What Makes a People Commit Mass Atrocities?

Over my lifetime I have heard many explanations of why so many Germans were complicit in the atrocities committed during World War II. None of them is credible. Early accounts, during my youth, asserted that the Germans were either duped or unaware of what was happening, and that all the atrocities were committed by a small group of psychopathic leaders. This theory is absurd — no leaders could possibly pull off such a deception of their own people. More recent accounts would have us believe that Germans had been systematically indoctrinated for decades with anti-Semitism and xenophobia, to the point that, like North American slave owners a century earlier, and male patriarchs in most of the Western world a century before that, they couldn’t conceive of these ‘others’ being ‘real’ people at all, entitled to treatment as civilized humans, as peers. Or they would have us believe that the German people, reeling under the collective shame of military failure twenty years earlier and suffering from the terrifying, seemingly endless poverty and misery of the Great Depression, were so overcome with Nazism’s generous sharing of the plunders of foreign imperialism and war, and so terrified by a world seemingly coming apart, that they willingly, gleefully accepted the genocidal consequences of this liberation from poverty, hopelessness, shame and fear.

In the last century we saw atrocities committed in even greater numbers by Stalin and Mao in their own countries, resulting in the murder, often under unimaginably cruel circumstances, of 60 million and 80 million people respectively. Go back earlier in history and such atrocities will be found everywhere on the planet. Go forward and the two most extreme examples of the past decade — in the Balkan states of the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda — make clear that this is not something that civilized societies outgrow.

In every case there either was obviously (as in Rwanda) or must have been extremely broad acceptance of and complicity in systematic mass murder or genocide, in the ruthless killing of ‘other’ people to the point of extermination. In almost every case mass murder seems to be the product of desperation, of a mass psychosis brought about by the stress of fear, shame, suffering and poverty, sufficient to drive most people to overcome the universal human instinct not to kill a fellow human, to accept any vaguely plausible rationale to turn on each other and shed blood.

Once this desperation starts to set in, other psychotic behaviours follow. The first and most obvious of these is denial — which comes in two ‘flavours’: (a) it’s not really that bad, and (b) there is no choice, they’re only doing what’s necessary. Once the psychotic begins to understand that his fellow citizens, and his ‘leaders’, are engaging in immoral and illegal behaviour, denial in one or both of these forms is almost inevitable: it is the only way that the actions can be ‘justified’, rationalized, made sense of.

The second of these subsequent psychotic behaviours is willing helplessness and ignorance, which again comes in two ‘flavours’: (a) I don’t know about that (code for I don’t want to know about that), and (b) there’s nothing we can do about that (it’s not our fault/responsibility/within our control).

Most of us really know, though we don’t really want to know and don’t want to admit it, that much of the food we eat today comes at a cost of almost unbearable, lifelong confinement and suffering of the animals whose ‘products’ we eat. When animal rights groups point that out, a howling and predictable chorus of It’s not really that bad, There is no other (economic) choice, I don’t know about that and There’s nothing we can do about that immediately ensues.

When mounting, nearly-unanimous and compelling evidence is presented by hundreds of Nobel Prize-winning scientists that human activity is altering our climate and producing potentially cataclysmic consequences, the well-paid Lomborgs and other corporatist shills encourage us with their fake science that It’s not really that bad, There is no other (economic) choice, We don’t know about that and There’s nothing we can do about that.

When the US president suspends human liberties for Arab minorities and the politically tolerant and progressive elements of US society, destroys and occupies a defenceless country and kills tens of thousands of its citizens on a trumped-up charge against its former dictator, and illegally wiretaps the conversations of ordinary Americans, the chorus goes up again: It’s not really that bad (or even ‘mission accomplished’), There is no other choice, We don’t know about that (plausible deniability, now a high art among politicians) and There’s nothing we (mere citizens, Democrats, law-abiding, freedom-loving people) can do about that.

None of this would occur in a healthy world. All that is needed, however, is a widespread sense of fear, shame, suffering and poverty to induce the mass psychosis. Fear comes about when sudden and unappreciated change is foisted upon us: When our daughter comes home hand in hand with someone from another culture, race, or gender than the one we are comfortable with. When we realize that information and technology are so accessible that anyone could kill us or ruin our lives with a gun, a suicide bomb, a disease of overcrowded poultry, a drug, a penis, a home invasion (by legal authorities or strangers), tainted food or water, a nuclear or chemical or biological weapon cooked up in their basement. Or when a small group of spoiled rich lunatics brings down a couple of buildings by crashing airplanes into them.

