Genocide has certainly become a controversial word. The Armenian genocide began one hundred years ago, but the Turks deny that what happened in 1915 qualifies as genocide. One might ask, if that does not qualify, what does? The Turks would say that the perpetrators must intend that their acts result in the destruction of a whole people.
Interestingly, you do not hear the word applied to Andrew Jackson’s policy of deportation and death for Native Americans in the southeastern states during the 1830s. Nor do history textbooks in our public schools apply the concept to Spanish enslavement and death of Native Americans in Central and South America. Do we want to apply the term retroactively to our own continent’s history? When the two hundredth anniversary of the Jackson’s policy of removal occurs in the 2030s, for instance, I don’t expect we will have a long-running debate about whether or not the policy of Native American removal constituted genocide.
Does intent matter? Did Jackson and others intend to destroy the Choctaw, Cherokee, and other tribes, or merely relocate them? The relocation policy took place over a number of years. Deadly results of relocation were clear early on, just as they were for Armenians in 1915. No one in Washington, the president or otherwise, changed the policy. Government forced Native Americans from their land, and many died from exposure, thirst, hunger, and illness. Their communities were just destroyed. This description of the policy’s consequences also applies throughout the 1800s. The 1830s illustrates a policy that lasted several generations, and spanned the continent.
We don’t like to use the word genocide because it automatically calls to mind the Holocaust in the 1930s. The word finds its origin in the Holocaust, after all. Who wants to make an implicit comparison between Andrew Jackson and Himmler, or Hitler? The concept first applied to the Nazi campaign against Europe’s Jews, so today Turks, Americans, and others who have engaged in similar behavior certainly do not want the same accusation to touch their ancestors’ actions. The actions stand, however, no matter what word you use to describe them. The need to remember these campaigns against human life also stands, no matter what word we use to characterize them.