What would you do? Think again.
March 17, 2003 9:19 AM   Subscribe

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing : "To offer a psychological explanation for the atrocities committed by perpetrators is not to forgive, justify or condone their behavior. Instead, the explanation simply allows us to understand the conditions under which many of us could be transformed into killing machines." (James Waller) In a Salon interview about his widely acclaimed, pathbreaking book Waller states, "Most people don't understand how easy it is to develop us-them [mindsets]......In our climate of fear in response to terrorism, I think we could pretty easily turn on people who have been our neighbors."
posted by troutfishing (37 comments total)
Anyone in doubt of the concept needs to see the Milgram experiment. If you get a chance, watch the video - many university libraries have it on hand. Ordinary people were brought in to "shock" other ordinary people (actually actors) when they gave incorrect responses to questions. The "voltage" increased with each wrong answer, and the subjects were pushed to go into the "danger" setting of the shocker, despite the screams and pleas of the actors.
posted by whatzit at 9:32 AM on March 17, 2003

Related material, by war reporter Chris Hedges, was recently discussed in this Metafilter thread, but "Becoming Evil" (Oxford University Press, 2002) by James Waller is the first systematic, closely researched attempt by a trained academic (Waller is a noted Holocaust researcher) to understand the phenomenon by which average human beings can be transformed into "killing machines" who commit the most blasphemous of atrocities.
posted by troutfishing at 9:35 AM on March 17, 2003

The entire thesis seems based on the "us-them" mindset. When you lump a group of individuals together and call them "ordinary people", what does that say about your perspective?

I thought back to the various murderous situations in the 20th Century, historically, looking for generalizations, but can only find some similarities, which when examined all seem to exclude "ordinary people" in favor of a small vicious elite of the abnormal, or other exclusive factors.

(the "Young") Turks v. Armenians; Hutus v. Tutsis; indigenous people genocides; the General (as opposed to Waffen) SS; Bela Kuhn's "Caravan of Death"; the "Red Khmer"; the "Cultural Revolution"; Romania's Anna Paucker; the Spanish Civil War; Japanese WWII atrocities, Stalin's purges, etc.

So the problem becomes: Who are "ordinary people?"

Many of the people involved were far from "ordinary" before they became heinous, and even the definition of what they were doing has changed throughout the century.
posted by kablam at 9:53 AM on March 17, 2003

did you read the interview? he claims there were more perps than victims in many cases (groups killing a few at a time).

i was going to ask what in this was particularly new or surprising - i guess i should just sit back and watch comments here...
posted by andrew cooke at 10:01 AM on March 17, 2003

An earlier article of Waller’s, Perpetrators of Genocide: An Explanatory Model of Extraordinary Human Evil, spells out the “four ingredients that lead ordinary people to commit acts of extraordinary evil” mentioned in the press release. His theory does rely heavily on the us/them mindest, but there's more to it. Here’s a brief summary:

The first ingredient is universal human nature, with its three dangerous tendencies to xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and aggression in pursuit of power. The second ingredient is the personality of the ordinary person who commits the atrocities and how much it’s been influenced by three things: cultural ideology or propaganda; willingness to exclude the victim from the protection under a moral code; and ego investment in an organization supporting the atrocities. The third ingredient is defining the victims as the “other.” And the fourth is the power of three situational factors to influence thoughts, feelings and behaviors: the escalating process of brutalization in which perpetrators learn to kill (a gradual desensitization or habituation to atrocities); the binding factors of the group that shape our responses to authority (peer pressure and conformity, male ritual and camaraderie, diffusion of responsibility and a distinctive culture of cruelty); and the power differentials that exist between perpetrators and victims.
posted by win_k at 10:02 AM on March 17, 2003

That's "mindset."
Actually, kablam, my read is that Waller was trying to make a point that it is ordinary people who commit these extraordinarily horrible acts. andrew cooke's point about the numbers reinforces that--it's not just a lunatic fringe that commits atrocities.
posted by win_k at 10:12 AM on March 17, 2003

It doesn't surprise me at all to read that ordinary people could easily become genocidal maniacs after reading some of the hateful spewings posted in the comments here and on other message boards and after listening to the media, particularly knee jerk talk radio hosts starving to fill their airtime, whip people into a froth over silly little things like what the Dixie Chicks and Janeane Garafalo think about Bush. It's taken just a few short weeks for the U.S. to demonize France to the extent that ordering french fries will brand you a traitor.
posted by MegoSteve at 10:17 AM on March 17, 2003

great stuff. i remember reading "We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda" a few years back and listening to countless stories of neighbors, priests and friends turning on each other in a senseless rage. truly frightening.

