Criminological theory and the problem of genocide

Criminological theory and the problem of genocide

Introduction: Criminological theory and the problem of genocide

                  The last decade has been marked by momentous acts of human violence – brutal genocides in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda and Burundi, and breath-taking acts of terrorism in New York and Washington. In the aftermath, the United Nations has created international criminal tribunals in The Hague and in Arusha to bring offenders from Yugoslavia and Rwanda to justice. Steps have also been taken to create a permanent international criminal court that could become a general venue for trying international war criminals (Schabas, 2001). In the area of terrorism, the Taliban in Afghanistan has been toppled, and its sponsorship of Al-Qaida terrorist training camps has been ended, though world-wide terrorism continues to flourish. In the past decade, non-combatants increasingly have become targets of state-sponsored and independent projects of mass murder in cases of both genocide and terrorism.

The last decade has also been one of the most fruitful in terms of the development of criminological theory, especially with respect to the debates, sparked by Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) A General Theory of Crime, surrounding self-control and social-control as explanations of crime and analogous behaviors. If Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory is truly general, should we not expect it to shed light on events such as terrorism and genocide? Since their general theory does not require that the activities (i.e. “crime”) that form the basis of genocide and terrorism be contrary to law, we might ask whether they are part of the subject matter that properly occupies criminologists, and what makes them so. While A General Theory is careful to resist the determination of its dependent variables by acts of state legislation, it finds a commonality in crime, deviation, sin and recklessness. “The theory of sin is also a theory of crime and of immorality and of accident” (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990:9). In point of fact, genocide and other acts of mass violence are contrary to international conventions and also contrary to the customary rules of war.

                  The United Nations defines genocide in Article II of the 1948 Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (cited in Chalk and Jonassohn 1990:44):

In the Present convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such:

a.       Killing members of the group;

b.       Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c.       Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d.       Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e.       Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The UN definition of genocide was developed in a highly politicized context. The definition curiously omits political groups or classes. According to Orentlicher (1999: 154) “too many governments, it seems, would be vulnerable to the charge of genocide if deliberate destruction of political groups fell within the crime’s compass”.[1] For example, Soviet policies of food seizure in the Ukraine in 1932 led to the starvation of several million peasant farmers in what historians characterize as a man-made famine (Mace, 1997). A parallel problem arises in the annihilation of Kurds by the regime of Saddam Hussein.  In 1988, an estimated 50,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed by the use of chemical weapons. Were they killed because they were Kurds “as such”, i.e. ethnic rivals, or because they were political opponents to the Iraqi regime who had conspired with the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war? Also, the killing fields in Cambodia that resulted in the slaughter of some 1.5 to 2 million civilians during the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 would escape the UN’s definition since the perpetrators and their victims were from the same ethnic/national group.

Despite the anomalies that might arise from limitations in the actus reus of genocide, we would include all such cases in the scope of our inquiry since they were murders of innocent civilians on a massive scale. They are also universally condemned as barbaric. The Nuremberg Court (1945) put Nazi officials on trial for “crimes against humanity”, even though the orders that resulted in the destruction of the European Jews had the stamp of official authority and the Nazi rule of law (Arendt, 1994). Should they be viewed as an expression of “criminality”? The breakup of the former Yugoslavia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union was marked by a series of armed conflicts between Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. As each group sought to consolidate a racially and religiously homogenous territory, policies of ‘ethnic cleansing’ displaced millions of people from their homes and villages. Such conflicts frequently led to the physical elimination of non-combatants solely on the basis of religious or ethnic differences.

