Understanding Genocide and Its Perpetrators
University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida.
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Well, why does one group feel it has the right to exterminate another group? It’s a difficult question to answer, but I think that groups persecute other groups to the point of extermination when they define those groups as outside the moral boundaries of society, or sometimes they define them as animal rather than human. And we see this in everyday language, you know. “He’s a savage” is a way of saying a criminal or another person is not even truly human. But when whole groups get classified as outside of a moral boundary, it’s a dangerous situation; and you can look at the situation, for example, in Rwanda where the Tutsis and the Hutus defined each other as outside each other’s moral boundaries. Then it becomes okay to persecute people or discriminate against them, or exterminate them. And I think with the Nazis in Germany, that was not a German, but it was a Nazi policy to classify people into those who were worthy and those who were outside the boundary of society and therefore dispensable.
Genocides are difficult things to understand, but I think it takes both political leadership and the general population has to be willing and go along with, collaborate with that government in agreeing that those people are unworthy. In other words, somebody has to organize a genocide, but the general population has to at least agree silently that it’s okay, even if they don’t actually carry out something. So I don’t really know of any case of genocide where the entire population is up in arms and absolutely opposed to it. A government—in order to exterminate a group of people, there has to be a general feeling the population that there’s something wrong with these people, that they somehow need to be controlled or removed from society in some way: there’s something wrong with them, and therefore, the government is allowed to do that.
I think in the future one of the things we need to do is be very alert to situations where groups of people are being vilified as a whole group not for individual actions, but as a whole group. Stereotyping is normal. People stereotype others, and that’s never going to go away. But, when stereotyping starts becoming a general consensus of vilifying and condemning one group just because they’re members of that group, then you have a situation where it’s dangerous. And then if you get a government that in order to keep in control, and they have some kind of totalitarian control, wants to persecute one whole group, they have the ability to do it. And that’s where it’s a red flag for groups like the United Nations or NATO or the United States to try and anticipate that this could lead to a widespread violence against that group.