Shame is also in no short supply in our civilization. Ask any German. Ask Romeo Dallaire. Ask yourself, when you cringe and change the station when the commercials and documentaries about the state of the world just outside your door come on, begging you, daring you to look and learn. I can almost hear you, whispering: It’s not really that bad, There is no other (economic) choice, I don’t know about that, There’s nothing we can do about that.

As for suffering and poverty, you don’t need to go to Darfur to find it. Many of your neighbours are undoubtedly suffering the trauma of spousal or child abuse, or poverty they are ashamed to admit to (because in its self-deceit our society would have us believe poverty is our own fault), or otherwise in endless physical, emotional or psychological anguish. It’s not really that bad, not in my neighbourhood.

Like rats in a cruel experiment of forced overcrowding and scarcity, we are perpetually ripe for the mass psychosis that is the very hallmark of our beloved civilization. And as long as we remain in denial, as long as we keep telling ourselves the madman’s mantra — It’s not really that bad, There is no other choice, I don’t know about that, There’s nothing we can do about that. — it will only get worse.

Wait until the End of Oil, when the ability to endlessly steal our children’s legacy of resources runs out and industrial and agricultural production grinds to a halt. Wait until the Mideast suddenly has no revenue to provide even the necessities of life to its quarter of a billion people living on devastated land that can, without oil, support no one. Wait until China runs out of food (its breadbasket is rapidly turning to desert) and water (its water table is dropping by eight feet a year and most of its ‘fresh’ water is poisoned by chemicals, fertilizers and waste), and a bankrupt US can no longer afford to buy its pathetic products. Wait until its one and a half billion people, with nuclear and biological weapons, become as desperate as Germany was in the 1930s. Ladies and gentlemen, you thought the 20th century was bad for mass atrocities, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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15 Responses to What Makes a People Commit Mass Atrocities?

  1. Herbinator says:

    “Wait until …”Well, when you put it that way it seems as though we’ll need an international movement of common values working to save the natural world and humanity’s place within it. And we’ll colour it green. Over 100 green parties worldwide all subscribing to the same save-the-world values, Charter of the Global Greens

  2. Martin-Eric says:

    I agree with the general idea of this article. However, I think that listing “a penis” among the lethal weapons, without mentioning “a vagina”, can only serve to perpetuate the idea of guily men and women victims – as if there was no such thing as guilty women and men victims. The expression “an STD” would have been noticably more neutral and conveyed the same message.

  3. Joe says:

    So when someone intervenes one atrocity (the hundreds of thousands murdered by Saddam Hussein)that is a war crime, but when everybody sits on their hands with a situation like Darfur that’s just the world looking the other way? I’m sure your solution is a “peace army” that would go in (with no guns!), remove the murderers by non-violent means (who would then be processed with full Canadian legal rights, court system and all – tens of thousands of them ), restore order, rebuild the country, and we’d all be dancing around maypoles. Or you could just cop-out and say the world is overpopulated, there are not enough resources and that makes us all “psychotic”. Which of course is just another method of “looking the other way”.

  4. The results of two famous psychology experiments suggest that average, seemingly good people will do horrible things if subjected to or given the power of authority. Can the atrocities that you give as examples be explained by the institions that we have created taking advantage of inherent flaws in the architecture of human cognition?

  5. laodan says:

    Dave, it’s one of those moments… but I nevertheless complety agree with your conclusion.I read your blog with great interest since a few months. What strikes me is the existential contradiction from one article to another. What do I mean? Well just put yourswelf in the shoes of your readers for a moment. One day we digest some of your insights about organizational skills and then another day (for exemple today) you confront us with the background reality of our lives that somehow anihilates any possible thoughts about societal skills… No blame. This is the same contradiction that afflicts myself and many others. In one of his columns in the Guardian George Monbiot once mentionned this phenomenon saying that so many of his friends just had left the boat and vanished in survival mode. What’s becoming evident is that, time passing, more people start to speak about the human madness that inflicts Gaia’s sickness. For reference see these 3 recent articles:1. The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years For James Lovelock humanity clearly passed a point of no return and nature shall now find a new point of balance where we humans lose any control of what comes next. Our only hope now is to try to preserve the gains in knowledge of our civilizations for the benefit of future generations.2. Lester Brown’s Plan B 2.0 Lester Brown finds the substance of his optimism in “belief”: humanity will muddle through. No doubt.3. We Must Mega-Engineer Here is the “voluntarist”. There is a problem out there so, no doubt, we have to act and we have to act on a global scale even without knowing what the outcome of our actions might be.We are all on the same boat seeing something comingbut not knowing what to do. Do we jump overboard? Do we just continue as before? Do we react? Whatever answer we chose it seems to me that it changes nothing to the background reality of our lives. This is the existential contradiction that I mentionned before and it is becoming an art of life. My book ARTSENSE is about that very subject from the perspective of a visual artist.