The Recent Genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda

 What made Yugoslavia so prone to genocide and ethnic cleansing? There had been historic divisions between the Bosnian, Serb and Croat groups based on religion, Croats (like the Austrians) were Roman Catholic, Serbs (like the Russians) were Eastern Orthodox and the Bosnians (like the Turks) were Muslim. There was a considerable history of conflict and feud extending back centuries. The consolidation of Yugoslavia under Tito’s communist leadership following WW II led to substantial integration of this population mosaic. Intermarriage across religious boundaries was common. With the demise of the Soviet block in Eastern Europe, Serbian leader, Slobadon Milosovic rejected the ideals of a mixed society and pursued policies to create ethnically homogenous states (Markusen, 1999). Franjo Tudjman acted similarly in Croatia. The Serbs forcibly removed non-Serbs (Croats and Muslims) from Serbian controlled territory. In the early 1990s, there was evidence of massacres committed on all sides against civilian populations. The Serbian leadership in particular mobilized the resources of the former Yugoslav army and created new bands of paramilitaries for “self-defense”. Part of the Serbian fury was arguably kindled by atrocities suffered during the second world war. When the Nazis occupied Yugoslavia in 1941, the Croat Ustasha party created the Jasenovac concentration camp in which an estimated 400,000 Serbs, 30,500 Jews and 20,000 gypsies were murdered (Hirsch, 1999).

The “Bosnian War” (1992-1995) erupted on the Bosnian-Serb border when the Yugoslav army attacked key cities and villages and put Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, under siege, subjecting the civilian population to indiscriminant mortar bombardment, looting of humanitarian shipments and random shooting by snipers. This resulted in a sustained campaign of terror designed to separate the communities and expunge the enemy.

Bombardments of the civilian population, first of Sarajevo, then of besieged villages; massacres during the conquest, then the forced evacuation of civilians to modify the ethnic structure of the particular area; illegal internment of the civilian population in concentration camps; torture; systematic rape; summary executions; appropriation and pillage of civilian property; systematic destruction of the cultural and religious heritage with the sole aim of eliminating any trace of non-Serbs in the conquered territories; using detainees as human shields on frontlines and in minefields; and starvation of civilians who resisted—these were only some of the violations of international humanitarian law and the laws of war of which the Serbs were guilty (Hartmann, 1999: 55-6).

By late 1994, intense pressure from NATO airstrikes eased the threats to civilians in Sarajevo. The Serbs turned their attention in the spring of 1995 to the UN safe haven for Bosnian refugees at Srebrenica. In July, the enclave was overrun by the Serbs resulting in the single largest act of genocide in Europe since the Nazi period. After neutralizing the Dutch peacekeepers, the Serbs evacuated the enclave in 33 hours, sending some 7,000 Bosnian males to shallow graves within days (Honig and Both, 1999). Milosovic, Radovan Karadzic, the former Serb president of Bosnia Herzegovina, and General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army, were indicted by the international tribunal at The Hague for war crimes and genocide for attacks at Sarajevo and Srebrenica. Only Milosovic has been arrested as of summer 2002.

                  Another notorious instance of genocide involved the murder of an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people, primarily ethnic Tutus and moderate Hutus at the hands of the majority Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. The Rwandan conflict was the third largest genocide of the 20th century. Where the Balkans had been marked by historic conflicts between the various communities, traditional Rwandan society was highly integrated, despite the fact that the society was peopled by what would appear to be three different races – the Twa (or ‘pygmies’) who comprised some 1% of the population, the Hutus who comprised some 85%, and the Tutsis who comprised the balance (according to the 1933 census, Gourevitch 1998: 57). The Hutus and Tutsis were traditionally characterized by quite different physiques—the former like the Bantu-speakers of central Africa, the latter more resembling the taller, thinner people of Ethiopia. Over time, the various groups evolved a common language and system of governance. In the 20th century, the majority was converted to Catholicism by the Belgian colonial authorities who displaced the German colonial powers in 1916.

