectual supervillains of the modern era. Yet both were eventually replaced by other regimes and relegated to the annals of history. Not that they didn’t continue to influence our world—look at the demand for both Nazi and Soviet memorabilia online as well as the groups that continue to parade them around—but they had at least been crushed as state entities actively killing intellectuals. Yet intellectuals continued to be killed. Which meant there were many other suspects to be considered.

I looked at Turkey. On April 24, 1915, nearly 300 Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Constantinople, which later became Istanbul, and moved to other locations within the Ottoman Empire. This event is seen, today, as the first organized action taken by Turkey in its Armenian genocide—a so-called “decapitation strike” meant to rob the Armenian community of leaders who would resist the coming purge of their population. It seems to have worked. These first couple of hundred killings of Armenian intellectuals eventually ended with the deaths of a million people—give or take a few hundred thousand.

I looked at Spain. The White Terror, which lasted from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 until the end of the World War II in 1945, killed nearly 250,000 intellectuals of all stripes: people who did not fight in the war and who were not even civilian casualties of indiscriminate bombings, but who were rather singled out for their ideas and ideals and either executed, or else sent to concentration and prison camps to die.

I looked at China. During the Sufan purge, which Mao Zedong unleashed over a two-year period in the mid-1950s, nearly 1.5 million intellectuals were persecuted, with over 50,000 of them ending up dead. And during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted over a decade, Mao “reeducated” intellectual youth through work in the countryside—displacing tens of millions of teens with middle- and high-school education in an attempt to redistribute the labor force. But his wasn’t just an expression of modern anti-intellectualism. It was part of a centuries-old prejudice against intellectuals, who began to be called, during the Yuan dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries, the “Stinking Old Ninth” of ten cultural castes—the last of which were the beggars.

I looked at Bangladesh. In 1971, the Bengalis, ruled by Pakistan since the partition of British India in 1947, lost over a thousand intellectuals in six months—first in a decapitation strike on March 25, in which several professors from Dhaka University were killed. After nine months of war that led to estimates of up to three million deaths, another two hundred intellectuals were abducted and executed just days before the Pakistani government lost the war. It was a last attempt to deprive the Bangladeshi people of their spiritual leadership. And it didn’t work. Not only was an independent state established, it also declared December 14 as Martyred Intellectuals Day. From what I found, it was the only country in the world to collectively memorialize the loss of its intellectuals.

I was barely scratching the surface. But a certain tendency was already becoming clear: killing intellectuals was merely a phase in a larger effort to eradicate entire populations, societies, cultures. And the scope of the killing was staggering. Still, as difficult as it was to keep my sights focused on all this death, I had to keep looking—for a clue, a pattern, an insight—something that would help me make sense of the extreme anti-intellectualism that was spreading throughout the world. So I kept looking.

I looked at Algeria. It was one of the most complicated examples—where death seemed to come from all sides. One spring day in 1993—a little more than a year after an armed struggle erupted between Algeria’s one-party regime and a nascent Islamist insurgency—intellectuals began to be targeted in their homes, one of them a sociologist murdered in front of his daughter. No one took formal responsibility for these executions, and while it was assumed that the Islamists were behind the murders, it was clear to anyone who might be targeted that the deaths were also serving the ruling regime, which was openly hostile to any and all independent thinkers or reformers. The intellectuals were, as usual, caught in the crossfire. And, oddly enough, while a list of journalists killed during the Algerian Civil War has been compiled—it consists of 100 names—there is no total death count for the number of academics, writers, and medical doctors murdered during this period.

There was something especially unnerving about this purge: it served both opposing sides of a single conflict. If you happened to be an intellectual in Algeria, you had nowhere to hide, because both the governing regime and the insurrectionists gained from your ceasing to exist. The fact that one side barely tolerated you and the other actively exterminated you made no difference once the two were caught in their own conflict—turning intellectuals into both literal and symbolic collateral damage.

