"Clean words can mask dirty deeds," wrote William Safire in a 1993 column on the term "ethnic cleansing." One year earlier, "ethnic cleansing" had entered the dictionary as "the expulsion, imprisonment, or killing of ethnic minorities by a dominant majority group." Due to its roots in the violence in the former Yugoslavia, the "killing" portion of the definition has overwhelmed the "expulsion" part, while the sense of mass imprisonment never seemed to materialize.

So when Tony Campolo told reporters earlier this month that "evangelical Zionists" favor "ethnic cleansing" of the Palestinians from Israel, the dictionary may have given him meager support, but he was using a loaded term.

"Some evangelicals have gotten caught up in the theology that before Christ can return, the Holy Land must belong to the Jews," Campolo told the Birmingham News on June 7. "They're really advocating ethnic cleansing. … It's the extremist view that favors taking more and more land away from the Palestinians."

Campolo has been out of the country and unavailable for comment. But his remarks to the News suggest he was using the "expulsion" sense of "ethnic cleansing" and not accusing evangelicals of advocating the mass murder of Palestinians. What he meant was probably closer to the phrase "ethnic purity," which got Jimmy Carter in trouble during the 1976 Democratic primaries. When asked about federally funded public housing projects in historically Polish and Italian neighborhoods, Carter said such neighborhoods should be able to "maintain their ethnic purity." (Carter had to apologize, but President Gerald Ford got it right when asked about the controversy: "Ethnic heritage is a great treasure," he said. "Heritage" is to be celebrated; "purity" is racist.)

As with Carter's comments, Campolo's accusation was really about real estate racism—one group's desire to be geographically separate from another group. The problem with "ethnic cleansing" is the phrase's ominous overtones that imply expulsion is being achieved or at least attempted by mass murder, as it was in the former Yugoslavia.

Those overtones did not just start reverberating in the early 1990s. The Nazis used the word "cleansing" to describe their initial campaigns to purge Jews from German towns in the 1930s, though they eventually used Endlosung to describe the concentration camps. Endlosung was translated into English as "final solution"—a bureaucratic euphemism that evokes shudders for its grim sense of efficiency. Today, "ethnic cleansing" almost sounds like "final solution" as a sanitized code word for chilling deeds. It's almost scarier to not say "murder" when you mean "murder."

Article continues below

The Nazis left other marks on our vocabulary for mass murder. Before the word Holocaust (Greek for "burnt whole") was first applied to the concentration camps in the mid-1960s, U.S. war advisor Raphael Lemkin published a book in 1944 that introduced the term "genocide," which he constructed from the Greek "genos" (race) and the Latin "cide" (kill), defining it as "the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group" (a recent variant is "democide"). In 1948, the United Nations convened a Convention for the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Why get so technical with words that all essentially mean mass murder? Isn't the act horrific enough without haggling over what to call it? The first answer is that language is how we make sense of senselessness. Attaching a term to something awful is a way of absorbing what happened.

The language of mass murder is also how we determine what level of moral wrongdoing has been reached, and thus what action to take against the perpetrators. A "massacre" usually means the murder of a (typically unarmed) group of people, usually in the same location at the same time. "Atrocities" is an all-purpose word for a one-sided campaign of rape, maiming and murder. "Ethnic cleansing" suggests a sustained and premeditated purging campaign by one group to get another group out of its hair, using murder as a way to do it. "Genocide" is when one group wants another not just out of the country, but off the face of the earth. "Holocaust" is when "genocide" kills millions. But start calling every massacre a "holocaust," and it starts to diminish the unique awfulness of the Nazis.

While it's hard to say why certain words take on different meanings and moral distinctions, the United Nations takes the distinctions very seriously, as Secretary of State Colin Powell knows. In an interview with the New York Times on June 11, Powell attempted to express the U.S. government's growing disapproval over the murder of thousands of people in the Darfur region of Sudan by apparently state-sponsored Arab militias.

"Mr. Powell steered clear of the term genocide in describing the events in Darfur but said that administration lawyers had begun a review to determine whether the conditions for genocide have been met," the Times reported, noting that the Bush administration has only used the term "ethnic cleansing" to describe the situation so far (while the recent G8 summit settled on the wishy-washy "massive human rights violations" for the situation in Sudan). "Such a determination would increase the pressure on the United States, a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to more actively intervene in the region."

Article continues below

The political weight of the term "genocide" has grown since Samantha Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her book about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. The book recounts the Clinton administration's reluctance to use "genocide" to describe what was happening in Rwanda (and its resulting failure to intervene), a reluctance for which Clinton has apologized since leaving office. Today, saying "genocide" amounts to a warning that another Rwanda is taking place.

The Bush administration doesn't want to play the "genocide" card too quickly, the Times said, fearing it could "overstate the case" and cause "diplomatic fallout" with the recently cooperative Sudanese government. Powell said he appreciates the technicalities but warned that definition should not dominate the discussion.

"I'm not prepared to say what is the correct legal term for what's happening," Powell told the Times. "All I know is that there are at least a million people who are desperately in need, and many of them will die if we can't get the international community mobilized. … And it won't make a whole lot of difference after the fact what you've called it."

Nathan Bierma, editorial assistant for Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture, writes the "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

Related Elsewhere:

Bierma also writes the Content & Context weblog for Books & Culture.

The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, California, noted another incident of Campolo using the term "ethnic cleansing" to describe the Palestinians' plight.

NPR's All Things Considered also discussed the linguistic considerations of the White House in discussing Darfur.

If the residents of Darfur "aren't victims of genocide," says New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, "then the word has no meaning."