The major division between Tutsis and Hutus was in terms of livelihood. The former were traditionally cattlemen, the Hutus were farmers, and there was some economic advantage associated with wealth in cattle. When Europeans expropriated the control of Rwandan society, they delegated the Hutus to demeaning work and a degraded political status, and brought them under the control of Tutsi chiefs and civil servants. The Tutsis enjoyed favoritism in education and enjoyed a monopoly of administration and political jobs. In 1933 the Belgians issued mandatory identity cards specifying tribal origins. For the European colonialists, the Tutsis were viewed as one of the lost tribes of Israel (the Hamites), and the Hutus little better than savages. A society that had enjoyed harmony and prosperity was brought into a state of discrimination and resentment under colonial control. However, there was no significant expression of this politically until the Hutu manifesto of 1957. Rather than seeking an abolition of the identity cards and their underlying racist presuppositions, Hutus organized for ‘democracy’, meaning majority rule, social emancipation and restrictions on the political and educational opportunities for Tutsis. The tide changed against the Tutsis as a new generation of European post-colonialists sided openly with the majority against the minority. A popular rebellion against the Tutsis was supported by the Belgians, and the first of many waves of Tutsis fled in exile to neighboring countries.

In the early 1960s, attacks on Rwanda by displaced Tutsis resulted in reprisal massacres against Tutsis within Rwanda followed by more refugee departures. Hutus in neighboring Burundi were massacred by Tutsi refugees followed by more reprisals in Rwanda. A generation of Tutsi refugees began organizing in Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire for the right of return, for the end of the de facto apartheid system in Rwanda and for an end to the one-party dictatorship of Hutu ultra-nationals. In 1986, the Kigali government dismissed out of hand the right of refugees to return home. The Rwandan Alliance for National Union, a foreign-based alliance of moderate Hutus and Tutsis, was superceded by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a political movement created to change conditions in Rwanda by military force. Civil war broke out in 1990 with the invasion of Rwanda by the RPF. The first invasion turned out to be a disastrous military event for the RPF and was repulsed with the help of French military aid. Three hundred thousand new refugees left the country as thousands of Tutsis were massacred and tens of thousands detained as RPF sympathizers. The government of Juvenal Habyarimana began to acquire massive levels of small arms and explosives in a series of secret purchases from Egypt and France. The army was expanded from 5,000 to 28,000, and the security forces began to organize civilian militias, the “interahamwe”, or ‘those who work together’. The Hutu political elite began to talk openly about the need to remove every Tutsi from Rwandan society. In April 1994 President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as it approached Kigali en route back from peace talks with the RPF. This incident changed the low levels of killings that had become increasingly frequent into a total genocidal bloodbath that lasted three months. It came to an end with the defeat of the army by the RPF in July, 1994. At that point, 1 million Hutu refugees left Rwanda.

Can criminology shed light on these events? And what has to be established for their inclusion in the repertoire of activities properly defined as “the use of force and fraud in the pursuit of self-interest” to follow the definition given by Gottfredson and Hirschi?

In this contribution, we advance the case that crimes such as genocide can be comprehended within the broad boundaries of the control tradition as articulated by Hirschi (1969) and Gottredson and Hirschi (1990). But first, we must outline the key elements of A General Theory.

Criminality versus Crime in Control Theory

Gottfredson and Hirschi describe an approach to the explanation of crime that is two-fold. On the one side is the motivation or the appetite of the offender. From this perspective, offenders choose the course of action that constitutes the social transgression. Persons with low self-control are more prone to making choices that are hedonistic and short-term in scope. While this is critical to the perspective described in 1990, it is not the whole story. In their discussion of the “logical structure” of typical crimes, they emphasize that in addition to criminality (low self control), offenders require structures of circumstances and opportunities. A burglary, for example, requires not only a motivated actor, but an unguarded premise. Drawing on “routine activities” theory, they point out that homes are entered because doors and windows are left unlocked, valuables disappear when left unguarded and targets of vandalism are often close at hand.  Crimes typically do not take much planning or expertise. Our point is that Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory is not premised exclusively on low self control but a combination of this trait (“criminality”), on the one side, and the social circumstances (“crime”) that constrain and/or expedite the behavioral outcomes, on the other. In the following paragraphs we reiterate the elements of each.

