The Islamic State (ISIS), the European Parliament declared on February 4, “is committing genocide.” In its statement, the parliament noted ISIS’ harsh treatment of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities, and it urged the UN Security Council to investigate the atrocities. Pope Francis, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, over 200 members of Congress, and several presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, have likewise described ISIS’ violence against minorities as genocidal.
The Obama administration, however, has gone no further than noting, as Secretary of State John Kerry did on February 24, “revulsion” about the treatment of Christians and other minorities and asking “for further evaluation.” The administration’s reluctance to use the genocide label has sparked criticism from those who believe that the degree of ISIS’ atrocities is clear. U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R.-Neb.) has argued that “When you are being persecuted simply because of what you believe, when you are systematically targeted for extrication, there’s no reason to continue to discuss this. That is genocide.” The Knights of Columbus Catholic organization and In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit human rights group, have also launched a national media campaign with ads that say “the State Department still hasn’t labeled this extermination what it is. It’s time for action.”
This isn’t the first time the United States has faced criticism for its response to genocide—defined as the systematic destruction of ethnic, racial, national, or religious groups—from pundits, journalists, historians, political scientists, and advocacy organizations. In fact, over the decades, the United States has developed quite a reputation for failing to promptly recognize and do something about such killings, from the Armenian Genocide of 1915 to the Holocaust to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. But in two cases—the Holocaust and Bosnia—the United States did turn initial equivocation into decisive action.
In both cases, U.S. policy underwent substantial change, from limited responses to focused policies that saved lives. Although the policy