"Considering the enormity of the task, it is tempting to play with theories of collective madness, mob mania, a fever of hatred erupted into a mass crime of passion, and to imagine the blind orgy of the mob, with each member killing one or two people. But at Nyarubuye, and at thousands of other sites in this tiny country, on the same days of a few months in 1994, hundreds of thousands of Hutus had worked as killers in regular shifts... What sustained them, beyond the frenzy of the first attack, through the plain physical exhaustion and mess of it?"
posted by poopy at 10:27 AM on March 17, 2003

Us vs. them mindset doesn't explain much. He forgot to write that most genocides go up the class heirarchy. The pattern: a crisis, then a sudden reversal of power where the proles rise up and exact revenge on their betters. Same pattern in Cambodia, Rwanda, Germany, Russia.
posted by dydecker at 10:29 AM on March 17, 2003

This is interesting reading and all, but I wonder how much it applies to the current state of the world. The real question is: What makes an "extraordinary" act of evil? I don't think many Americans would consider mass killing in Iraq an extraordinary act of evil.

Think about the Holocaust deniers. These are people who say that "only" a few hundred thousand Jews were killed through malnutrition and forced labor, rather than 6,000,000 through deliberate and systematic murder. As if their version of the story is less evil. I don't think many Americans are that extreme, to accept the death of any more than 10,000 captives on U.S. soil, but they are certainly willing to accept a few hundred thousand deaths of "non-captive foreigners"--combatants or not.

What I really want to know, and I hope I never find out, is if the callousness extends to other white people. I can't forgive it, but I can understand that Americans are willing to accept the killing of "dirt people." In their minds, they aren't human. The article pretty much says that, but it doesn't worry me that non-humans would be victims of genocide. I don't think that should surprise anyone, and it's why the question of "extraordinary evil" is so important.

It's hard to blame someone for killing human beings, when all they're really guilty of is misjudging the humanity of their victims. Racism hopefully will go away some day, but it's not nearly as scary as the murder of innocent people who are just like the perpetrator. If people start talking about killing the French, I am going to be scared. They look just like white Americans, and the worst they could be accused of is being weak--certainly not a good reason to kill someone.
posted by son_of_minya at 11:23 AM on March 17, 2003

dydecker - I'm not sure that your observation fits the wide range of atrocities discussed in Waller's book. It does not fit Guatemalan death squad killings and army led masacres, or US-Indian War massacres, for example.

One point: Waller's book challenges the claim - commonly held in the Holocaust studies field - that the perpetrators of atrocities have pathological (exceptional, non-normative, sociopathic) personality profiles. Waller makes the distinction that, while some of the individual architects of atrocity (Hitler, Eichmann, etc.) might be sociopathic, the many individuals, who actually carry out their genocidal plans are not, as a group, sociopathic at all. "They" are you and me.

This represents a major break in the field, for it takes the potential for evil away from the realm of the "other" and places it right back where it belongs - in human instinctual tendency and in the realm of individual decision making.
posted by troutfishing at 11:26 AM on March 17, 2003

Waller's other research is on racism. Ordinary people, who would never themselves pull the trigger, can contribute to creating an environment where the more extreme racists feel justified in commiting an atrocity. We now see how that "harmless" racist comment over the backyard fence, heard by no one but you and your neighbour, can ultimately lead to someone's death. We're working hard on correcting racist behaviour, with some success.

We need to work just as hard on correcting warmongering. That little white lie about Saddam having something to do with 9/11 is analogous to saying black youths swarmed a jogger in Central Park. In both cases, the liar can later justify the statement with "well, they are guilty of something!". We are being inundated with so many half-truths about Iraq right now by Bush&Co (admittedly, amongst many full-truths), that even people who would implicitly trust their government should be raising red flags.

We know from experience that racist views can be held by "ordinary people" like us - why do we think we are immune to commiting an atrocity in the form of a "just war"?

