Re: Mass-killings (was Re: Hypocrites!)

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Sun, 14 Sep 1997 13:32:28 -0500

Yes, I've heard it argued that the Holocaust was merely one in a long string
of genocides. There have been a long string of genocides. This is true. But
the Holocaust stands apart even from them. 11 million people die every couple
of months, simply from normal death rates. It's not that Holocaust victims
were killed, it's that they were tortured to death.

Are the survivors of Chad, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ceylon,
Birma as scarred mentally as the survivors of the Holocaust were? Some
Holocaust survivors still sleep with a loaf of bread at night.

The Nazis took genocide to a new level, not in numbers, but in cold-blooded cruelty.

I wouldn't argue with anyone who called Chad, Cambodia, or a crack ghetto a
"continuing Holocaust". Far from mocking the dead, this would prevent similar
tragedies. Nor would I argue if someone wanted to add a fourth floor to the
Holocaust exhibition, documenting ongoing genocides around the world.

But, as human history demonstrates, genocide was once as fashionable as
theories of racial superiority. If not for the Holocaust, we might today
cheerfully dismiss Chad and Cambodia as the extinction of vermin. By
associating something not instinctively abhorrent, genocide, with something
that is instinctively abhorrent, torture, the Holocaust made genocide as
unfashionable as theories of racial superiority.

For all I know, in ultimate ethical terms, the 6000 people who die each hour
far outweigh any suffering in the Holocaust; for all I know, a single death
outweighs all the suffering that occurred to all survivors. But, speaking as a
human, we are simply not sensitive to the deaths of people we don't know. It
provokes no instinctive reaction in us. Suffering, on the other hand,
provokes compassion and anger. And the Nazis systematically inflicted the
greatest density of suffering ever seen in human history. The Holocaust
surpasses our capabilities of compassion and anger. Perhaps any genocide
should. But we cannot grasp a genocide directly; we can only read reports of
it. The Holocaust stands alone in that even the reports and the pictures are
enough to overload our responses.

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.