‘Perpetrating Genocide – A Criminological Account’ by Kjell Anderson

For years I have been interested in why people do bad things. This is what drew me to the subject of genocide – it seems, simply put, to be among the worst things that people do. It is “murder a million times repeated,” as the judges in the Einsatzgruppen case argued, and the victims are killed because of who they are (or, more accurately, who the perpetrators perceive them to be).

It was my fascination with this apparent ‘essential evil’ that led me to move to Rwanda ten years ago to work with a Rwandan human rights NGO. As I listened to the victims’ horrific stories, genocide was transformed from an abstract immutable evil, to something tangible, done by people to other people. This should be self-evident (it is true of all other crimes), yet this simple fact is often subsumed in the rhetoric of ethnic war and moral outrage.

Two paradoxes emerged through my initial explorations of the Rwandan Genocide: that extraordinary cruelty is committed by ordinary people, and that great evil is not always accompanied by great intention. Given the sheer magnitude of participation in the Rwandan genocide, not all perpetrators can be extraordinary or pathological individuals; moreover, although genocide is breathtakingly ambitious (seeking the destruction of an entire people), individual acts of perpetration can be completely mundane, rooted in quotidian concerns like improving one’s social position.

I began my doctoral research (at the Irish Centre for Human Rights) intending to focus on the social conditions contributing to genocide. I followed the classics of genocide studies; books by Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, Leo Kuper, Helen Fein, and Hannah Arendt. But my own path soon diverged, as I became fascinated by the motivations of individual perpetrators. I undertook an ambitious study interviewing perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Bosnia, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. My research became increasingly qualitative as I discovered that the distortions of perpetrators made the production of “objective facts” problematic.

Perpetrators’ distortions themselves became a fascinating focus of my research and a rich source of data. Through micro level qualitative research I felt I was approaching the character of perpetration as a contingent act. The moral universes of the perpetrators were at once familiar (rooted in social tendencies minimizing culpability for wrongful acts), and foreign (justifying extreme violence).

Rather than comparing case studies, I focused thematically on the process of perpetration. I have drawn from perpetrator and victim interviews, as well as a broad theoretical framework, to explain how and why people perpetrate, and what happens after perpetration. Although there have been brilliant recent studies on the how and why of perpetration (e.g. micro level studies by Straus, Fujii, McDoom, and Bergholz), these studies have largely focused on individual cases; moreover, there has been little scholarship on what happens after perpetration. How do perpetrators rationalize their acts? How does the justice system address the complexities of individual involvement in genocide? My book provides tentative answers to these questions.

I argue that genocide perpetration can be framed as a differential response to the moral context. The state creates an expectation where violence is accepted, or even required. Individuals make decisions according to a complex array of personal and situational factors, but the key understanding is that genocide provides an opportunity space for individual criminality. Some people will choose to act within this framework to advance their personal interests, or they may even feel that they have no choice but to act. This sense of choicelessness is especially potent when one considers the institutionalization of violence characterizing genocide. Moreover, as Philip Verwimp argues, individuals will often act according to the expressed (or implied) preferences of their peers. Once they begin to kill they will often restructure their personal moral frameworks to justify the acts they have already committed.

In adopting this perspective, Perpetrating Genocide seeks to tie macro level social and political developments to the immediate considerations of the perpetrators. It concludes that perpetrator motivations are diverse and that perpetrators can only be understood by better understanding human behaviour.

Kjell Anderson is an Affiliated Research Fellow at the Centre for International Criminal Justice.


Perpetrating Genocide: A Criminological Account will be available in hardback on November 30 from Routledge: https://www.routledge.com/Perpetrating-Genocide-A-Criminological-Account/Anderson/p/book/9781138648814.

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