I wanted to know more about what this intellectualist double-edged sword felt like for people who’d lived through this time. I found an account by Karima Bennoune, a professor of international law at the University of California, Davis, and the daughter of an Algerian anthropologist. She had documented a time when, not unlike the case of the sociologist who’d been murdered in front of his daughter, assassins seemed to come for her father. “On Tuesday, June 29, 1993,” she recalled twenty years later, “I woke up early to an unrelenting pounding on the sturdy metal front door my father had recently installed.” She continued:

My father tried repeatedly to get the police on the telephone. Perhaps terrified themselves by the rising tide of armed extremism that had already claimed the lives of many Algerian officers, the local police station did not even answer. However, we were lucky that day. The unwanted and unidentified visitors eventually departed. We never knew why, or exactly who they were. Someone would return a few months later, leaving a note on the kitchen table. ‘Consider yourself dead.'”

She goes on to offer a succession of names—Tahar Djaout, Dr. Mahfoud Boucebsi, Mohamed Boukhobza, Cherifa Bouatta, Djilali Liabes, Allaoua Ait Mebarek, Rabah Zenati, Hafid Senhadri, Laadi Flici, Omar Ouartilane, Said Mekbel, Naima Hamaouda, Yasmine Drissi, Mohamed Dorbane, Rachida Hammadi, Leila Kheddar, Youssef Fathallah, Lakhdar Rouaz, Amel Zenoune-Zouani, Abderrahmane Fardeheb, Abdelaziz Chelighem, Meziane Zhor, Naima Kar Ali, Raziqa Meloudjemi, Nacer Ouari, Ahmed Asselah, Salah Djebaili—all of them people who believed in the life of the mind and the spirit, and who were murdered simply for insisting that they had a right to choose their own beliefs and convictions.

In her piece, Bennoune referred to writer and artist Mustapha Benfodil, who had offered his own commemoration of the killings of intellectual in Algeria, and who had described this aspect of the Algeria’s so-called dark decade as “intellectocide.” As he explained:

History shows that in all great wars, imperial and imperialist conquests, and major military campaigns, libraries have often been targeted and autos-da-fé have been widespread. . . .Our radical Islamists understood this exactly, and this motivated their determined struggle against intellectuals, artists and writers which commenced at the very beginning of their insurrection. . . . They pushed their liberticidal logic to the extreme end of destroying those in society who produced books and ideas.”

I was struck by the clarity of Benfodil’s thinking—the crystallization of his words. Intellectocide was part of a liberticidal logic that aimed to deny civil society its very right to develop on its own terms, from within, like bacteria in an agar culture. And, for him, the literal killing of intellectuals was just as dangerous as the symbolic one, which was just another way to strangle humanity. As he said:

If the assassinations of intellectuals constituted the most violent and the most despicable form of censorship, other forms of censorship continue to be at work in the society. . . . Alas, in Algeria like in other Maghrebin and Arab countries, we do not seem to have comprehended that in depriving ourselves of the precious provision that is culture, our societies are digging their own graves.

It was a harsh collective verdict. And it extended to an entire swath of the world—the one to which Benfodil saw himself as belonging. But I’d already seen enough to know that the same was true of every part of the world. Wherever you happened to belong, that was where you found intellectuals being killed, some symbolically, some literally. Even modern France, generally considered a bastion of intellectualism, not only exhibited the kind of symbolic anti-intellectualism revealed by Bourdieu, but might also have been complicit in its literal kind, at least according to Italian writer Giovanni Catelli, whose book on the death of Albert Camus suggested that Camus’s anti-Soviet rhetoric had made him a liability and led to France’s secret services tacitly consenting to the KGB’s assassination of one of its greatest modern writers. It was not a simple theory to prove. But having examined the circumstantial evidence, both in Camus’s death and in the deaths of thousands of intellectuals, it couldn’t altogether be dismissed.

Was it because Camus, too, had come from Algeria? Perhaps. But not likely. What happened in Algeria wasn’t the exception—it was the rule. The same thing took place all over the world: to alter the direction of a society, the first thing you did was kill an intellectual.

And I was barely scratching the surface and hadn’t even begun to consider what the Khmer Rouge had done to the intellectual class in Cambodia—where they killed people merely for wearing glasses.

I began to wonder how many intellectuals had to be killed for a series of murders to be considered intellectocide. Was France’s potential guilt in Camus’s murder enough to accuse the nation itself of intellectocide? Or did they have to have pursued more deaths systematically for it to become a general phenomenon?

Bennoune’s father, she recalled, had called the targeted killing of intellectuals a “genocide.” She had been a law student at the time and explained to her father that the UN Genocide Convention did not protect political or social groups. The term was meant to refer to the killing of a racial group, a genos, a term that was itself ambiguous.

