In China, a famished villager, swollen with edema, is beaten with sticks “until all the water comes out” and he dies. In Rwanda, a shaft of bamboo sharpened at one end is forced into a woman’s womb. In Germany, a child is dissected alive upon a surgical table. In Guatemala, victims are disemboweled and their viscera extracted in the presence of others. In Bosnia, prisoners are burned alive on a pyre of tires.

These descriptions elicit horror, a reaction that conforms to social expectation. But at some repressed level, they may also fascinate, or even excite, some people. The territory between horror and fascination is the subject of Edward Weisband’s The Macabresque. Weisband’s focus is not simply why individuals kill in wars and genocides, but why perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities demand that their victims suffer before they die.

Weisband seeks answers in psychoanalytic theory and the realm of the unconscious. Like Sigmund Freud, Weisband assumes that it is in the unconscious that forbidden desires are to be found. Much of the existing research on perpetrators presupposes that their actions are subject to conscious and cognitive control. Weisband cautions that any stated purpose should not be mistaken for unconscious motivation. His appeal to psychoanalysis, in a field dominated by social scientists and historians, is certain to be met with skepticism. Even psychoanalysts may query the book’s claims since Weisband’s conclusions are not deduced from the analysis of subjects in a clinical setting. Yet a psychoanalytic approach is intriguing, if only because the absence of cogent explanation from other disciplines calls into question their ability to offer one.

What then are these forbidden desires? At a basic level, Weisband believes, they are the desire harbored by sadists for absolute power over their victims.1 This is not simply the power of life and death. It is the power to punish and inflict pain without the need for any wrongdoing on the part of the victim. But perpetrators also desire to violate another human being. And, according to Weisband, it is this compulsion that is the primary unconscious drive in those who seek the suffering of their victims. “Perpetrators want victims to feel shame,” he argues, “suffer humiliation, and recognize that they deserve the humiliation because they are shameful.”2 How this humiliation is achieved will differ across cultures. As evidence, Weisband cites examples from the Cultural Revolution in China, Nazi Germany’s medical scientism, Stalin’s purges and show trials, the killing fields of Cambodia, and Argentina’s dirty war. The performed nature of the victim’s degradation is the single characteristic that all these cases share: “Mass human violations become contoured around an aesthetic of performative dramaturgy.”3

This is the macabresque. It is theatrical, exhibitionist, and voyeuristic. Perpetrators desire to be seen, both by other perpetrators and by their victims. 

Weisband also believes that perpetrators derive pleasure from the acted-out humiliation of their victims. He terms this gratification jouissance.

Herein lies the noir ecstasy, the lust that connects desire for what is prohibited to the strictures that demand desires be fulfilled precisely because they are forbidden. … The macabresque aesthetics in performative transgression seek to satisfy the quest for noir ecstasy by giving way to obscene desire for surplus cruelty as a mode of coming near to what is openly forbidden—but secretly obliged or demanded.4

The desire’s power lies in its prohibition.

Where do such desires originate? The question exposes a tension in Weisband’s thoughts. On one hand, he suggests that these “[d]esires are forged in imitative processes.”5 It is through comparison with a mimetic rival that our wishes are formed. On the other hand, he suggests that they originate in childhood. They develop in infancy, in the child’s preoedipal phase, when an infant is believed to have sadistic impulses that are directed at its parents or caregivers. Weisband hints at childrearing methods as influential in the formation of such urges. He does not elaborate further.

How do otherwise normal human beings become indifferent to the agony of their victims? In answering this question, Weisband draws on the concepts of the disordered will and akrasia, the mental condition that induces someone to act against their better judgment. Akrasia, he argues, is central to the dehumanization, demonization, and essentialization of the victim. It is through a process of self-deception that objectively small differences between perpetrators and victims are magnified and seized on as reasons to torture, torment, and exterminate.

Minor identitarian difference thus becomes reified as the political justification of hatred because it and it alone looms as the prophylactic protection capable of shielding against the intrusions of “the dissolute other” who masquerades (too effectively) as the same as “us.”6

Freud’s idea that narcissism transforms minor differences into hatred is resurrected in the work of Weisband. Although the notion that ancient hatreds are the cause of ethnic conflicts has been largely disavowed by political scientists, Weisband argues that this hatred is indeed real and becomes particularly potent when linked to the idea of a nation-state.

It is tempting—very tempting—to suppose that individuals who commit atrocities have some distinguishing characteristic, and very tempting again to suppose that they do not. A scholarly consensus has formed around the second temptation. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt observed that Adolf Eichmann seemed unexceptional, indeed, mediocre. She thought little of his Kantian scholarship or the bureaucratic and wooden language that he used. Arendt’s observations were chilling because they themselves introduced the unattractive thought that extraordinary situations transform ordinary individuals into agents of atrocity. Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment is an iconic example. The speed with which college students assigned the role of prison guards began to abuse their student-inmates was remarkable. It took them little time at all. The debate is not merely academic. When stories and pictures of abuse surfaced from Abu Ghraib, the US military prison in Iraq, the administration sought to downplay the scandal by describing the incidents as the work of just a few bad apples. Others suspected it was more systemic.

