I think we can all agree that the reality that the term “genocide” is meant to represent — the systematic destruction of a race or ethnic group — is a horrible crime. Everyone is obviously against “genocide,” and that is precisely what makes it such a potent tool in legitimating war. Virtually any war could be presented as genocide, because the point of war is to use violence against an enemy group until they either submit or are destroyed.
Civilian deaths can’t serve as the criterion, because contemporary military techniques make civilian deaths inevitable. Even worse, it is difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians outside the highly idealized context of two recognized nation-states facing off using only uniformed troops.
The difference, in both cases, is intention. They want to kill for the sheer sake of killing, while we do so with deep regret. They hope to kill the maximum number of civilians, while we regard it as tragically unavoidable “collateral damage.”
The parallels with the use of “terrorism” are striking. Again, we can surely all agree that the reality that the term “terrorism” is meant to represent — random violence for the purposes of terrorizing the population at large — is a horrible crime. But here again, it seems that war in general is terrorism by this definition. As is well known, in the ultimate “Just War” (World War II), the US purposely targetted civilians (including with nuclear weapons!), not for purely strategic reasons, but precisely to break the spirit of the population as a whole. How can we distinguish those campaigns, or subsequent ones like the carpet-bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia or “Shock and Awe,” from terrorism?
Again, the difference is intention. Terrorists kill out of motiveless malignancy, while we have a good reason. In other words, they’re evil, while we’re good — hence whatever they do is definitionally evil, and whatever we do is definitionally good.
For the purposes of political discussion, then, I propose that we redefine both terms. Genocide is a term for acts of violence by a state or state-like actor that is not allied with the West. Terrorism is a term for acts of violence by a non-state entity that is not allied with the West. In this respect, both belong to the legacy of Cold War political moralism — where “totalitarianism” designates political systems other than liberal democracy in countries not allied with the West, for instance, or “human rights violations” are, for all practical purposes, definitionally only committed by countries not allied with the West.
It’s like Schmitt says — a claim to transcend politics, as in the postwar attempt to translate politics and war into the sphere of morality, is one of the most aggressive possible political moves.