The first time I heard the term “ethnic cleansing” was in the early 1990s, in one of those so-called driveway moments that National Public Radio boasts about during their fundraisers. A correspondent told the story of a promising young basketball player taken into custody during the worst of the killing in the former Yugoslavia. The young man swapped sports talk with his captors (all shared a love for the game), and was then led away, never to be heard from again.
As I sat there in my driveway listening, tears trickling into my beard, the car still running and my own clothes still sweaty from a recent pickup basketball game, a sense of that war came home for the first time. Fifteen years later, it still lingers.
Today, that killing is largely forgotten in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq debacle; the Balkan states promote themselves as bargain travel destinations for tourists who can’t afford western Europe. But the term that war spawned remains with us. News accounts from Iraq and Darfur often use “cleansing” to describe the killing of people guilty of nothing except belonging to a different ethnic or religious group. It has even become an awkward verb—“to ethnically cleanse.”
In the process, something subtly awful has happened: the quotation marks have disappeared from around the words.
What gave the term its power in the 1990s was the horror it conveyed. Ethnic nationalists in the Balkans had adopted it as a handy way to avoid talking directly about the atrocities they committed. It was a phrase seemingly straight out of George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” where he wrote about terms like “transfer of population” or “rectification of frontiers” being used to disguise mass atrocities.
No one was fooled. Writers for our news media, all having read their Orwell in college, picked up on the irony immediately and put the term out in the open, for all to see. At the time, it became a kind of ironic emblem for the internecine slaughter, its power to evoke horror a tribute to the immediacy of great journalism.
What has happened since, though, is pure journalistic laziness. Subsequent ethnic purges have typically been labeled “ethnic cleansing” too, only without the quotation marks, and with the sense of shock and irony stripped away.
Recently, discussing Orwell’s essay with a class of college freshmen, students too young to remember the Bosnian war, I discovered that they all knew the term, but not where it came from. They took it at face value, as if it were a mere synonym for ethnic warfare. In Iraq, they told me, the Shi’ia were trying to “clean” the Sunni out of certain neighborhoods. They said this without any sense of irony. They’re good kids, not amoral monsters—I blame careless journalism for their mistake. What’s happening today isn’t an ethnic cleansing, it’s an ethnic purge, or an ethnic killing. A good journalist should be able to describe it concretely, not in shorthand.
What’s happening in Iraq and Darfur today deserves a plain description. Better yet, it deserves a name that evokes its own particular horror, not a mere label of journalistic convenience. Just as we wouldn’t refer to what’s happening in Iraq as a “final solution,” out of respect for the particular horror of the Holocaust, “ethnic cleansing” shouldn’t be a synonym for all future ethnic purges. It belongs to the history books now, and the particular horror that swept over the Balkan states after the collapse of Yugoslavia—if only out of respect for the unmarked graves there.