The Elements of Low Self Control (Criminality)

In A General Theory of Crime, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990: 15-44), to their credit, go to lengths to illuminate the nature of criminal acts. It is from their description of the nature of crime that the elements of low self-control or “criminality” are gleaned. For example, since criminal acts provide immediate gratification of desires, a major characteristic of low self-control is the tendency to “respond to tangible stimuli in the immediate environment” (1990: 89). In other words, those with low self-control have a “here and now” orientation which predisposes them to act with little regard for the future consequences of their actions. Since criminal acts provide easy or simple gratification of desires, those lacking self-control will also lack diligence, tenacity, or persistence in a course of action (1990: 89). Furthermore, criminal acts are exciting, risky, or thrilling and, thus, those lacking self-control will be adventuresome, risk-taking, active and physical. At the same time that criminal acts are risky and exciting, they provide few or meager long-term benefits. Therefore, people with low self-control will “have unstable marriages, friendships, and job profiles” (1990: 89). Crimes require little skill or planning. It follows, then, that those with low self-control will not value or possess cognitive skills. And, importantly, since crimes often result in pain or discomfort for the victim, low self-control individuals will be indifferent and insensitive to the needs and suffering of other individuals.

                  Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990: 90) ask us to recall that crime involves the pursuit of immediate pleasure. Consequently, individuals with low self-control will also “pursue immediate pleasures that are not criminal: they will tend to smoke, drink, use drugs, gamble, have children out of wedlock, and engage in illicit sex.” However, one of the major benefits of crime does not necessarily follow from the pursuit of pleasure but instead from the avoidance of “pain” or the relief from “momentary irritation.” Thus, people with low self-control will have “minimal tolerance for frustration and little ability to respond to conflict through verbal rather than physical means” (1990:90). Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990: 90) summarize the characteristics of the low self-control actor in the following passage:

In sum, people who lack self-control will tend to be impulsive, insensitive, physical (as opposed to mental), risk-taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal, and they will tend therefore to engage in criminal and analogous acts.

                  But crime requires more than just “criminality” or “appetite.” Although the discussions of the elements of “crime” tend to be less systematically laid out in A General Theory–at least compared to the discussions of criminality–they are no less important to understanding criminal acts.

The Elements or Structure of Crime

                                    For Gottfredson and Hirschi, the logical structure of crime includes opportunity. They state (1990: 23) that “there is every reason to believe that the necessary conditions strategy of opportunity theory is compatible with the idea of criminality.” In fact, crimes are the product of the appetite of the actor situated within a context of opportunity. For instance, the burglar “searches for an unlocked door or an open window in an unoccupied single-story house,” the robber “victimizes available targets on the street,” the embezzler “steals from his own cash register,” and the car thief “drives away cars with the keys left in the ignition” (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990: 17). Often, drugs and/or alcohol are factors contributing to the actor’s perception of opportunity by lowering his inhibitions. And, group membership can play a role in criminal behavior. Groups facilitate certain activities that are more difficult to accomplish alone. In fact, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990:157) state that self-control is a major factor in determining group membership. But group membership is not responsible for criminal activity. Instead, groups merely “facilitate acts that would be too difficult or dangerous to do alone” (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990: 159). Thus, some of the key elements of crime include:

(a)     group mediation of action, i.e. the power of peers or action in a group context to lower the threshold of actually perpetrating the crime,

(b)     the effects of drugs or alcohol in lowering inhibitions,

(c)     the environmental conditions of surveillance or non- surveillance of potential targets of exploitation.