(I apologize for bringing Iraq into yet another thread, but I assume this article was not FPP'ed for a Kosovo/Rwanda/Armenia historical debate.)
posted by mediaddict at 11:46 AM on March 17, 2003

dydecker, part of Waller's explanation--that it's human nature to commit aggression in the pursuit of power--fits both the class struggles you mention & troutfishing's counter examples. Ah, using violence to solve (perceived) problems ... who can't get behind that?
posted by win_k at 11:50 AM on March 17, 2003

poopy: that is a nice heads-up on the gourevitch book. that is one of the best books i've ever read on this topic.

in my analysis, i am always extra-compelled by the notion of "the other". son_of_minya: let me be the first to predict that someone will misread your comment. but i think that you are making a mistake by seeing visible barriers such as skin color as the only effective "otherizer".

has anyone here read "among the thugs" by bill buford? it is about violence among british soccer hooligans. while obviously soccer fans are not committing genocide, i think that it provides a telling parallel. fans of different teams can feel real hatred for one another, and commit real acts of violence, and these are people that look exactly alike. you can make differences become bodily with the help of a hat or jersey (or a flag or religious garb or what have you).

i think that the role that of the manchester united jersey is more often played by skin color, or what kind of hat you think god wants you to wear, but the physicality of this otherness that people create is not singularly causal so much as a point around which all of the other factors and influences coalesce.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 11:52 AM on March 17, 2003

For additional insight I suggest Faces of the Enemy by Sam Keen. An excellent look at the ways in which people are turned into "the other" who can then reduced to less than human and then exterminated without guilt. The book is full of images of propaganda from many nations, all of which is designed to arouse fear and hatred against those a government has declared enemies.
posted by gordian knot at 11:54 AM on March 17, 2003

The book is full of images of propaganda from many nations, all of which is designed to arouse fear and hatred against those a government has declared enemies.

ah, propoganda. that is persistent theme in all modern acts of genocide, especially so in the case of "popular" genocides, carried out literally by the people and not a military force. rwanda, a nation that at the time of the massacres had ONE radio station provides the starkest example. dehumanizing people to such absurd extents takes a lot of time and purpose.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 12:05 PM on March 17, 2003

How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing

First step: dehumanize your "enemy." From a tribe in the Brazilian rain forest regarding their neighbors with whom they fight: "They are eaters of monkey meat and so are not human."

Seen any good "preparing for war" propaganda lately serving this function? Come on, 'fess up!
posted by nofundy at 12:06 PM on March 17, 2003


Waller's other research is on racism. Ordinary people, who would never themselves pull the trigger, can contribute to creating an environment where the more extreme racists feel justified in committing an atrocity.

That really is interesting. It's not new, but in this context and having a good impression of the author, that sparks my interest.

[This paragraph is a possible side-track and should please be ignored by everyone else.] The context you put it in makes me uneasy. "We now see..." "We're working hard on correcting..." I'm sure your motives are good, but I hope you're not thinking about thought crime legislation. I just feel uneasy about encouraging someone who may be up to no good.

One of the things that has really bothered me about this France-bashing is that I can't make fun of French people anymore. I feel dirty even thinking about it. It used to be, they were the one group you could make fun of. They were the "non-violent other." You could single them out as being responsible for something -- just like racists do -- and nobody would ever think you were a racist. All the pleasure, none of the guilt.

[Slightly sarcastic.] Now I'm just like, damn, even the French are up for grabs. Everybody hates everybody now. It is definitely not fun anymore. And reading Ignatius J. Reilly's comment, I'm thinking maybe Americans could kill the French. 1) They're Socialists. 2) They're not religious. 3) They're open to deviant sexual practices. Is it possible France could be the victim of mass-hate crime.
posted by son_of_minya at 2:57 PM on March 17, 2003

Along the same line of thought:

"People like to go to the Holocaust Museum and say, that's who I relate to, the guy who did right. Either they relate somehow to the victim and feel bad about themselves and sorry for themselves, or they relate to the good guy. Very few go in there and say, oh yeah I probably would have been just like an ordinary conformist Nazi murderer, right? But probably the great majority of people who go through that museum would have been, because that's what the great majority of people in Europe were. They were either bystanders, collaborators, or in some other way morally reprehensible positions which are all too understandable. But there they are. But no, this museum allows you to fantasize that you're sort of morally excellent."
- Philip Gourevitch, Reacting to Rwanda
posted by buddha9090 at 3:21 PM on March 17, 2003

>>Racism hopefully will go away some day, but it's not nearly as scary as the murder of innocent people who are just like the perpetrator. <<

Like, say, in Northern Ireland? Or, on a larger scale, in Cambodia?
posted by kewms at 4:04 PM on March 17, 2003

To insert an odd angle into the discussion: "evil" as such, in this case, demands a dichotomy between persecutor and victim. And building on that, the groups to which one belongs, their tribe, their race, their religion, etc., are perhaps each successive greater degrees of import, at least in the western world.

