Philosophy Weekend: The Atrocity Cube

Africa American Arabic Big Thinking British Eastern Ecology Existential History Jewish Politics Psychology Russian

It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.

Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.

I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.

The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).

The first step in the experiment is to identify the simple principles that we will apply to the known historical facts in order to reach an answer. In the previous two weekends I've proposed two:

The Ashley Wilkes Principle is the observation that every society will consider itself highly moral even as it may engage in vile activities. This is a tremendously powerful tool for ethical study, because it means that even the worst and most inhumane actors -- murderous Nazi bureaucrats, rapacious slave traders, vicious Communist minions, bomb-planting terrorists, machete-weilding child killers -- will always leave behind written and spoken evidence of the moral justifications behind their atrocious acts. No large scale holocaust or genocide or massacre or atrocity in history appears to be an exception to this rule. No matter how morally rotten any society may be, evil actors will always leave behind texts that display the precise reasoning with which they pat themselves on their backs and convince themselves that they are doing the right thing. By reading these texts, we can go a long way towards understanding why these atrocities occurred.

Blood Alienation is the name I am proposing for a phenomenon that seems to trigger nearly every major genocide or massacre or ethnic cleansing in history. This phenomenon occurs when one segment of a society becomes convinced that another segment of the same society is its mortal enemy. A transformation occurs within a society when this meme of paranoid fear begins to spread, and when it spreads rapidly and becomes common wisdom, the chances that a massacre or genocide will occur become much greater.

I began this inquiry as an experiment, and have been making the steps up as I go along -- but even at this early stage I find myself surprised at how well the two principles explain the worst atrocities of modern times. At the risk of being ridiculously reductive and simplistic, I have to wonder if the above two principles are nearly all we need to explain every major genocide or massacre of the past hundred years.

The April 1994 disaster in Rwanda is a useful case study because everything happened there so quickly that subterfuge and propaganda had no time to take root. It has become a cliche to describe April 1994 as a sudden descent into primal collective madness and tribal irrationality. Sadly, though, there was nothing primal or irrational about this very modern genocide, and the only reason it has become a cliche to emphasize the primitivistic irrationality of the terrible genocide is that most people don't bother to learn about the political agreement that triggered it -- a political agreement that the Hutu majority ethnic group believed would empower the privileged minority Tutsis at the expense of their own freedom and empowerment.

It's important to realize that there is absolutely no doubt that this pending political change frightened the Hutus and inspired the massacre. We can wonder how the roving gangs of killers could have been so brutal, but we do not need to wonder how they justified their brutalities to themselves. It's all right there in the historical record. The Rwanda genocide was an act of fear, not an act of hatred. Hatred was there, of course -- victims were constantly tortured, mutilated, insulted and raped -- but the hatred does not seem to have been the cause of the genocide. Rather, the hatred appears to have been manufactured and exploited by the still-unknown planners of the massacre, who used radio broadcasts and other media to provoke bands of killers to fast action.

In these radio broadcasts, Tutsis were constantly referred to as "cockroaches". But the massacre did not happen because the Hutu killers thought of Tutsis as cockroaches. It happened the other way around: the dehumanization of the Tutsis was necessary to inspire the massacre. It's worth noting that the bands of machete murderers had to drink themselves into near stupors in order to achieve the state of mindlessness necessary to do their work. After a few banana beers, apparently, a human being can start to look like a cockroach.

Similar patterns are easily found in other violent examples of ethnic cleansing. It seems that we are contextualizing when we characterize any genocide as an act of hatred. The hatred may be real, but it does not seem to ever be the cause of genocide. Rather, genocide is always inspired by fear, by the terrible logic of blood alienation. The hatred comes after. The fear comes first.

The Holocaust that killed six million Jews during the Second World War in Europe seems very similar to the genocide in Rwanda: a majority's fear of oppression by a privileged minority, a vile campaign of dehumanization of the targeted minority in order to provoke the violence that is considered a political or military necessity. As an American Jew whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust, I know that many of my fellow Jews see the Holocaust as an expression of hatred. The more I learn for myself, the more I realize that this perception is an illusion.