The Application of General Theory to Genocide

                 Both criminality and circumstance act conjointly to create the potential for crime and analogous behaviors. Gottfedson and Hirschi describe their focus as the use of force and fraud in the pursuit of self-interest. When it comes to genocide and mass murder, there is little doubt that the activities of genocide and mass murder involve the use of force—deadly force. However, the activities of genocide do not necessarily point to an individual-level trait of impulsivity or low self-control. Nonetheless, the use of deadly violence to achieve political ends is consistent with certain elements of low self-control. The Serbs in Srebrenica liquidated their foes in 1995 with massive violence, taking the lives of 6000-7000 Bosnian men and boys in an orgy of killing that lasted several days. The Hutu political leadership provoked citizens against neighbors in 1994. From one-half to as many as a million men, women and children were murdered with machetes, clubs and guns within three months of public incitement of ordinary Hutus by their political leaders. In both cases, inter-ethnic tensions and civil war preceded the genocides. However, rather than pursuing complicated and time-consuming political negotiations, the political leadership in both cases sought remedies that paralleled the impulsive characteristics found in studies of garden-variety crimes: the immediate gratification of desires (hatred) through the self-righteous slaughter of enemies; easy or simple steps to achieve political ends (i.e. physical displacement and annihilation); risky, thrilling and/or exciting solutions (sadistic orgies of killing); dubious long-term benefits (since the activities attract prosecutions for genocide, and result in cycles of revenge); little skill or planning in the conduct of genocide; indifference to the suffering of the victims; versatility of criminal acts (cruelty, humiliation and degradation of victims, theft of their property and desecration of their cultural symbols); and an inability to tolerate frustration in the achievement of ends (through UN negotiations, political compromise and long term investments in peace agreements).

The Question of Collective versus Individual Action

                  One of the key issues in comparing acts of genocide and acts of garden-variety perpetrators of the kind customarily portrayed in general theory is the role of collective action. It is an open question whether classical theory even admits of a theory of collective action, given its hedonistic foundations. The issue of collective behavior is one tackled specifically by Gottfredson and Hirschi in a footnote. Gottfredson and Hirschi discuss the difficulty of classifying as a crime the action of a soldier killing in war. “Our conception of crime, which focuses on the self-interested nature of criminal acts, has no difficulty excluding behavior performed in pursuit of collective purposes” (1990: 175). It is certainly conceded that soldiers shooting other combatants are not acting in a criminal fashion. Indeed, contra Hagan and Greer (2002), war as such is not crime, and the laws of war treat killing as normative. However, those same laws are quite clear on the limits to collateral damage involving the destruction of civilian lives and property in actions against legitimate military targets. While recognizing the difficulty of applying general criminological theory to killing in actions against legitimate targets of war, who would say that My Lai was not a crime (Osiel 1999)? To say that the mass slaughter of unarmed civilians done “collectively” is not a “crime” is semantic gerrymandering. So even if we accept that a soldier’s killing in war as part of a collective campaign falls beyond the scope of crime and criminology, the same does not follow for genocide against unarmed, non-combatants done by soldiers, other government agents or civilians. Such actions are frequently labeled and prosecuted as “war crimes.” Are we to infer that war crimes escape any general theory because the beneficiary of the crime is not the individual, but the collectivity to which the individual belongs? But surely the individual shares in the collective benefits as part of the collectivity. This is recognized indirectly in the treatment of white collar, organizational and enterprise crimes undertaken through criminal conspiracies. Gottfredson and Hirschi argue that such behaviors are not troublesome for general theory. These crimes —which are often done collectively—pose no problems for general theory since “in the final analysis” actions are the actions of individuals (1990: 202). The theory raises a dilemma. On the one hand, if war crimes are not covered, then the theory is not truly general, and we need different theories for different types of offenses (including war crimes). If this were so, general theory would forfeit its claims of generality. On the other hand, if collective actions are excluded from the scope of criminology, then “group conflicts” that result in murder (Sellin, 1938; Turk, 1982) are not really crimes at all. Neither alternative is satisfactory.

Seven Hard Facts about Genocide

General theory is attractive since it identifies the major “hard facts” with which the theory has to come to terms. These are empirical generalities that must be dealt with in a principled way, while recognizing the major mechanisms that constitute the basis for the explanation. The generalities and mechanisms have to do with self-control or loss of restraint, the role of opportunity/crime structure, age, gender and ethnicity.