  6. One of the scariest things I’ve heard during the news of the illegal wire tapping is Americans who call themselves patriots saying, “I have nothing to hide. I don’t mind if they listen in on me.” It’s that kind of attitude that promotes the breakdown of the Constitution and makes a mockery of Patrick Henry’s words: “Give me liberty or give me death.”I would rather a terrorist kill me than have the government believe they can listen in illegally on ANYONE’S conversations in the US. Though terrorism is a real threat, I’m more likely to die of heart disease or in a traffic accident. And for protection from neither of those—heart disease nor traffic accident—am I willing to give up my Fourth Amendment rights.That very attitude—it doesn’t affect me, so why should I care?—is what allows someone like Hitler to come into power. Most Germans weren’t Jews. It didn’t affect them. They didn’t care. It’s the most frightening, yet perhaps the most human, attitude ever.I still think “Inside the Monkeysphere” is one of the best (though long) essays yet on the subject:http://www.pointlesswasteoftime.com/monkeysphere.html

  7. medaille says:

    I really hate thinking in this manner, but for some reason at this moment in time, the idea of just figuring out what the world will most likely be like after the fall (and trying to make that as good as possible) seems equally as desirable as trying to prevent the fall from happening. It’s really hard to see a way out of this mess. The overpopulation one being the one that’s the hardest to control and reverse, that would do the most good. I think we would have a good chance to make a small portion of the world sustainable (like say North America), but I’m not so convinced about the rest of the world. There’s just a huge difference between 250 Million people and Billions of people living in a country. One thing that I know is that without equality in the distribution of resources, there won’t really be peace, and with equality in the distribution of resources peace is much easier to maintain. I love tackling problems like this, but I find myself putting things like this off because its so big.The idea that pops into my head is that in order to be able to any real significant change, people need to be changed to be less submissive and more dominant just to get up to what a natural person would be at. I don’t think its natural for people to be as submissive as the majority of the population is. I’m not sure if its due to the way the social elite set up the society, or if there is another explanation, but I often find myself getting frustrated at my own complacency and wishing to be more assertive. I can see the submissiveness in most everyone else too.

  8. James Samuel says:

    I booked the meeting roomI took the minutesI printed the scheduleI drew the blueprintsI supplied the timberI dug the foundationsI chartered the trainsI worked the pointsI opened the doorsI took the clothesI led the wayI closed the doorOne million one hundred thousand died at AuschwitzA million of the JewsBut their deaths were not simply the work of a few fanatical NazisKilling on this scale involved thousands of different people(A new BBC Documentary series examines how it was possible)I’ll be keeping an eye out for this one.

  9. step back says:

    Charleton Heston was on target in the original Planet of the Apes when he screamed “it’s a Mad House!”Yes, we are all psychotic to one extent or another.Gather a bunch of psychotic people together and you have a psychotic nation.Place a couple of psychotic nations together on the Planet, give them oil and A-bombs, and they will do amazing things with all that power.Put a couple of psychotically manipulative leaders in positions of power in Teheran, Washington DC (and where else?) and you have a blue print for a world gone mad.

