Democide: Death By Government

Democide in Cambodia

The public perception of anyone daring to question government authority is not a flattering one. Images of gun-totting militiamen and black-clad mobs have been seeded in the public consciousness to associate anarchism with violence and chaos. The good guys, our elected representatives and their armed forces, are all that stand between these fringe lunatics and peace and prosperity. In reality, anarchism and voluntaryism are founded on the non-aggression principle while the state is responsible for incomprehensible magnitudes of death. So much killing occurs at the hands of the state that there is a word for it: democide.

Strangely, this is a word unfamiliar to many. Despite having any number of ways to categorize death, this term does not carry the same weight as the likes of genocide and suicide despite claiming hundreds of millions of lives. By examining this word and it’s definition it can be established that the state, in all it’s shapes and sizes, is a killing machine and by reducing and ultimately eliminating it, humanity can look forward to a more peaceful existence.

What is Democide?

The term democide was entered into the public lexicon by Rudolph Joseph Rummel, a political scientist who’s body of work focused on war and violence. In his book Death by Government he defined democide as:

The intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command.

Government action itself is defined as action by any government official or an act that receives approval, aid, or acceptance from the government. These actions fall into two camps: they are designed to kill or cause death directly (e.g. massacres, forced labor, quota systems) or intentionally reckless acts that kill by proxy (e.g. concentration camps, scientific experimentation, manmade famine). Acts excluded from this definition are executions for what would internationally be considered a capital crime such as rape or murder, the killing of armed civilians during a riot or mob, or the death of noncombatants killed during attacks on military targets.

Other forms of state sanctioned killing such as genocide, politicide, mass murder, and terrorism all fall under the umbrella of democide. Examples of these respective categories include the Khmer Rouge killing of ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, and, Cham among others; the Lockerbie bombing; massacres in Yugoslavia carried out by the Third Reich, and death squads in Central America.

Democide in Numbers

As long as there has been government there has been mass murder at the hands of the state. In Biblical times the Israelites wiped out nearly the entire population of Canaan; Genghis Khan’s Mongol armies murdered men, women, and children by the millions as they swept through Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries; massacres of Native Americas were a hallmark of western expansion in the United States and Canada. All in all, Rummel estimates that just over 133 million poor souls have been the victim of democide leading up to the twentieth century.

The state did not slow down when the new century began. In just one hundred years democide would claim another 262 million people according to Rummel’s calculations. The bulk of these deaths cam at the hands of Communist governments. The Soviet Union death toll alone reached 62 million. In Death by Government Rummel originally estimated that in China another 35 million lives were claimed but in 2005 he would revise this figure to 73 million to take the Great Famine into account. In The Blue Book of Freedom (2007) he claimed the final body count of the 20th century to be over 400 million.

The communist governments in Yugoslavia, Cambodia, North Korea, Vietnam, and Ethiopia all made contributions to the tally as well but it wasn’t just communists who were doing the killing. The Nazis added another 20 million dead under their national socialist policies. Elsewhere during World War II, the Japanese armies and secret police took to killing unarmed people “seemingly as a matter of tactics, expedience, convenience, revenge, recreation, and an utterly amoral disregard for human life and suffering” according to Rummel. During the bloody Mexican Revolution, political affiliation didn’t seem to matter as death reigned down from all those jockeying for power. There is no definite way to calculate all of the death and destruction of the 20th century but even the most conservative estimates put the number in the tens of millions.

An Incomplete Definition

Rummel’s definition is excellent in so much as it shows that death by government extends far beyond war-time death but it is still unsatisfying as war itself would hardly, if ever, occur if it weren’t for the government’s existence in the first place. Would ordinary Germans have carried out the atrocities of World War II were it not for the Nazis stoking the flames? Would Americans have crossed the Pacific to murder Vietnamese people if the Department of Defense hadn’t fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident? Whether it’s voluntary conscription or a draft that sends men and women into war the government is just as responsible for wartime deaths as any others.