I. The Context and History of Pre-existing Collective Animosities

The first hard fact is that genocide is born in the crucible of war, civil war or violent social conflict. These circumstances demarcate the opponents and put them into a pre-existing state of conflict and/or animosity. Since war often entails an immediate threat to the personal security of the civilians in conflict, it is marked by deep feelings of insecurity and dread, fear for survival, and fear of untimely and undeserved death. Whatever codes of chivalry may have excluded non-combatants from risk of extermination in the past, the rise of total war has heightened the vulnerability of civilian non-combatants dramatically by legitimating the destruction of infrastructures needed to conduct war. Civil war intensifies inter-group conflict even more than international conflict because of the proximity of enemies in the same ecological space.  Sometimes the pretext of conflict is racial difference but it can be as narrow a difference as religion, language, cultural heritage or, as in the case of the Cambodian massacres, economic philosophies. The shared boundaries heighten the opportunities for conflict and victimization. But pre-existing animosities are not unique to criminology. Sellin (1933) identified crimes based on conflicts arising over norms found in different cultural groups. Usually in criminology such groups have been equated with competing gangs or ethnic peer groups, a situation too limited to explain the dynamics of genocide. Genocide simply raises the unit of analysis in conflict to the inter-group or community level. This is also true of the mechanisms to genocide.  Indeed, in his “group crime” theory, Vold (1958: 217) argued that many crimes “result from the clashes incidental to attempts to change, or to upset the caste system of racial segregation in various parts of the world.” Racial or ethnic stratification and its implications for the control of territories and their resources were central to the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, consistent with Vold’s group conflict perspective.

II. Ordinary People, Righteous Rage and Group Action

The second hard-fact is that the perpetrators of genocide are frequently recruited from the rank and file of society. Browning described the professional killers who filled the ranks of the German Order Police in Poland in the early 1940s as “ordinary men.” As part of the civil authority in occupied Poland, they performed many ordinary policing duties, but when called on, they participated in ghetto clearing and mass executions of Jews and Polish patriots. Goldhagen, examining the same historical records, noted that the authors of the Holocaust were not Nazi fanatics, but middle-aged German policemen, men who took leave to visit families on furloughs, and who when returned to the field volunteered for shooting missions because, at some level, they believed the Jews ought to die. He called them “ordinary Germans.”[2] Without the participation of 500,000-1,000,000 of these state functionaries, the Holocaust would never have happened. Mamdani, reflecting on the Rwandan genocide of Tutsis, similarly stresses how the “genocidaires” were recruited from all levels of society including the clergy, doctors, teachers and civil rights workers and that the low level technological methods of killing — the use of clubs, knives and machetes — required the mass mobilization of the population to butcher erstwhile neighbors. As Mamdani (2001: 18) stresses, the genocide was not only a state project, but a “social project”—conducted in public by ordinary citizens.

                  Several things are remarkable in these episodes. The perpetrators of “righteous slaughter” often do not appear to experience any lasting trauma or shame over their bloody murders. Like the perpetrators described in Katz’s Seductions of Crime (1988), they do not appear to experience remorse, guilt or compunction. The photos of young policemen in Browning’s and Goldhagen’s books show their faces beaming with satisfaction over the cruelty dealt out to the old Jewish men whose beards were shorn before they were executed, or who were urinated on, or beaten with whips as they were rounded up. Children and old people were shot indiscriminately. Often the killing took on a frenzied quality, as bodies accumulated in the streets and houses, as the perpetrators improvised cruel ways of expunging lives. Victims were often burned alive, locked in their places of worship—something that occurred repeatedly in both Poland and Rwanda.