Weisband does not contest the claim that perpetrators are often ordinary. He argues that the possession of perverse unconscious desires is, in itself, not extraordinary. In the right situation then, how many would desire to violate and humiliate another human being? Weisband wisely does not attempt to assign numbers to this question, but he does hint strongly that they are high.7 His is a sobering perspective. As part of my own research, I have interviewed several hundred Rwandan perpetrators and also Rwandans who did not participate in the violence. In my view, the ethical and methodological challenges involved in such research make it difficult to pinpoint the personality traits that dispose individuals to such behavior.

In the last few decades, it has been the proverbial rational actor who has come to dominate economics and political science. In the attempt to understand violence, some social scientists have turned to rational choice theory, as well. Rational choice proponents emphasize an actor’s interests, strategy, and logic; critics point to the importance of their identities, emotions, and culture. Weisband sides with the critics. Genocide is, in general, not a rational choice, and theories of rational choice cannot completely account for the intentional infliction of pain.8 These are two distinct choices. Radovan Karadžić in Bosnia, Théoneste Bagosora in Rwanda, and Omar al-Bashir in Darfur may have believed that the killing of civilians would help achieve a strategic political objective. They may also have despised the groups that they targeted. The strategic and the expressive, the cognitive and the affective, are not mutually exclusive, as any student of judgment and decision making will confirm.

It is with respect to acknowledging diversity among perpetrators that Weisband’s theory seems most wanting. It is never entirely clear whether he means to explain the choices of those with the power to decide on genocide or the behavior of their subordinates. Political leaders may order mass killings for one reason and their political followers may carry them out for another. Are all actors possessed of the same dark, unconscious motivation? It is difficult to believe that the members of the German high command, the wardens of the concentration camps, and the ordinary members of the police battalions, all shared the same desires. Even at the Plimsoll line dividing the architects of mass murder from the executioners, Weisband places a strong emphasis on only one motive, the desire to humiliate, with little empirical support to justify its preeminence over other motives. He is skeptical of both Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority, and Solomon Asch’s work on the power of conformity and group pressures. Weisband does not say very much about fear, resentment, opportunism, or ideological conviction as motivations for murder. Other political scientists do. The sheer diversity observed among perpetrators suggests that the quest for a single motive is misguided. Humanity’s thugs may include not only racists, ideologues, opportunists, and conformists, but narcissistic sadists too.

If Weisband has a narrow view of what makes a man turn bad, he has a much broader view of what counts as breaking bad. Perpetrators encompass not only those who commit violence, but also those who support them.

My basic argument is that the psychodynamics of desire contribute to the transformation of “ordinary” individuals into those who directly and indirectly undertake to support or engage in genocide, mass atrocity, and their performative dramaturgies.9

If these dark desires of the unconscious are so commonplace, what then are the contexts in which they are made manifest? Weisband’s aim, he remarks, is to

demonstrate how at times, under certain conditions, and in particular situations, desire as an element in the human psyche and emotion work in ways that appear to embolden subjects to become perpetrators and thus behave in the service of what I describe as the macabresque [emphasis original].10

Beyond noting that they arise often, Weisband provides little further explanation about these contexts.

Genocide and mass atrocity are not “sometime things.” To the contrary, they represent a pandemic scourge, one that happens almost wherever the cartographies of political power or state sovereignty “territorialize” national boundaries and engage in war, or even subnational conflict.11

This is overstatement. Although genocide is a notoriously slippery concept, a cursory examination of any dataset on inter- and intrastate wars since 1945 reveals that the overwhelming majority did not lead to genocide, no matter how broadly it is defined.

Lastly, what of those who manage to refrain from violence even while others around them succumb? Oskar Schindler in Germany and Paul Rusesabagina in Rwanda are examples. While their choices offer hope for humanity, the question of what was happening in their subconscious is not an issue to which Weisband turns. Their motivations remain unexplored.

In The Macabresque, Weisband seeks to answer a troubling question. It is also a question that few other scholars have engaged with seriously. This account is notable not only for its examination of the role played by the unconscious, but also for Weisband’s unflinching intellectual and moral courage. His research cannot have left him unchanged.

  1. Edward Weisband, The Macabresque Human Violation and Hate in Genocide, Mass Atrocity and Enemy-Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 10 
  2. Ibid., 341. 
  3. Ibid., 10. 
  4. Ibid., 15. 
  5. Ibid., 109. 
  6. Ibid., 149 
  7. Ibid., 8. 
  8. Ibid., 175. 
  9. Ibid., 7. 
  10. Ibid., 7. 
  11. Ibid., 29.