The U.S. doesn't have a very good track record when it comes to preventing genocide.
In 1994, while Rwanda's Tutsi were being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands in one of the bloodiest three months in human history, then-President Bill Clinton's administration was under pressure to apply the dreaded G-word to the situation.
"How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?" Reuters correspondent Alan Elsner asked in an infamous exchange with then-State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelley.
"Alan," Shelley responded, "that’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer."
Shelley's answer seemed heartless, callous and tone deaf. Here was an American official, dodging a question about semantics from an air conditioned office in Washington, while 7,200 miles away Rwandans were getting hacked to death with machetes in their own homes and churches.
Samantha Power -- who is now the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in President Barack Obama's administration -- put the Clinton administration's reluctance to use the word "genocide" into context with her 2002 book "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide."
“Be careful," a Pentagon official warned the White House at the time. According to Power's book, "… genocide finding could commit [the government] to actually do something."
And that sums up exactly why Obama has been so reluctant to put the genocide label on the Islamic State's systematic murder of Christians and religious minorities like the Kurdish Yazidi.
Certainly, it's not for lack of clarity about what genocide entails. The Geneva Convention defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnical, racial, religious or national group.”
The Islamic State's campaign -- and its stated goal of wiping out nonbelievers and establishing a worldwide caliphate -- seems to meet the criteria. But Obama and his advisors know that the instant they use the word genocide, there's no going back. They will be legally bound to intervene, and that could mean going beyond the limited air campaign the U.S. has carried out against the terrorist group.
Estimating how many people ISIS has killed is notoriously difficult. Millions of people have been displaced, and there have been innumerable reports of ISIS-inflicted barbarity on religious minorities -- from beheadings to crucifixions, to people starving to death in mountain hold-outs while under siege from ISIS forces.
Some organizations -- like the Institute for Economics and Peace's "Global Terrorism Index" -- attempt to quantify the human cost, blaming ISIS for more than 30,000 deaths in 2015 alone. But as Mother Jones notes, the chaos in countries like Syria and Iraq -- and the inherent danger in documenting it -- makes it impossible to compile accurate figures. Some experts told the magazine that the known deaths account for only a fraction of the actual number.
"My gut instinct is, we don't know," Megan Price of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group told Mother Jones. "I don't think those are knowable numbers."
Despite that, some groups are trying. On March 4, Yahoo News reported that the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, is getting ready to release “a comprehensive and encyclopedic” study of “the genocidal atrocities committed against Christians in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding area by ISIS and its affiliates."
The goal is to force the Obama administration to confront the slaughter head-on, and force the president's hand in labeling ISIS' campaign as genocide.
It's the right thing to do. For every day officials deliberate and consult with lawyers about the legal and military ramifications of using the G-word, more people are put to death, more women are raped, more children are whipped and stoned by barbarians who readily admit they want to wipe out other religions.
Let's hope Obama learns from the mistakes of the past, and doesn't put legal bickering above the lives of innocent people.