General theory, because it presupposes a stability of low self-control over the life cycle, appears ill-equipped to explain how wholesale numbers of people were recruited into roles as insensitive killers. In point of fact, killers as a group already represent an anomaly to general theory since the majority of those who kill tend to do so only once. Katz emphasizes how persons in intimate relationships sometimes experience such intense emotional conflicts that they murder one another “in defense of a higher good.” Typically, this involves an event that produces profound humiliation in one party, the resolution of which is to strike out in rage. Rage re-directs the loss of face associated with humiliation and leads to a righteous violence, sometimes resulting in murder. In the cases he reports, Katz notes that the perpetrators do not try to flee, do not appear to experience any deep remorse in the aftermath of their deeds and are often found justified at trial in their behaviors as a result of provocation. The fact that they experienced a loss of self-control is undeniable. What is more problematic is that this does not appear to be associated with a life-long profile of “versatile” dysfunctional behavior, i.e. criminality.[3]  The loss of self-control appears more situational. If drugs, alcohol and/or tobacco can produce a transitory loss of self-control, the same may be argued for intense emotional breaches of experience. Gottfredson and Hirschi note the following regarding drugs: “Drugs, tobacco and alcohol serve more as indicators of limited self-control than as causes of crime, but they can, on occasion, produce criminal acts by reducing the time frame of the user to the immediate situation. With limited time and space horizons, the individual is vulnerable to spur-of-the-moment impulses” (1990: 179). Presumably, intense emotional experiences can similarly reduce the time frame to the immediate situation. Katz draws exactly this conclusion: “Rage focuses consciousness completely on the here-and-now situation with an unparalleled intensity. Rage so powerfully magnifies the most minute details of what is present that one’s consciousness cannot focus on the potential consequences of the action for one’s subsequent life” (p. 31). And a combination of anger and alcohol can be more potent still.

                  Where Katz points to situational losses of self-control arising from interpersonal humiliation and anger, the phenomenon of genocide may trade more on hatred and other deep emotional insecurities to lower the threshold to violence in inter-group mass murder. This could explain why “genocidaires” could be recruited from across the social structure, why they could be mobilized in a short, intensive spree of mass-killing, and could subsequently re-enter the ranks of society with little risk of repetition or migration to other sources of misconduct.

                  Two other considerations come into play in the understanding of the onset and contextual promotion of genocide. The first has to do with the nature of the effects of group solidarity in the commission of crime. The second has to do with the enormous emotional intensity of the activities of genocide themselves. On the first count, general theory is clear that groups do not create criminality, but rather that persons with low self-control drift into associations with persons of similar dispositions. When low self-control is more situational, the dynamics change. The normal effect of groups continues to play its role, i.e. reducing inhibitions. Gottfredson and Hirschi report as follows: “groups imply impunity from sanction; they defuse and confuse responsibility for the act, and they shelter the perpetrator from immediate identification and long-term risk of retribution. In some cases they prevent sanctions through threats of retaliation. Groups, then, act as a mask and a shield, as a cover for activities that would not otherwise be performed (1990: 209).” Obviously, the gangs of killers who cleared the Polish ghettoes of their Jews in 1941 and 1942 acted under the cloak of group action, dispersing responsibility from specific individuals as they “mopped up” children and old people. If this is true of informal groups, it is probably of greater importance in formal groups, including persons in uniforms, persons acting in official bureaucratic capacities, as was the case in the Holocaust.  This explanation disavows the perspective of Milgram whose obedience paradigm portrayed the perpetrators of the Holocaust as frightened pawns in the German bureaucracy. The evidence is quite on the contrary. The perpetrators acted as though the destruction of the European Jews was a national project—anticipating the similar perspective of Serbs vis a vis the Bosnians, and the Hutus vis a vis the Tutsis.

                  Also relevant in understanding the dynamics of genocide is the emotional intensity of the killing events themselves. The reports from Browning and Goldhagen from the initial ghetto round-ups in Poland in 1941 suggest that the soldiers and policemen went into a frenzy of orgiastic murder, that without specific instructions on how to clear the Jewish neighborhoods, they initiated cruel methods of killing. As with Katz’s “moral dominance” in robbery, they frequently took delight in de-humanizing the victims before taking their lives. The evidence from Rwanda is similar. Many victims were dismembered a limb at a time over days before succumbing to their wounds. What this suggests is that the activity of killing unleashes an appetite of brutality, of sadism, and cruelty that is normally checked in peacetime, or found only rarely – among serial killers and psychopaths.  The Rwanda case is particularly disturbing since victims were dispatched often by multiple cuts, often by mobs of perpetrators wielding machetes and knives against single unarmed victims.

