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Filler: Genocide is worse than territorial war

An image made available by the jihadist Twitter

An image made available by the jihadist Twitter account Al-Baraka news on June 9, 2014, allegedly shows Islamic State militants waving a jihadist flag as vehicles drive on a newly cut road through the Syrian-Iraqi border between the Iraqi Nineveh province and the Syrian town of Al-Hasakah. Credit: Getty Images

Is it odd that many of us look at killing for land or power so differently from killing out of hate?

The reality is that the people who control land control it because they took it, by force of arms or politics. That's why the American Indians no longer run North America. That's why the Jews have Israel. And that's why specific powers-that-be control the nations they run in Europe and Asia and South America and everywhere else.

They have it because they took it, and are able to hold it.

Before last week, as the forces of the Islamic State were killing people in Iraq and Syria to capture land, President Barack Obama made a judgment that was the political equivalent of an eloquent shrug. I have the feeling that the Iraqi political and military forces we trained and armed and spent trillions of dollars on for a decade should be able to hold on to the place. If they can't fend off motivated but not very numerous fighters, then they don't get to keep it, and propping them up (again), training them (again) and equipping them (again) don't make sense.

We know we could take and keep Iraq, but most Americans don't want it. If our chosen proxies can't hold on to it, whatevers. We tried.

But then came the plight of the Yazidi, a minority living mostly in Iraq whose religion combines Islam, Sufism, Christianity and a bunch of other belief systems. Killing Yazidis is not a new thing in the Middle East; they've been derided and attacked as devil worshippers for hundreds of years. But when the Islamic State group went after 40,000 of them this time, trapping them on a mountain, it did so after having already attracted the world's attention. This is notable because I have not found, among my learned colleagues or well-read friends or even the boys at the barbershop, a single person who ever heard of the Yazidis before these events. The Islamic State fighters, when dealing with non-Muslims, often demand they convert or be killed. They have done so with Christians, and now with Yazidis. According to media reports, at least 500 Yazidis have been killed. And now the United States has swooped in with bombs and humanitarian aid.

Looking back through history, it seems villainy is evaluated based on intent, rather than effect. I have no idea how many people died thanks to Alexander the Great's bloody quest for territory, or Napoleon's, or Genghis Khan's. It just doesn't come up in mainstream conversation. They were after land, and they did what they had to do. It's not admirable, but neither is it usually considered outright evil.

For villains, most of us look to people like Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge killed more than 1.7 million people in Cambodia in the 1970s, and to Adolf Hitler and the 11 million killed in his concentration camps, including 6 million Jews. Hitler started a war of conquest that killed at least 60 million people, but it's the ones he killed out of spite that make him a world champion villain.

It seems like this should be the part of the column where I assert that it's dumb to care more about folks killed for hatred than folks killed for land, but I don't feel that way. I get, and support, the distinction.

Fighting over land, or wealth, is intrinsic to the human experience. It may be unnecessary and brutal, but it is not pointless. It at least embodies the attempt to find prosperity and security for one's people and children. It may be horrid, but at least it's in the service of a goal.

But killing people out of racial or ethnic or religious hatred? That's disgusting. The United States can't step in every time there's a war in this world, and it shouldn't. Most of those conflicts are about territory and power, and they're between the combatants.

But we can step in against every genocide, and we should.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.