So I looked a little more closely at the word genos itself. It had apparently first been used in ancient Greece to mean species, genus, sort, category, birth, kin, race, lineage, family, generation, and posterity. With time, it came to refer to a single group that claimed common descent, which turned in modern usage settled on the concept of race. It was imprecise, that was for sure, but it reflected the imprecision of those who targeted groups in the first place. Killing someone because you’ve decided that they belong to a particular race is, if nothing else, an imprecise science.

So this was the term that international lawyer Raphael Lemkin used in his newly invented word, genocide, introduced in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin had begun his research on group mass murder with the Ottoman killings of Armenians and continued with the Nazi targeting of Jews and other so-called undesirables. His book on the topic focused on the crimes being perpetrated at the time of World War II. After the war, he initiated a long process of drafting and passing the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, in which the concept was defined out in more detail.

The UN Convention parses genocide into two forms, mental and physical, the first relating in general terms to “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such,” and the second relating to five specific acts:

  1. Killing members of the group
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

But, as the text itself declares, its final wording was the result of negotiations between member states, creating ambiguity around Lemkin’s original concept. In his book, the meaning of genocide was much more lucid:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation. . . It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups. . . The objects of such a plan would be 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.”

It was certainly a mouthful. But it was also nuanced. And it included sensitivities that UN conventions tended to strip away. Feelings, culture, language—these were all elements of the intellect, woven into a declaration that otherwise focused on such civil concerns as security, health, liberty, dignity, economy. It also looked beyond literal killing to different types of coordinated actions that served the goal of wiping out a people. You could commit genocide, it seems, without ever killing a single person. Or, at least, without killing them all.

I went back to Bennoune and her question regarding her father’s use of the term genocide for the killing of intellectuals. I found that she, too, had come around to his perspective, realizing that it referred, in her words, to “radical Islamists battling the Algerian state to stamp out the North African nation’s culture and to wipe out those who shaped it.”

The question, then, was whether the death of any given intellectual was an isolated event, or whether it was an assault on an individual carried out with the coordinated intent of killing off an entire group. And could a series of such killings constitute the first phase of a broader plan for genocide?

If my hunch was right and I could find a connection between the killing of intellectuals and a broader genocidal campaign, I might have some idea of who was behind the recent spate of murders of intellectuals. I might have a chance at cracking one of the most confounding cases I had yet to encounter.

I had hoped to break new ground. I looked at dozens of countries all over the globe for instances where intellectuals might have been targeted in recent years. I looked at Argentina’s Night of the Long Batons, the event that led to a mass exodus of intellectuals from the country, and that some considered the opening shot for what became the Dirty War, leading to the death or disappearance of tens of thousands of people. I also looked at Iran’s decade-long campaign to kill dissident intellectuals, which came to be known as the Chain Murders. I looked everywhere. And, no matter how hard I tried to find a different suspect, all these examples paled in comparison to Russia, not just because of the number of dead, but because of the implications of these deaths for the rest of the world.

I started by returning to some of the ground I’d already covered — except that, this time, I looked a little more closely at some of the details. The Red Terror had been a massive, years-long campaign that took down hundreds of thousands of people. But embedded within this campaign were specific actions aimed squarely at intellectuals. The early days of the campaign focused on the so-called bourgeois elements lingering in Soviet Russia. But the later days included actions that focused on intellectuals in general. There was the Tactical Center trial, which claimed to uncover a conspiracy but appeared in reality merely to rain on the parade of disgruntled members of the intelligentsia. And there was the Tagantsev conspiracy, invented by the Soviet secret police, and used to smoke out hundreds of professors who were unhappy with the limits placed on them by Soviet authorities. In the end, about a hundred of them were executed, but instead of fomenting an anti-intellectualist response among the working class, the action generated public anger at the Bolsheviks, leading Lenin to try another approach—exile—in a series of boat rides on what came to known as the Philosophers’ Steamship.

It appears that this method, too, struck the wrong tone, and another series of intellectuals was later deported on nondescript trains. But it became clear that, once abroad, these intellectuals would not keep their mouths shut. Which was why, learning from Lenin’s mistakes, Stalin decided to make no exceptions when it came to intellectuals and other undesirables. He arrested, tortured, and killed them, either by execution or by hard labor. And he stuck to this policy to the end of his life. On August 12, 1952—an entire three years they were arrested, repeatedly beaten, and falsely accused of espionage—thirteen members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, made up of the foremost Yiddish writers in the USSR, were executed by the Soviet secret services in what came to be known as the Night of the Murdered Poets. Stalin died a year later.

