Is "Genocide" Really Worse than "Mere" Mass Murder?

Columbia lawprof Michael Dorf discusses some of the issues raised by the congressional resolution that seeks to condemn Turkey's World War I-era mass murder of its Armenian citizens as "genocide." The Turkish government is angry at the prospect that its predecessors actions might be so characterized. Back in 1994-95, there was a similar debate over the question of whether the mass murder of Rwandan Tutsi by Hutu nationalists counted as genocide. As Samantha Power describes in her book, A Problem from Hell, the Clinton Administration and others took the position that it was not genocide in order to reduce political pressure to mount a military intervention. Today, there are arguments about the question of whether there is a genocide in Darfur.

This raises the more general issue of why genocide should be considered worse than the deliberate murder of a similar number of innocent people for other reasons. As I see it, the evil in 1994 Rwanda and 1915 Turkey was that hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered without any justification. That they were slaughtered because of their ethnicity rather than for some other reason does not make things worse than they would be otherwise. Yes, it is wrong to kill an innocent person because they are Tutsi or Armenian or Jewish. But why is it somehow less wrong to kill her for being a moderately affluent peasant "kulak" (as in Stalin's mass murders during the 1930s), a member of the wrong social class (as in Pol Pot's mass murders in Cambodia), or a political opponent of the government (many examples throughout history)?

Sometimes, it is argued that genocide is worse than other types of mass murder because it deprives the world of valuable cultural diversity, not just of the contributions of particular individuals. That may well be a real harm of genocide. But other types of mass murders also destroy diversity and other cultural resources. For example, Pol Pot's decimation of Cambodia's educated classes surely did severe damage to Cambodia's culture. Stalin's extermination of Russians active in political movements other than his own certainly undermined valuable diversity in that country, and so on. Whether genocide causes more cultural damage than other types of mass murder will vary from case to case.

Thus, I am left with the question: Is there any good reason to distinguish genocide from other forms of deliberate mass murder of innocent people? If not, then I suggest that both domestic and international law should eliminate the crime of genocide and replace it with a more general crime of mass murder, applicable in all cases where large numbers of innocent people (one can legitimately debate how large they have to be) are deliberately killed for unjustifiable reasons. Among other advantages, this proposal would enable us to avoid unedifying debates over whether obvious instances of mass murder - including those in Rwanda and Sudan - count as "genocide" or not. More importantly, it would eliminate the excuse for inaction created by claims that a particular instance of mass murder doesn't qualify as genocide.

UPDATE: I should note another problem with the cultural damage rationale for considering genocide to be worse than other kinds of mass murder. In some genocides, there is no chance that the killers will succeed in eradicating the entire ethnic group in question, or even a large fraction of it. Thus, there is no danger that that group's cultural contribution to humanity will be completely wiped out. For example, in addition to his non-genocidal murder of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Khmers, Pol Pot also targeted Cambodia's Chinese minority for extermination. There was never any chance that this would result in the destruction of the Chinese contribution to world culture, since there are hundreds of millions of Chinese outside of Cambodia. Yet it was clearly genocide under the current international law definition thereof, which defines the term to include all killings "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such" (emphasis added).