Watchers of the Sky

Raphael Lemkin’s life would make the basis of a really good episode of the “Twilight Zone”. As a young man, he studied this habit humans have of wiping out—or trying to—entire tribes of fellow humans. And he noted that this was a Bad Thing, and perhaps should be condemned.

After an Armenian victim of such a pogrom sought out the Turkish architect of same and killed him, Lemkin would plead to the Europeans to criminalize such “acts of barbarity” such that it would effectively intimidate those who had such inclinations. They rejected him on the basis of, “Well, of course Turks are barbarians. That couldn’t possibly happen in Europe.”

Then the camera pulls back and it’s Hitler saying that, and you’re a Pole of Jewish descent. In the ‘30s.


Watchers of the Sky is a movie in part about Lemkin, who marketed the concept of genocide-as-a-crime to a bunch of dubious world leaders, and his cultural heirs, especially Benjamin Ferencz, Samantha Power and Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

It is wholly depressing and not for the reasons you might imagine.

Lemkin’s story is actually pretty amazing: After inventing the word “genocide”, he actually manages to foster an environment (with Ferencz) where people not only think it’s a bad thing, but are actually even a little bit embarrassed to have committed it. He starts them on the way to criminalizing it, even.

That’s kind of impressive. I mean, if you’re coming from a world where of course you’d kill the Jews, or the Armenians, or the *kaff* Kurds, even getting insincere agreement that genocide is wrong is quite a feat.

Depressing, though, because the same people who recognize that genocide is something that people do, and need to be deterred from doing through harsh punishment, absolutely fail to recognize that nobody wants to start a war to save anyone else.

I mean, I’m pro-America and all that, but FDR specifically avoided saying we were going to war to save the Jews, and maybe he was just projecting his own antisemitism or cynicism or what-have-you on the American people, or maybe we wouldn’t have been all gung-ho about going to war to stop genocide.

Although, in retrospect, it seems like we might have, given our horror over the Holocaust, it’s kind of funny that, at a time when our armed services asks the least of the rest of us, we are more reluctant than ever to use their bravery to do good in the world.

Wait, “funny” isn’t the word. It’s more “dysfunctional”. Too many of us believe we couldn’t possibly be a force for good in the world. We wrecked up the world to begin with, or something.

Madeline Albright sums it up, however unintentionally: Given a word, “genocide”, and a worldwide resolution to prevent it, when asked about the situation in Rwanda she calls it “a definitional problem”. And so Hutu butcher Tutsi with machetes day in and day out because, politically, Bill Clinton can’t get involved. (“End of history”, don’t you know.)

George W Bush might or might not have done anything about Darfur, but since that massacre started after the Democrat Congress took over on an anti-war platform, it seems unlikely they would have given him the power to act.

Which leaves the current guy, under whose reign the Darfur genocide has proceeded apace. Moreno-Ocampo finally gets the world to agree that the guy killing all those people (I think it’s Bahr Idriss Abu Garda, but one genocidal maniac looks the same as an another to me) should be tried on genocide aaaand…nothing happens.

Well, a lot of tiny countries with no skin in the game agree that he should be brought up on charges. But he just says, “I don’t recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court. What’re you gonna do about it?” And that’s pretty much it. Unless the USA gets involved.

Team America: World Police!

Which—and I may have gotten some mixed messages here—is a bad thing, right? We’re not supposed to be the World Police, right? I guess as long as we do what everyone else says, we’re okay.

I was not unimpressed by Samantha Power’s early career, and she seems to have a good heart, but I really couldn’t reconcile the boldness of her earlier actions with the sort of wan declarations she makes from her post as UN Ambassador.

That was depressing, too. She’d dealt with plenty of monsters before getting that post, why can’t she recognize them for what they are now?

The Boy pointed out that Soghomon Tehlirian had done more than the UN by assassinating Talaat Pasha. Which, when you think about it, sort of suggests an easy, if not politically popular, solution.

By the way, I did a little research after the movie and discovered that Lemkin hadn’t been shot down in the ’20s because “we’re European, not savage Turks”, or at least not that I could find. Instead, he had been the Polish ambassador to the League of Nations in 1933, and was shot down specifically to avoid offending the Hitler and the Germans.

It says it all. On Blake’s Three Point Documentary Scale:

1. Obviously a worthy an important subject.

2. The handling was competent, if not spectacular. A good mix of interviews with stock footage, and historical events with current events.

3. The tilt? Well, it’s hard to tilt wrong with genocide. (“I’m for it!”) But there was a tilt; toward the idea that one can use the mechanisms of civil society to stop international criminals who do not respect it. But the only reason cops can stop anything in civil society is because they have overwhelming force and they’re willing to use it.

I didn’t get, for example, on this last point why it would’ve been impossible for these little countries to take action. Do they have no armies whatsoever? We’re talking the Sudan and Chad, not Moscow. Why couldn’t they go in?

I don’t know.

I sort of walked away feeling that we need a universal 2nd amendment, frankly. “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the preservation of a free world…”

Leave a Reply