I used this background to try to understand what was happening in Russia today. I looked back over the last twenty years. Several prominent Putin critics had died under a variety of violent and mysterious circumstances, some in Russia and some abroad, all of them in murders that silenced their ongoing anti-Kremlin activities. They included Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Natalia Estemirova, and Boris Nemtsov. But there were so many others, their names less familiar, who were also killed exposing the workings of the Russian government. In 2007, human rights activist Alexei Simonov told Christiane Amanpour that, since 1991, 220 journalists had been killed in Russia. You didn’t need to be a political analyst to imagine how many more had been killed in the ensuing years.

Seeing the numbers so clearly laid out, I was genuinely struck by the lack of international outrage at the possibility of an intentional campaign of what I guess could be called “journalistocide”. Taking historical precedent into account, I realized the killings could, in Lemkin’s words, be seen as part of “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups”—in this case, the destruction of one’s own people, a sort of “suigenocide.” Putin had set the stage for a genocide of his own people. And no one in the world really seemed to care very much.

The problem for everyone else, of course, was that Putin had no intention of stopping at his own border. He moved elsewhere, and his first and main target, at least since the poisoning of President Viktor Yushchenko in 2004, had been Ukraine. Sure, he dabbled in a few military interventions, committing genocidal atrocities in Chechnya throughout most of the 2000s, invading Georgia in 2008, annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and buttressing Bashar Assad’s regime in 2015 during the Syrian Civil War. He even attempted a covert manipulation of the 2016 election in the United States. But it was always clear that his biggest prize was Ukraine—and that he would stop at nothing to have it in his hands. Given the reality on the ground, it was also clear that doing so would involve some form of genocide as far as the Ukrainian nation was concerned.

All this begged the question: Why hadn’t it been enough for the world that Putin’s Russia was killing off journalists at an unprecedented pace? Why hadn’t the world’s leaders learned the lesson that so much of the last century had exemplified: Where intellectuals suffer and die, everyone else is in danger too. Where anti-intellectuality rears its head, anti-humanity is around the corner.

I looked for some voice of reason who might at least have experienced this insanity first-hand and lived to tell the tale. It took a little time to locate such a person. Finally, I found Yulia Latynina, a journalist with Ekho Moskvy, who had been targeted by a series of violent attacks. First, in 2016, on the way to work, she’d had a bucket of feces thrown at her. A year later, a noxious gas was spread in her home, and her car was set on fire. A week after her car went up in flames, she took her family and left Russia for an undisclosed location. She also published an op-ed describing her decision to flee.

Latynina’s op-ed was not as straightforwardly condemning of Putin as one might have expected. “A tidal wave of violence has been unleashed,” she wrote, adding that the “watershed moment was the murder of Boris Nemtsov.” She then went into an analysis of how the early stages of journalistocide and intellectocide could eventually spill over into full-scale genocide. Arguing that Nemtsov’s killing was not actually ordered by the state, she wrote that “Putin was furious. . . . Under the guise of serving Putin, the man who gave commands to the Chechen killers showed that he, and not Putin, is all-powerful, because for him real power is the power to kill anybody.” Referring to her own situation, she noted, “A lot of friends in the political elite have expressed their horror and desire to help. Not everyone is happy with the way things stand.” And here is the part of the clue that exposes the reality of the genocide being unleashed by Russia. With one set of unhappy campers taking violence into their own hands, and another set believing in a different governing style, Putin can only reassert his power by crushing both possibilities at once—embodying violence itself so that both the agitators and the reformers understand that they must fall in line with Putin’s rule. And, as in Algeria, so in Russia: intellectuals are caught in the deadly middle.

As Latynina wrote, “For almost sixteen years, Putin’s regime was based on lies, spread through state television, and prosperity from oil money. Now the prosperity is gone and the TV audience has diminished drastically.” She added, “When a regime starts failing, it will resort to violence for the simple reason that it is the only effective means of staying in power.” Yet in hindsight, her logic leads to a surprisingly naive conclusion: “Today’s violence is a symptom that signals the end is nearing. . . . And I will be back. Once things sort themselves out.” That was five years before Russia invaded Ukraine.

