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Letters to the editors

Vol. 4, NO. 4 / July 2019

To the editors:

Research on genocide has made significant advances in recent years, particularly in allowing scholars new methods in their quest to answer the enduring question of why people with no history of violence kill their neighbors. Among these new methods is a micro-level empirical strategy: attention to variation, be it in where people kill, in when they kill, or in what motivates them. Omar Shahabudin McDoom is a leading figure in this methodology, having compared 3,426 Rwandans from one community who did and did not participate in the violence.1 His colleagues Scott Straus and the late LeeAnn Fujii, as well as those deeply inspired by his work, such as myself, have likewise searched for explanations for why ordinary Rwandans killed their neighbors. We have highlighted variation in who killed, in the mechanisms and pathways they took toward violence and away, and in what explains these alternations.2 What few of us have focused on, and what Edward Weisband’s book highlights, is that there was not simply variation in the Rwandan genocide in who killed where, when, and why, but also in how.3 Some murders were the product of gun violence; a majority of victims were slaughtered by machete; yet others were clubbed, burned, bombed in churches, or raped, sometimes repeatedly, before being killed. What explains these gruesome practices?

McDoom cogently summarizes Weisband’s argument that “perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities demand that their victims suffer before they die” because of their unconscious, forbidden desires to violate other human beings. These desires, developed in a child’s preoedipal phase but also forged through comparisons with mimetic rivals, result in a wish to harm others—not simply to kill them, but to cause them to feel shame before they die.4 The performative aspect of this violence, McDoom writes, “is the macabresque.” Furthermore, through a process of akrasia, otherwise normal individuals crave the suffering of their victims. Given Weisband’s heavy reliance on complex psychosocial and philosophical concepts to explain a difficult phenomenon, I appreciate McDoom’s neat summary.

I also endorse McDoom’s three critiques: Weisband does not elaborate on the origins of infants’ urges to harm others, nor does he provide evidence for this argument—a dilemma as old as Freudian theory itself. Weisband resurrects the ancient hatreds thesis and the concept of akrasia, but here, too, it is unclear what data supports this argument, particularly given the large and growing body of research that suggests hatred only rarely motivates violence. And Weisband does not consider the now-common finding that people participate in genocide for many reasons. I would add, they can begin participating for one reason but continue for an altogether different reason later on. They can also defect. In reference to this third point, I wish to offer a different explanation for the macabresque.

In the last two decades, evidence from dual-process theories of cognition suggests that moral judgments and decisions are rarely the result of rational thought. Rather, “Type 1” fast, intuitive, and automatic cognitive processes guide the majority of decisions, while “Type 2” explicit, deliberative reasoning often only follows when post-hoc rationales are required. This model implies that people make choices of right and wrong on the basis of strong reactions to moral dilemmas, and moral reasoning serves to justify individuals’ initial affective reactions.

There are exceptions to this rule. When faced with novel and challenging dilemmas, individuals often deliberate about the possible outcomes of their actions before deciding how to behave. Throughout these deliberations, an individual’s fast, Type 1 responses might alert her to feeling that an action is wrong, but for various reasons, such as within-group social pressures or obedience to authority, she might choose to participate in an immoral behavior anyway. Then, through repeated participation in such actions, much like in repeating any novel or challenging behavior, she can become accustomed to these actions. Immoral behavior can stop triggering automatic negative Type 1 responses. These models have a wealth of evidence to support them.

What does this mean for the macabresque? My research on the Rwandan genocide and recent scholarship on the Wehrmacht’s participation in the Holocaust suggests that cognitive adaptation to violence can lead to a rise in complicity and a decline in resistance, both emotional and practical.5 Though people resist killing neighbors at first, they are likely to become proactive rather than reluctant participants in violence over time as the violence becomes normalized. 

Scholars of the Holocaust find that long-term participation in genocide increases the probability that individuals will engage in excess behaviors such as the plunder of property, sexualized violence, and torture.6 It is not clear what causes these excesses, but it is significant that it occurs coterminously with habituation. This suggests, again, the importance of attending to variation in the kinds of participation that people have throughout a violent conflict and variation in the timing of participation. The latter likely bears on the former.

Scholarship on violence finds that people generally resist perpetrating violence against others. Even among well-trained killers, such as the American military, widespread evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injury warns that killing is difficult. This itself should counter Weisband’s assertions that most of us secretly anticipate harming others.

Simultaneously, dual-process theories of morality demonstrate that strong, negative emotions can guide moral judgments and that these judgments can be overcome through explicit deliberation. These theories also demonstrate how, through repetition, new cognitive-emotional habits can form. Research on genocide supports these findings and suggests that with cognitive adaptation to violence, people are more likely to engage in behaviors that Weisband would characterize as macabresque. Though more research is needed to bolster this finding, the main point remains: we cannot understand techniques of violence without attending to variation. It is only by comparing the macabresque with times and places where it does not occur, including among the same individuals, that we can ever truly explain it.

  1. Omar McDoom, “Who Killed in Rwanda’s Genocide? Micro-space, Social Influence, and Individual Participation in Intergroup Violence,” Journal of Peace Research 50, no. 4 (2013), 453–67. 
  2. Lee Ann Fujii, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009); Aliza Luft, “Toward a Dynamic Theory of Action at the Micro Level of Genocide: Killing, Desistance, and Saving in 1994 Rwanda,” Sociological Theory 33, no. 2 (2015), 148–72; Scott Straus, The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009). 
  3. Weisband, of course, considers techniques of torture in numerous cases, including the Armenian Genocide, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian Genocide, and the Bosnian War, to name a few. Edward Weisband, The Macabresque Human Violation and Hate in Genocide, Mass Atrocity and Enemy-Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). 
  4. When McDoom writes of mimetic rivals, I assume that he is referencing the work of René Girard. 
  5. Waitman Beorn, Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Aliza Luft, “Toward a Dynamic Theory of Action at the Micro Level of Genocide: Killing, Desistance, and Saving in 1994 Rwanda,” Sociological Theory 33, no. 2 (2015), 148–72. 
  6. See chapters 7 and 8 in Waitman Beorn, Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). 

Aliza Luft is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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