Take for example the Tai Peng rebellion, Chinese fighting Chinese, killing 20-40 Million people. Would it have been more heinous if it had been Chinese trying to exterminate the Cambodians? "Genocidal" of intent, but *more* "evil"?

Now I can accept that "ordinary people" can be sent off to war against other "ordinary people", but even then, will it be the "ordinary people" or the "extraordinary people" who make a war a bloodbath? A farmer with a spear is just that. If you brutalize him, you might make him harder, but it is unlikely he will ever be more than a farmer with a spear. Military men might suggest that unless he had that "special something" that makes a killer, he would just be another number, aka "cannon fodder."

I do not see people as equal in talent or ability. Most men are not inherently warriors, nor though they carry a rifle can they be trained to be in any way equal to those who are. The same with the "evil genocidal" label. A Ted Bundy may be made into a better Ted Bundy, but a Mother Teresa will never make a good mass murderer.
posted by kablam at 4:19 PM on March 17, 2003


Like, say, in Northern Ireland?

"No, that involved Irish Catholics killing their dirty British Protestant oppressors."

More seriously, I actually once supported the IRA. I consider their cause just, but the war ended and peaceful negotiations were making progress. While terrorism is wrong, I believe the IRA weren't that bad as far as terrorists go. These acts should have stopped, and those guilty of crimes should have been imprisoned, but I would not consider either side's misdoings as "extraordinary" acts of evil. Even terrorist acts on a larger scale in Israel are defended by some.

Or, on a larger scale, in Cambodia?

"That was just a bunch of dirty Cambodians. They're all animals, and are not anything like Americans. They don't have morals like us white people."

Well, maybe I am being racist myself. I realized that when I made my comment, but I didn't include it. I hope that the people I live among, today, are better than the human beings who came before us. I want to be clear that this is only a hope.

What bothers me as an ethicist is that the people themselves are so easy to promote and/or accept these ideas. I don't think there's any place for it in these times, outside combat training, and even then for strictly pragmatic reasons.

I just find it hard to believe that Americans could slaughter French people. Unless through some extraordinary circumstance France waged war against all of Europe, I can't see it happening. The only unjustified war I can foresee is a war against non-white people.

There used to be this massively built-up Evil Empire, but they are gone. There aren't any white people the U.S. could justify an unjustifiable war against.

On preview: What kablam said. I see racism as the reason -- other than moral truth -- that Americans are willing to let things slide. (Moral truth in itself can be a reason, i.e. fanaticism, but racism is is more powerful and does not rely on rationality whatsoever. I also am not yet willing to say that the American war on Iraq is racist. I just think that is the reason why most Americans support it.)
posted by son_of_minya at 4:38 PM on March 17, 2003

I believe the IRA weren't that bad as far as terrorists go.

So when does terrorism become "bad"? When it's for a cause that you don't agree with?
posted by Vidiot at 5:42 PM on March 17, 2003


That's exactly my point.

For me, terrorism is wrong. I will not condone the killing of innocent people. But, what makes a person innocent? If the cause is so just that innocent people have to be killed, who are those people? How just does the cause have to be? Even the Godly U.S. Government admits that innocent people have to die.

My point of view is: Those who are guilty deserve to die. I am increasingly more skeptical about who is guilty, though. Are they just misguided? Do they deserve sympathy? Might they eventually offer sympathy and support to someone who is abused?

A part of me tells me that is a decision best left to God. Another part tells me that God does not exist and it is up to us to influence the behavior of other men. The question becomes: Are we capable of that judgement, and can we enforce it?
posted by son_of_minya at 6:01 PM on March 17, 2003

Son_of_Minya - Waller's argument is rooted in research suggesting that human instinctual nature underlies the "average, everyday mass killer" phenomenon he is concerned with - a phenomenon driven by far more than than mere racism but, rather, by an instinctual ability to engage in wholesale slaughter of those in a defined (perhaps arbitrarily) and vilified "out group".

