Research News

Fitting monstrous crimes into a legal framework

Categorizing crimes is a necessary step in the legal process. When it comes to crimes as heinous as genocide, that codifying can be uncomfortable, like reducing a pile of dead bodies into solely a sanitation issue.

“In the non-legal context, genocide has come to be thought of as the epitome of ’evil,’” writes Vanderbilt philosopher Larry May in his new book, Genocide . “Some authors have argued that we should regard genocide as merely a plain fact that should not be further investigated lest we risk that our explanations and conceptual inquiries will be mistakenly seen as forgiveness for the horror of what genocide is.”

In Genocide , published by Cambridge University Press, May forgoes that approach and forges ahead, proposing a road to categorize what is and isn’t genocide so the legal system can better deal with the issue. The book is the last of four May has written on the intricacies of the legal system and genocide.

In Genocide , May takes on tricky issues such as how any single person can be prosecuted for genocide, a crime that is by nature collective. He considers the distinctions between killing many people and destroying a targeted group of people and ruminates on whether criminal trials are the best method for achieving reconciliation and the return to the rule of law.

“Reconciliation is hard to achieve in war-ravaged States because it is often not clear what the sides to be reconciled are, and also not clear what some of those offenders of each side did wrong,” May writes. “Especially in genocide, there is often widespread complicity, and even the victims’ family members may be involved in the atrocity. … Robust political reconciliation is about learning the ways that many members of a society participate in an injustice, and how they can come to live together harmoniously by being motivated to act to prevent further atrocities by not being bystanders.”

May, W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy and professor of law at Vanderbilt University, is the author of nine books. They include Crimes Against Humanity: A Normative Account, War Crimes and Just War and Aggression and Crimes Against Peace.

Requests for review copies of Genocide may be directed to .

Media contact: Jim Patterson