Rummel relies heavily on international agreements and treaties such as the Geneva Convention when he defines democide and what is considered a wartime casualty. He gives some examples of those deaths that would be exempt from democide:

Thus, the death of civilians during the bombing of munitions plants in World War II is not democide. Nor is the death of civilians when through navigation or bombing errors, or the malfunction of equipment, bombs land on a school or hospital, unless it is clear that the bombing was carried out recklessly in spite of a high risk to such civilian buildings. Nor is the death of civilians in a bombed village beneath which has been built enemy bunkers. Nor is the death of civilians caught in a cross fire between enemy soldiers, or those civilians killed while willingly helping troops haul supplies or weapons. 

While it’s understandable that a line needs to be drawn at some point to create a definition of democide, this approach is problematic for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it gives the state too much power in defining what constitutes a wartime casualty. Drone strikes have been a controversial hallmark of U.S. foreign policy since the Bush. Under the Obama administration the definition of an enemy combatant changed to include all military-aged males in a strike zone which allowed them to artificially minimize the amount of civilians killed during the strikes. Accordingly, these innocent victims would not be included under Rummel’s definition of democide.

Similarly, who gets the final say on what is reckless? In August 2016, Saudi Arabia bombed a hospital in Yemen being run by Doctors Without Borders which left between seven and 19 people dead depending on who’s version of the story is believed. The organization issued a summary of events including details about how the hospital was clearly marked and GPS coordinated shared with the United Nations in order to avoid such an incident. A Saudi-led investigation which greatly contradicted the account concluded that the airstrike was a “mistake.” While this event would be considered democide given the context of the war in Yemen the line might be much more blurred in other case.

The scope of death at the hands of the state beyond wartime is also lacking. For example, the state plays a massive role in the health of it’s citizens and the well-being of the environment and often fails in doing what is best or right, leading to unnecessary death. The Flint water crisis left at least a dozen people dead and adversely affected fertility rates thanks to the state’s failure to act on information it had pertaining to the toxic drinking water in the area. In January, 25 Australians died in the annual wildfires that were made worse by years of government mismanagement. This year it is likely that America will see a rise in suicides and overdoses linked to the state-instituted collapse of the economy and social fabric of the country under the guise of a pandemic. At what point does the state own this loss of life?

This isn’t to take away from Rummel’s meticulous research and statistical analysis. The scope could surely be expanded to incorporate more facets of government maleficence but by diving into the numbers we have seen that the state’s body count is almost beyond comprehension as it is.

Eliminating Democide

Rummel’s ultimate conclusion is that since power kills, freedom is the solution. Specifically he advocated for democratic societies as a countermeasure to the authoritarian and communist regimes that had done the bulk of the killing in the 20th century since they rarely went to war against one another and were more prone to prosperity. He defined democratic practices as “the restraint on power by the participation of middle and lower classes in the determination of power holders and policy-making.” These practices don’t align the so-called democratic republics of Congo, China, or North Korea but one could argue this definition does fit the bill for much of Europe for example.

This is certainly a step in the right direction but a simple change in ideology doesn’t do away with democide. Democracies still impose embargos, sanctions, and blockades which lead to needless death. A coalition of democratic governments have killed hundreds of thousands and made refugees of millions more in the Middle East in the 21st century. Intelligence services continue to arm, fund, and train terrorists across the world. In 2020 almost every government imposed deadly, tyrannical measures against their citizens that Stalin, Genghis Khan, and Hitler could have only dreamed of.

It is not enough to allow authoritarian powers to rebrand themselves as democratic states with liberal values, the process of shrinking the state and ultimately eliminating it entirely must continue. This isn’t meant to be an exercise in semantics whereby democide ceases to exist by definition while other forms of murder take its place. There is no way to guarantee that murder and violence disappears from the human experience but by moving towards a voluntary society there is simply no way for the amount of death and destruction to exist at the levels seen in previous centuries. This requires a foundational shift in thinking which applies the non-aggression principle universally. In such a world murder, directly or indirectly, based on any ideology and carried out by anyone, is always wrong.

This doesn’t imply that humanity will finally achieve utopia as human nature will always be imperfect. Tragedy, evil, and misfortune may remain as part of the human experience but the hallmarks of state-sanctioned murder will all become relics of a bygone era.

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