It appeared that Latynina—and, with her, most of the civilized world—didn’t quite fathom the full implications of journalistocide. She had, earlier in her piece, explained how people rationalized the deaths of her colleagues. “Those were deaths, killings, murders,” she wrote. “But every time you could account for it and explain why it happened.” In reality, it was only the first phase of a process that is not always linear, sometimes getting better before it gets worse. It’s like the veil of quiet that led the New York Times to claim, in March 1934, that the worst of the violence in Nazi Germany appeared to be over. Putin, it seems, was hatching a plan to catch everyone off guard. And it worked. He genuinely surprised not only his critics, but many of his minions too, when he invaded Ukraine. It was only a small step from there to full-scale transnational genocide across both the Russian and Ukrainian nations.

I’d found my culprit. At least that’s what I thought at first. Everything was out in the open—killing journalists and intellectuals was essentially a step in a process of killing off whole peoples. And I couldn’t see how anyone else could have been more likely to be behind the killing spree than Russia. But then, just as I was about to call the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the International Criminal Court in the Hague, I noticed a news flash.

In India, a series of intellectuals had been killed by masked individuals, most of them linked to a Hindu nationalist group called Sanatan Sanstha—and, as had happened in both Algeria and Russia, the regime in power, which may not have directly ordered the murders, was also served by them. It was not yet a full-blown case of intellectocide. But a worrying pattern had emerged. Alongside the executions being carried out by fringe groups, the authorities were intimidating and imprisoning liberal thinkers, and a lawmaker from the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s ruling party, came out openly to declare: “I would have got intellectuals shot if I was the home minister.” It had gotten to the point that Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane had even published a book on the topic, To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism (2021). If anything about my investigation had turned out to be right, there was good reason to add India to the world’s genocide-watch.

Then I saw another news flash: In Lebanon, Lokman Slim, a publisher and intellectual who was also an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, was found dead in his car. He had been killed by five bullets: one to the back and four to the head. It was the third in a series of murders linked to investigations of the Beirut Port blast that rocked Lebanon in 2020. The first was the killing of a customs clerk, Mounir Abu Rjeily, who would have been privy to information about the ammonium nitrate that had explored, and the second was military photojournalist Joseph Bejjani, who’d been hired by the Lebanese Army to take pictures of the site. An op-ed piece in Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based news site, ran the headline, “What photographer Joe Bejjani’s death says about the dark days to come for Lebanon.”

What did this all mean? That the world, as a whole, was constantly in the throes of genocides taking place at all times? And, if so, how could one even try to distinguish between atrocities? What meaning did the word “genocide” have once we saw that planet earth was the scene of one giant, self-inflicted genocide—that genocide was not the exception but the rule? Where did it leave those who wanted to believe in humanity, in its potential for creativity rather than destruction, in the dream of liberty and dignity rather than oppression and debasement?

Just when I thought the case was coming to a close, I’d stumbled across one of the central conundrums of modern life. How could the defenders of the human spirit inspire others toward their own greatest heights when they were faced with constant and ubiquitous adversity? How did people whose souls reached for the skies contend with realities that offered little more than the lowliest form of murder?

I was stumped. I didn’t even know where to begin to look for an answer to such quandaries. It was beyond fact. It was even beyond fiction. That was when I realized that I needed to look precisely where fact and fiction no longer reigned. I had to look to science fiction.

DAVID STROMBERG is a writer, translator, and essayist whose work has appeared in The American Scholar, The Smart SetPublic Seminar, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is editor of Old Truths and New Clichés (Princeton University Press), a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s essays, and a reissue of the canonical story, Simple Gimpl: The Definitive Bilingual Edition (Restless Books). His recent work includes A Short Inquiry into the End of the World (The Massachusetts Review), the first speculative essay in his Mister Investigator series, and his follow-up, “The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew,” which appeared in The Hedgehog Review. This is the third in that series. His website? It’s here.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    This detailed powerful article is ruined by an unsubstantiated allegation that French-Algerian intellectual Albert Camus was murdered on behalf of Soviet hostility to his free political judgements. No information about the car driven by his publisher friend skidding out of control and smashing into a roadside tree has supported such an allegation.

    Monday, 27 March 2023 at 16:14 | Permalink

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