The historical record shows that religious or ethnic anti-semitism had very little to do with the motivation behind the Holocaust. Fear of Soviet-style Communism had everything to do with it. Our own understanding of Europe's history during the terrible decades of the two World Wars has become so warped that most people today don't know that there was an attempted Communist revolution in Germany after the end of the First World War, led by the tragic Rosa Luxembourg and other German Jews who wished to replicate Lenin and Trotsky's success in Berlin. The killing of Rosa Luxembourg and her fellow Jewish Communists in 1919 led directly to the empowerment of proto-fascist groups like the Freikorps and the early Nazis whose primary stated purpose was to prevent the possibility of a Jewish/Communist takeover of Germany. While we can't take the thought of homegrown Communist revolution in Germany seriously today, because Rosa Luxembourg and her partners were so completely defeated, we are not seeing history clearly if we don't understand that the possibility seemed very real to Germans in the years after the First World War.

As with the solving of a puzzle, pieces seem to fall in place as we proceed to look at the facts in light of our two primary principles, and new combinations suddenly become possible. After a lifetime of believing that Jews were killed in Europe during World War II because they were hated, it's a tough shift to realize that they were killed rather for political expedience (and, as the Second World War proceeded, for military and strategic expedience). It's also a shocking shift to realize that the hatred that accompanied the Holocaust may have been manufactured and promoted in order to make the killings possible. And yet the historical records seem to support this interpretation. This helps to explain the fact that the few brutal and hateful masterminds of the Holocaust such as Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Hans Frank complained often about the terrible toll it took on their men to carry out their quotas of killings. These pathetic Nazi death troops didn't get drunk on banana beer like their Hutu counterparts, but they must have found other ways to numb themselves.

There's much more to be written here, and there are many, many more disasters of the 20th century to examine. But a critical question begins to emerge: is hatred ever the cause of genocide? I'm beginning to believe it never is. Fear of a perceived mortal enemy appears to always be the cause of genocide, and this stunning realization may be the first major step towards solving the puzzle we need to solve.

I'd like to know if the suggestion I'm laying out here makes as much sense to my readers as it does to me. Am I on the right track? Am I missing anything? Please let me know, because I can't solve these puzzles all by myself.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Genocide is Not a Force of Nature. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Blood Alienation.
3 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Atrocity Cube"

by Sonic Nurse on

(Already present) Resident shame and poverty, fear, need to self justify, hate, dehumanization as a means to justify hate and proposed-action, action. These seem like the general states along the continuum of human brutality. From the micro-cosmic level of school bullying to genocide....

by mtmynd on

Re: " Fear of a perceived mortal enemy appears to always be the cause of genocide..."

I've long believed that ignorance (lack of knowledge) breeds fear which in turn creates the violence that we have seen around us as long as we've walked and thought about this place we call home.

When people don't know anyone outside their community or cultural environment, that allows a defensive reaction to develop rather than a friendly curiosity as to who that person, group, religion or (???) is and what do they have in common or to offer. We hu'mans find ourselves acting stupid if we just trust someone who we don't know... what if they attacked us or stole from us... maybe stole our children or our women...? After all this trust thing can only go so far, right?

This scenario is based upon our own ignorance just as it is with that "other" group I mentioned. We have two sides of the problem that makes both uncomfortable when they meet. They hardly trust themselves and their own families much less another strange group with who they must share the bounty.

I look at our own country, America, and our expansion from the NE throughout the present borders and beyond. Every new group that came from another country or even another religion when confronting those who had been here first created a suspicion. This is basic ignorance which eventually may grow into fear as the unknown factor continues smoldering in the minds of the suspicious. That ignorance would be satisfied thru a discussion with both sides, finding commonalities that would lessen, if not remove, the fear factor.

Of course, what we learn of that 'other' may increase our suspicion thereby creating an environment which unsettles both sides, each appearing as completely different from the other to the point that there is no trust in the situation. There is where violence grows from... no trust which spurns a defensive reaction which may grow into outright violence, i.e. war. All because we may feel we are unable to trust another based upon what we learn about them.

by Claudia on

I think that atrocities are usually justified in terms of declaring a group of human beings "subhuman". That has been the case in most or even all justifications of genocide. In some cases, just as U.S. attacks on civilians in other countries, the attacks are rationalized in terms of the means justifies the political ends (rather than declaring groups of people to be subhuman).

Add new comment