Kablam - (re) "A farmer with a spear is just that....I do not see people as equal in talent or ability....a Mother Teresa will never make a good mass murderer." - I seriously doubt that Waller would challenge the assertion that people are not all equal - in talent for good or for evil, in intelligence, in any charactoristic whatsoever. But the point Waller was trying to make in his book is that research into the phenomenon of mass killings and mass atrocities - which is currently mainly conducted under the aegis of "Holocaust studies" - has mostly examined the few key (and exceptional) political or military figures who orchestrated such events to the exclusion of the thousands or even hundreds of thousands of average soldiers and citizens who actually ran the "machinery" and who were personally involved in carrying out those killings. Waller is concerned with their story for his research has convinced him that these average humans were not, on the whole, the least bit sociopathic. They were, in all other respects, "good" citizens, soldiers, husbands and wives.

As you remarked, "Take for example the Tai Peng rebellion, Chinese fighting Chinese, killing 20-40 Million people. Would it have been more heinous if it had been Chinese trying to exterminate the Cambodians? "Genocidal" of intent, but *more* "evil"?" - I doubt Waller would try to parse the "degrees of evil" involved in mass killings, "genocidal" or not. I certainly wouldn't want to. Indeed, Waller uses the international convention definiton of "genocide" which is very broad and would, in fact, include the Tai Peng rebellion killing (as I understand the definition).

"Now I can accept that "ordinary people" can be sent off to war against other "ordinary people", but even then, will it be the "ordinary people" or the "extraordinary people" who make a war a bloodbath? - On it's own terms, I agree with your statement here, but this isn't really what Waller was investigating in "Becoming Evil": ordinary people haphazardly, ineffectively clashing. Waller was concerned, specifically, with organized slaughter of (mostly) defenseless civilians. But these people were led by exceptional individuals with tremendous talent for evil, you say? "Sure, (replies Waller) but that isn't my focus. Holocaust historians have beaten that territory, the "architect of evil" tale, into the ground. But what of the foot soldiers of evil? What were their motivations?"

Waller concludes that the shocking ease with which average humans can be disinhibited towards acts of extreme brutality is rooted in our primate instinctual nature (he cites numerous studies) and that our best defense against these potential, instinctually driven tendencies is self knowledge. Waller also acknowledges parallel human altruistic instinctual motivations; we embody potential for great good and great evil.
posted by troutfishing at 6:08 PM on March 17, 2003

>>The question becomes: Are we capable of that judgement, and can we enforce it?<<

I think we'd damn well better be, or we're all in deep trouble.

I think packing millions of human beings into boxcars and shipping them off to be worked to death and/or gassed is a clearly evil act, regardless of the motivations of the perpetrators or the perceived failings of the victims.

There are grey areas between good and evil. Genocide is not one of them.
posted by kewms at 7:04 PM on March 17, 2003

Well said, troutfishing.

One of my favorite passages in the Lord of the Rings is in the second book. Frodo and Sam are talking about the nature of the great heroes, how none of them set out to be who they were; they were just ordinary people who found themselves rising to extraordinary circumstances. Which is to say that I think we're all ordinary people, sometimes twisted to doing great or dispicable things. I mean, how can you tell an "ordinary" person from an "extraordinary" one, unless you know those acts that really singled them out? Without knowing about the murders, Dahmer would be just another screwed up kid if you met him on IRC, ne? I have trouble believing that some people are "extraordinary" or "chosen."

>>The question becomes: Are we capable of that judgement, and can we enforce it?< i think we'd damn well better be, or we're all in deep trouble. /i>

A friend of mine, at the ripe age of twelve, took an IQ test and was told he was in the top 1%... His first thought was "Damn, we are so screwed!"

posted by kaibutsu at 7:11 PM on March 17, 2003

kaibutsu - Thank you for your kind compliment...the implications of the Waller book disturb me. There is almost a mirror image to the "Becoming Evil" narrative (which I may cover as a post tomorrow) - the human instinctual capacity for good. Taken together, these two themes - good and evil, and the line of individual discretion which divides them - could have been lifted directly from Tolkien's narrative. But Tolkien was merely re-animating an almost eternal moral tale. Good and Evil. Individual Choice, and the lure of selfish gain pitted against the good of the whole......this could be a Christian, an Islamic, a Hindu or a Buddhist narrative. It matters little.
posted by troutfishing at 7:39 PM on March 17, 2003

Worth reviewing: The Eight Stages of Genocide, a hypothesis put forward by Genocide Watch's founder, Dr. Gregory Stanton. Rather than a focus on the perpetrators or organizers, Stanton frames a systemic approach that examines the rhetoric and attempts to peg a point for a Genocide Alert. (As with earthquake prediction, the first attempts have been somewhat rocky. As with any social science, this is most inexact.)