  10. theresa says:

    Earlier in the month, when you offered your list of “predictions” for the north american near future, I noted, and wondered, why you left the potential for rioting off that list. Given last years activities in other parts of the developed world it seems possible. I can certainly see it happening in Canada, even before the US, especially if there is a new government in power next week and they act on some of the social policy measures they believe in. Spontaneous “fits” of rioting in the developed world, that has not yet reached ‘the end of oil”…seems ominous to me, and a sign of deep problems arising to the surface. An aura of things to come. I don’t see the ebb and flow of human collective psychosis ever coming to end except technology has made the scale of it so much larger, just as technology made the collective empathy shown to victims of last year’s tsunami larger. It does seem possible, however, to put out some of the early fires that spring up, the ones that have been smouldering below the surface for too long, and treat those concerns seriously, try to resolve them. In Canada, one that comes to mind is the concerns of native people. With the current void of leadership there is barely anyone running for office who represents the interests of any of us, much less aboriginal people. And there are other groups as well. The important thing is to speculate on potential issues calmly, give them a fair hearing and turn down the heat on the rhetoric (especially the anti-american rhetoric). Great posting today, very timely with lots of food for thought. Thanks.

  11. cindy says:

    Hello Joe,Re Darfu: here is the problem. Around October 2004, one of the Dutch TV stations filmed a documentary while interviewing UN special envoy for Darfu, Jan Pronk, on his way to Washington DC to meet with UN security council. Aside other things, Jan Pronk requested 3,000 UN forces to Darfu. He said (not in exact words) the size of the troop has to be large and the action shift. But he also mentioned what he most was because of the US election the following month, his plan would be side-tracked. He was right. CNN made a big show of US state secretary visited Darfu a week later. I know this because I live in the Netherlands and I happened to see the recording in Dutch. Of course outside of NL, I don’t think anyone would have notice it. It is not because the world look on and don’t care. In NL, Belgium, UK … TV channels are constantly bringing the images back. IF we really want to point finger, we have to ask US president BUSH why. For months prior to October 2004, US did nothing. AND then suddenly BUSH took interest of the issues, not because he is really interested, but because it looks good for his election campaigne. Some US citizens were questioning why US is not taking the lead in doing something for Darfu. So, those poor Darfu refugees received a few days of attention from the US, then the whole thing dies. Do you know what I read just a few days ago? (I think it was on The Economist), now Jan Pronk is asking 20,000 UN troops! Meantime the rebel leader dies, the whole scenario became so much impossible to manage. Whom should we say thanks to? The world care. If we talk about war crime, I think we have to ask how many people die because of Bush. I do not mean the US soliders. Bush’s hands are covered with blood. Understand why he is so much opposed to the International Court in The Hague?

  12. Avi Solomon says:

    Watch the ‘Twilight Zone’ episode ‘Momsters on Maple Street’. add in the ‘To Serve Men’ episode for good measure and you get the picture of human lunacy:)

  13. lugon says:

    Maybe the problem is with our “non-thinking”. I mean, maybe it is that we live in a state of “trance”? I can tell the difference between my own states of mind when I watch tv, when I remember old things, when I look at something that is or feels to be entirely new. “Critical thinking” tries to help us break away from that state of “trance”. Can it be learned? Yes. Does it require permanent effort because “dropping into non-thinking mode” is a highly natural thing to do? Yes. There was this novel (can’t remember the author, sorry) where the people in a certain island had trained their wild parrots to say “pay attention!”, so it was a random stimuli to shake yourself from the “trance” situation.

  14. Alvin says:

    What do you think is the solution? What can I, as an individual, do?

  15. Dave Pollard says:

    Herbinator: You don’t have to sell me on that. I’ve been a Green for years. But until we get proportional representation we’ll stay locked out of political decision-making and even (thanks to the media) the public debate.Martin-Eric: Point taken.Pedagogic: Maybe, though I still tend to think it’s stress, not power, that makes us crazy.Laodan: Very interesting. I think when Einstein said that the more people know the more passionate they become about making the world better, and the more pessimistic they come that they can make a real difference, is at the heart of this Existential Contradiction. I know my environmental and political posts drive some of my business-post readers crazy — they can’t reconcile my large-scale pessimism with my enthusiasm for doing things small-scale, or else they think that everyone knowledgeable about business should have laissez-faire leanings. I believe innovation and entrepreneurship and open-source sharing of knowledge and energy are utterly subversive in a corporatist world.Barbara, Medaille, James, Step Back, Theresa, Cindy, Avi, Lugon: Thanks for the comments and references. Medaille, Lugon: Yes, Derrick Jensen calls it (submissiveness, trance) ‘passivity’ and really believes that if you aren’t part of the solution you’re part of the problem, but accepts how easy and tempting it is to become passive.Alvin: You can start here.

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