The context in which I raise this issue is provided by a piece in the Wall Street Journal by David Feith, reporting on a discussion currently taking place inside Human Rights Watch on Iran's calls for the destruction of Israel. If Feith's report is accurate, HRW director Kenneth Roth opposes the view of others in the organization that Iran should be denounced by HRW for inciting genocide:
Asked in 2010 about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement that Israel "must be wiped off the map," Mr. Roth suggested that the Iranian president has been misunderstood. "There was a real question as to whether he actually said that," Mr. Roth told The New Republic, because the Persian language lacks an idiom for wiping off the map. Then again, Mr. Ahmadinejad's own English-language website translated his words that way, and the main alternative translation - "eliminated from the pages of history" - is no more benign. Nor is Mr. Ahmadinejad an outlier in the regime. Iran's top military officer declared earlier this year that "the Iranian nation is standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel."
Mr. Roth's main claim is legalistic: Iran's rhetoric doesn't qualify as "incitement" - which is illegal under the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 - but amounts merely to "advocacy," which is legal.
"The theory" to which Human Rights Watch subscribes, he has written in internal emails, "is that in the case of advocacy, however hateful, there is time to dissuade - to rebut speech with speech - whereas in the case of incitement, the action being urged is so imminently connected to the speech in question that there is no time to dissuade. Incitement must be suppressed because it is tantamount to action."
Mr. Roth added in another email: "Many of [Iran's] statements are certainly reprehensible, but they are not incitement to genocide. No one has acted on them."
Drawing as it does on internal emails, I don't know how far this account can be taken as fairly representing the thinking of Kenneth Roth, but in any case two things interest me about it.
(a) A common get-out clause concerning these Iranian threats is that they concern only the form of state now existing in Israel-Palestine, a desire to see the ending of the 'Zionist regime' or some such; and they are therefore not as menacing towards the people of Israel as they may look and sound. Leave aside that abolition of the state of Israel against the wishes of its people would be a serious enough matter in itself, violating their right to self-determination; but it is interesting that Roth, according to the above, doesn't avail himself of this get-out clause. Iranian calls for the end of Israel are not, for him, incitement, they are merely advocacy, but he doesn't downplay the seriousness of what it is they advocate.
(b) In explaining why these calls aren't incitement, Roth says that for words to count as incitement the action being urged must be 'imminently connected to the speech' that urges it. I wonder if, in saying this, he had in mind the following well-known passage from Mill's On Liberty:
[E]ven opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.
Whether or not Roth did have the passage in mind, his emails as quoted contain a critical ambiguity. For he says both that speech and action must be very closely connected, which is one thing; and that Iran's statements aren't incitement to genocide, and then directly 'No one has acted on them' - which is quite another. For, if the logical implication here were to be accepted as a valid one, there could be no such thing as an intention to incite that failed of its purpose, no incitement that was ineffective. This would in turn mean that only actions that had actually taken place could have been incited. These logical consequences are bizarre departures from the word's standard meaning, in which to 'incite' another to some action is a distinct activity in itself, not dependent for its existence on being successful.