The eight stages are Classification, Symbolization, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Preparation, Extermination, and Denial. The stages can often be seen clearly in retrospect, such as in Nazi Germany or Rwanda. It's harder to say with certainty regarding incipient genocides in progress, that haven't yet reached the killing stage, as it were; but it would be worthwhile to pursue closer study.

To compare the present domestic political polarization to genocide is contemptible overstatement. To my knowledge, though Natalie Maines may have gotten her band banned, nobody has yet suggested rogue gangs must murder short, white pop-country singers as a class. Even to compare the demonization of Saddam Hussein is a stretch, because even if it's not believed here, the Bush administration has carefully framed this as a war of liberation of the Iraqi people, rather than extermination. (Certainly, there are other voices who would go much farther, and these should be regarded warily.) In both cases the operative difference is that entire groups -- broad classes -- of people are demonized and targeted.
posted by dhartung at 11:45 PM on March 17, 2003

Moral Disengagement, Trout. Albert Bandura (Stanford University) has written (and spoken) extensively on the subject (I think he coined the term).

The following is excerpted from:
Moral Disengagement In The Perpetration Of Inhumanities
(warning - pdf file)

Rapid radical shifts in destructive behavior through moral justification are most strikingly revealed in military conduct (Kelman, 1973; Skeykill, 1928). The conversion of socialized people into dedicated fighters is achieved not by altering their personality structures, aggressive drives or moral standards. Rather, it is accomplished by cognitively redefining the morality of killing so that it can be done free from self-censure. Through moral justification of violent means, people see themselves as fighting ruthless oppressors, protecting their cherished values, preserving world peace, saving humanity from subjugation or honoring their country’s commitments. Just war tenets were devised to specify when the use of violent force is morally justified. However, given people’s dexterous facility for justifying violent means all kinds of inhumanities get clothed in moral wrappings.

Voltaire put it well when he said, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Over the centuries, much destructive conduct has been perpetrated by ordinary, decent people in the name of righteous ideologies, religious principles and nationalistic imperatives (Kramer, 1990; Rapoport & Alexander, 1982; Reich, 1990). Widespread ethnic wars are producing atrocities of appalling proportions. When viewed from divergent perspectives the same violent acts are different things to different people. It is often proclaimed in conflicts of power that one group’s terroristic activity is another group’s liberation movement fought by heroic fighters. This is why moral appeals against violence usually fall on deaf ears. Adversaries sanctify their own militant actions, but condemn those of their antagonists as barbarity masquerading under a mask of outrageous moral reasoning. Each side feels morally superior to the other. -- Albert Bandura

posted by Opus Dark at 1:16 AM on March 18, 2003

Dhartung - That quote, from Waller's Salon interview (second link in post) did not actually "compare the present domestic political polarization to genocide" as you suggest, and so it really is not "contemptible overstatement." Read Waller's quote again, keeping in mind that he has studied genocides and atrocities for several decades: "In our climate of fear in response to terrorism, I think we could pretty easily turn on people who have been our neighbors." "Turn on" here could mean many things - but, notice that Waller speaks in the future tense.

However, thanks for the "The Eight Stages of Genocide" link.

Opus Dark - Thanks for that meaty link too.
posted by troutfishing at 6:26 AM on March 18, 2003

On the topic of the Taiping rebellion, there WAS a decidedly genocidal aspect to it. At the time, the Qing dynasty, founded by the ethnically unChinese Manchurians, had ruled China for a couple centuries.

Hung Xiu­quan, founder of the Taiping, had a religious vision that he interpretted to mean: Kick the Manchus out of China.

