Book review: The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression

by A. Dirk Moses, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021, 598 pp.

On March 23, 2021—just over ten years from the day the UN Security Council authorized the United States and NATO intervention in Libya—the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on Samantha Power’s nomination to lead the US Agency for International Development. During the hearing, Rand Paul questioned Power on the Obama administration’s decision to use military force in Libya in 2011, a decision on which Power advised. Paul asked, “You’d acknowledge Libya is worse now than it was before we started bombing them?” In her response to this question, and the subsequent ones Paul asked in an effort to get a straight answer, Power invoked “mass atrocities,” “grave atrocities,” and “the slaughter that would ensue” if Benghazi fell, while understatedly  acknowledging that the “fallout in the wake of the intervention, the centrifugal forces, have been incredibly difficult to manage and, above all, hard on the Libyan people.” Despite a decade of post-intervention human rights violations, some of which no doubt constitute crimes against humanity, Power made sure to highlight that Libya now has “the opportunity to have elections at the end of this year.”

In The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression, A. Dirk Moses defines the language of transgression as that which “determines the upper threshold of mass criminality,” comprising the “matrix of words and concepts used to define and police that threshold” (Moses 2021: 28), and permanent security as a “deeply utopian and sinister imperative” that is “concerned not only with eliminating immediate threats but also with future threats,” and is governed by “a logic of prevention (future threats) as well as preemption (imminent threats)” (34-35). Moses further divides permanent security into two modalities: illiberal and liberal. Illiberal permanent security entails “preventive killing of presumed future threats to a particular ethnos, nation, or religion, in a bounded ‘territoriality’” with disregard for “international law and claims of universal morality” (Moses 2021: 37). In this modality, peoples, as a whole, are threats to permanent security. Meanwhile, liberal permanent security “envisions the world as the territory to be secured in the name of ‘humanity,’” often placing the “objects of condemnation beyond the realm of humanity, as ‘barbarians,’ ‘savages,’ and ‘enemies of humanity,’ to justify the permanent extension of their power to oppose and even eliminate them” (39-40).

Power’s testimony offers a textbook illustration of the language of transgression and liberal permanent security. As had been done by the US and NATO members in 2011 (UN Security Council 2011: 2-5), Power continues to employ the language of transgression—“atrocities” and “slaughter”—to legitimate actions taken that, as Moses writes, “unleashed far more violence than the Western intervention was designed to prevent” (Moses 2021: 491). Through the language of transgression, the US and NATO condemned Qaddafi’s illiberal permanent security, initiating oppositional discourses that led to liberal permanent security. Qaddafi and Libya’s security forces were to the US and NATO what the people of Benghazi were to Qaddafi and Libya’s security forces. For evidence of this claim, one need look no further than Hillary Clinton’s response to the news that Qaddafi had been summarily executed: “We came, we saw, he died!”

Moses’ critique of liberal permanent security is not limited to liberal interventionism. He also shows how permanent war, exemplified by the emergence of use of drones, and “the legal killing of civilians in the name of humanity,” are key elements of liberal permanent security (440). When combined with Moses’ deconstruction of what might now be appropriately referred to as the “Lemkinian Myth,” The Problems of Genocide smashes the hierarchy of state violence and its associated hierarchy of civilian suffering. He does so not simply by asking why comparable violence that does not involve the elusive-to-prove genocidal intent has been deemed less criminal and reprehensible than that which does. Rather, through a massive historical and analytical undertaking, Moses shows how differentiation of violence and suffering is the result of multiple processes, some with deep historical roots and others that can be traced back to Raphael Lemkin himself, the individual who coined the term ‘genocide,’ and the post-World War II development of international law.

With Moses’ concept of permanent security, conceptual stretching is unnecessary.

Though Moses’ contributions to various literatures and fields of study are many, I wish to further spotlight the significant impact of Moses’ book on genocide studies and security studies. Beginning with the former, Moses attends to the process by which the ideas and concepts that preceded Lemkin’s own concept of genocide were depoliticized by Lemkin. Moses shows how Lemkin consciously disconnected violence perpetrated against members of groups from the objective of the violence—the achievement of permanent security. In doing so, Moses not only raises doubts about the originality of Lemkin’s contributions to the development of international law, but also highlights the way the codification of Lemkin’s concept of genocide-as-nonpolitical-hate crime has contributed to a hierarchy of international crimes, with genocide firmly at the top as the “crime of crimes.”

Moving to Moses’ impact on security studies, the hierarchy of international crimes inevitably produces a parallel hierarchy of civilian suffering in which victims of genocide are valued more than victims of crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as, and especially, victims of permanent war who are euphemistically labeled “collateral damage.” Moses asserts, “What is the experiential difference between a victim of genocide and a victim of collateral damage? Both are innocent” (43). Indeed, Moses implores us to reevaluate international law to promote civilian protection by making permanent security a crime in order to “discourage states from exceeding legitimate security concerns: so they do not engage in civilian destruction, try to impose ethnic or religious homogeneity on diverse populations, or attempt to dominate regions, indeed the world, with the attendant extreme violence” (511). Put differently, at a time when it is common to claim the existence of internal and external “enemies,” or the need to use violence to apprehend violence elsewhere, permanent security must not be permitted to supersede actual human security.

Moses’ book came at the right time for me, as I imagine will prove to be the case for others. Without being consciously aware of it, I had been standing at a precipice for some time. Through my analysis of the US relationship with genocide, I have argued that the US conspired to commit genocide in Indonesia, committed genocide in Vietnam, and is complicit in genocide in Yemen. In each of these cases, I do not question my analysis of the role of the US in the perpetration of violence, whether that be material, logistical, and/or political support in Indonesia and Yemen, or its direct responsibility for violence in Vietnam. Rather, Moses has pushed me to contemplate whether I have subconsciously sought to conceptually stretch the meaning of genocide for the purpose of underscoring the incredible human suffering for which the US is responsible. As Moses rightly points out, “Attempts to stretch the concept of genocide to other modes of permanent security have so far met with limited success despite the efforts of younger Genocide Studies scholars who followed in [Mark] Levene’s footsteps” (461). With Moses’ concept of permanent security, conceptual stretching is unnecessary. Indeed, permanent security captures the violence described above, while also making essential connections between them and other violent acts such as those in Libya, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

As I hope is evident in the above, The Problems of Genocide is about so much more than the problems of genocide (studies). Moses’ book ought to be a source of rupture and, therefore, a paradigm shifter in genocide studies, security studies, and international law. It replaces a hierarchy of international crimes with a new non-hierarchical approach that places civilian protection against all manifestations of state violence at its center. In this regard, Moses’ book is admirable and necessary.


United Nations Security Council. 2011. “Provisional Record of the 6491st Meeting.”

Info Box

For more discussion, see Jeff Bachman’s interview with A. Dirk Moses through the New Books Network:

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