Every fall semester at Mercer, I teach a course on genocide — the intentional effort to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. This past fall, perhaps because the presidential election of 2020 was under way, and with it the question of whether Donald Trump’s depredations would be ratified by American voters, I noticed something in the readings that I had not focused on before: Genocide is always correlated with lies.
In every genocide studied by my class, a torrent of lies preceded, accompanied and followed the evil events. In Nazi Germany, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and in relation to indigenous Americans, genocide was bathed in lies. The same was true for other genocides that we touch on in the class, including the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, as well as genocides in Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan, and Myanmar. The relation between massive lies and mass murder also proves true when one considers the death toll in the former Soviet Union and Communist China.
It appears to be an iron law that there is no genocide apart from massive, systematic lying. First there are the lies told by regimes about the supposed dangers, threats and evils of the targeted groups. Then there are the lies about the nature and consequences of the destructive policies that these regimes begin to implement against the groups. Next come the lies about what is happening to the group after its members begin to disappear. Afterward, there are the lying denials, dissembling and finally (perhaps) snarling moral justifications of the atrocities once they are revealed. Almost always after a genocide, a substantial contingent of genocidaires, perhaps even entire peoples and governments, deny that the genocides they perpetrated actually occurred or should be described as genocides.
“It appears to be an iron law that there is no genocide apart from massive, systematic lying.”
During the genocide in the former Yugoslavia, journalist Peter Maass was able to get an interview with Serbian/Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević, who (mis)ruled from 1989 until 2000 and was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia for war crimes. Maass was struck by the comprehensive nature of Milošević’s lying:
Milošević existed in a different dimension, a twilight zone of lies, and I was mucking about in the dimension of facts. He had spent his entire life in the world of communism, and he had become a master, an absolute master, at fabrication. Of course, my verbal punches went right through him. It was as though I pointed to a black wall and asked Milošević what color it was. ‘White,’ he says. ‘No,’ I reply, ‘look at it, that wall there, it is black, it is five feet away from us.’ He looks at it, then at me, and says, ‘The wall is white, my friend, maybe you should have your eyes checked.’ He does not shout in anger. He sounds concerned for my eyesight.
Maass goes on to say that because he had spent so much time covering the war and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, he knew exactly what color the wall was. Milošević’s lies did not deceive this grizzled reporter. He went right on reporting the truth.
But they did at least confuse those who did not have as firm a grasp on the truth as Maass did, such as visiting reporters or U.S. Congressmen on a fly-by visit. Lies don’t always have to persuade; all they need to do is confuse, slow action, weaken certainty, create a plausible alternative narrative.
Milošević’s lies also proved convenient to western diplomats serving governments that did not want to intervene in ex-Yugoslavia’s wars and genocide. These people knew the truth — but the lies helped them cover their inaction. This is a reminder that some people accept and even promote what they know are lies because they perceive it to be in their self-interest. I think we have seen plenty of that in the U.S. over the last four years.
“Some people accept and even promote what they know are lies because they perceive it to be in their self-interest.”
And, of course, Milošević’s lies proved perfectly convincing to large numbers of his own people, some of them actively perpetrating genocide and other war crimes, others of them needing a narrative of Serbian innocence in which to believe. This is a reminder of another truism: When criminals head governments, their lies not only intend to hide their crimes but also to distort reality for their own people — many of whom are readily willing to believe whatever lies might be available. The ability to persuade large numbers of people to believe outright lies is one of the greatest and most wicked powers of a skillfully evil leader.
Genocide is the worst form of organized, usually state-sponsored, evil. But the point I am making about genocide and lies applies down the line to less extreme forms of public or governmental wrongdoing. Systemic falsehood and systemic wrongdoing are inextricably related. This is recognized by the prophet Jeremiah in the quote that opens this post. Lies and injustice go together; truth and justice do so as well.
Lying regimes distort reality in the perception of their people. They prepare their people to do evil against others while believing that they are doing what is right. Then they aid their people in not facing the truth of what they have done.
When friends or spouses lie to each other, that is a problem. But when governments become lying regimes, the stakes are so much higher. Lies pave the way to injustice and even to murder.
I am thinking of a scene that took place in our country on Jan. 6, in which a group of people who had been fed months of lies about our election by their beloved president and a right-wing media ecosystem stormed the U.S. Capitol in an action that resulted in the deaths of five people. In public life, lies can kill.