Class war between the haves and have-nots seemed to be the underlying motivation for everyone else to join in the pillaging.
posted by wrench at 11:03 AM on March 18, 2003

troutfishing: once again, a numbers thing. The *implication* is that large numbers of people are turned into "killing machines." But my point is what? 100,000 out of 100,000 become efficient killers each of whom kills at least 10 people? Nonsense.
Even if you took 100,000 of the elite corps of maniacs that was the General SS, the actual number who killed was probably less than 2,000. The rest *helped* no doubt, but did not actually kill. The held guns, they pushed paper, they did other stuff directly and morally supportive of the killers, but they themselves did not kill. Hitler, personally, killed no one, and neither did Charlie Manson. Inspiring to kill and killing are two very different things.

So why do I distinguish between the two? For the same reason that US Army soldiers have a 15:1 ratio of Combat Support soldiers and Combat Service Support soldiers to each Combat Soldier. 15 soldiers do not kill for every soldier that does kill, even though all 16 have been *trained* to kill.

Real killers are always a tiny, elite bunch. "Ordinary people" can only very rarely become killers. They might do everything else up to the point of killing, but then a real killer will step in to do the job.
posted by kablam at 11:11 AM on March 18, 2003

i think you're being a little too optimistic kablam, if you really think that ordinary people can rarely become killers. i think it has more to do with a sociological mob mentality (along with other factors e.g. socioeconomic status, etc.) rather than a simple psychological evaluation of 'ordinary' vs 'extraordinary'. yes, the people in power might be extraordinary but in many cases it's the common people (soldiers or citizens) who carry out the task. to quote Gourevitch once again concerning Rwanda:

The peasants, who were paid or forced to kill, were looking up to people of higher socio-economic standing to see how to behave. So the people of influence, or the big financiers, are often the big men in the genocide. They may think that they didn't kill because they didn't take life with their own hands, but the people were looking to them for their orders.
posted by poopy at 12:57 PM on March 18, 2003

Real killers are always a tiny, elite bunch. "Ordinary people" can only very rarely become killers. They might do everything else up to the point of killing, but then a real killer will step in to do the job.

that's an exremely dangerous assumption. just because some people in the army are specialist cooks doesn't mean that Mean Joe Commando can't fry himself an egg when the need arises.

dividing the world into 'people who are killers' and 'people who are not killers' is exactly like dividing the world into 'people who are cooks' and 'people who are not cooks.' i will not cook if i can avoid it; my wife likes to cook, so she cooks; if she is not around i go out to eat. but i *can* cook, and will if i have to.

very rare is the person who would rather die than cook.
posted by hob at 1:20 PM on March 18, 2003

Well, even in the criminal justice system we subdivide killers, the worst being "premeditated", then "heat of anger", "reckless", "indifferent", etc. The critical factors are if the killer knew his victim personally, and if it was a one-shot or is the killer likely to kill again.
Most civilian peacetime killers are one-shots, people who kill a member of their own family and would never do so again.
Then there is almost a giant leap into the "sociopathic" and "psychopathic" killer category. And, whether or not is it "pathological", killers are set apart from the rest of society psychologically. And here is the irony.
A sociopath may live their entire life without committing a crime. Their mental state *just* means that they won't feel any empathy if they *do* kill; it doesn't mean that they *will* kill.
And thus you have a farmer with a spear who *can* become a killer.

But take a hundred farmers and train them to kill. Eventually each may take *a* life, but only the sociopathic killer will be "good" at it, will be willing to do it enthusiastically and repeatedly. The others *may* do it once, but will go to drastic lengths to avoid doing it again--they will be to a greater or lesser extent traumitized.
posted by kablam at 1:52 PM on March 18, 2003

Kablam - you really should check "Becoming Evil" out of the library: the main argument of the book, which is heavily substantiated both by historical reference and by scientific research, is that average individuals do in fact make very good killers. That does not mean that they will not have qualms, but that they can easily be conditioned under the right circumstances to do the job.

Please don't take this post as some sort of coded critique of the US military. That was not at all my intention.

Returning to the Holocaust, the SS did not provide -as far as I am aware- the bulk of manpower (and womenpower) at the death camps, concentration camps and forced labour camps. The SS played an enforcing, disciplinary role, yes. But there was significant participation by civilian conscripts which far exceeded, I believe, the '2,000' number you cite.
posted by troutfishing at 3:15 PM on March 18, 2003

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