                  In summary, the second hard fact is that the perpetrators of genocide obviously exhibit a lack of self-control that is brutal, but contrary to the condition found in garden-variety criminal populations. These cases seem to be grounded in emotional states marked by hatred, exacerbated by a condition of conflict, expedited by group actions, and often abetted by alcohol. In contrast to the model of stable, impulsive dispositions in specific individuals from backgrounds of ineffective socialization, the path to genocide involving “normal” individuals is marked by transitory shifts in self-control produced by extremely provocative propaganda, i.e. emotional excitations of the sort found in cases of ‘righteous slaughter’. Though the primary illustrations that Katz amasses come from domestic conflicts, disputes in other contexts may be just as lethal and just as transitory (e.g. “road rage”). By implication, situational conditions can produce levels of violence that are only weakly associated with generalized individual impulsiveness but more akin to transitory mob action.[4]

                  This is not to say that individuals of low self-control play no important role in genocide. Goldhagen’s depiction of  Lieutenant Hartwig Gnade and his sadistic inclinations to beat the Jews he was going to murder raise questions about the psychopathology of German officers involved in mass murder (Goldhagen 1997: 228). Melvern (2000: 44) writes regarding the ‘self-defence’ militias created in Rwanda: “The militia contained delinquents and petty criminals, experts in thuggery who disrupted political meetings and terrorized anyone who criticized the government.” Zeljkp Raznatovic (a.k.a. “Arkan”), the notorious commander of a Bosnian Serb paramilitary group (and himself a wanted criminal) recruited persons with a similar profile: “Arkan, with the help of a recruitment campaign in the state-owned media, had begun rallying unemployed soccer hooligans and criminals and training them at army facilities” (Amanpour 1999: 268). Goldhagen’s position is that, from the perspective of an historian, such persons may expedite genocide but that it occurs whether they participate or not, and that genocide should not be attributed to persons with specific dispositions. However, for criminologists, the effect of such extreme individuals is like that of delinquent peer groups–they appear to reduce the inhibitions towards violence even if they are not responsible primarily for the violence of others.[5]

III. Righteousness and Techniques of Provocation

The next hard fact is an elaboration of the last one but points to mechanisms that play a important role in ‘making murderers out of victims’ (to paraphrase Mamdani). Sykes and Matza (1957) advanced the idea that offenders frequently rationalize their misconduct by “techniques of deviance neutralization”. These include denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners and appeal to a high loyalty. These appear to be post hoc rationalizations that mitigate the individual’s culpability for misconduct. But the mental element in crime may operate in a different way. Techniques of thinking or account-giving that “neutralize” the offender’s mental state after crime seem to be the exact opposite of the mental state needed to mobilize the righteousness and anger at the core of genocidal behavior. What are required instead are techniques of provocation and incitement. For example, when Major Trapp assembled the men of Police Battalion 101 before the extermination of the Jews of Jozefow in Poland in 1941, he tried to encourage their murderous behavior by telling them “to think of our women and our children in our homeland who had to endure aerial bombardments…we were supposed to bear in mind that many women and children lose their lives in these attacks. Thinking of these facts would help us carry out the order” (Goldhagen, 1997: 212).

In Rwanda there were dozens of speeches by Hutu ultra-nationalists designed to inflame fear of Tutsi invaders. In point of fact, the RPF had staged an invasion, the country was in civil war, and there had been massacres of Hutus in neighboring Burundi as recently as 1993. Earlier, in 1972 some 200,000 Burundi Hutus were murdered by a Tutsi-dominated army. This led to the departure of hundreds of thousands of Burundi Hutus into Rwanda. As a consequence, there were Hutus in Rwanda who had already suffered gravely at the hands of the Tutsis, so threats that they were returning, that Hutu land would be seized and that the Hutu would again become subservient to Tutsi masters, and indeed that they were being enslaved and butchered by the invading army, were extremely provocative. By 1994 the civil war had created about 1 million internally displaced Hutus. In addition, the first Hutu president of Burundi, Mechior Ndadaye was assassinated in 1993 by officers of the Tutsi-dominated army. Propagandists in Rwanda seized on this as proof that political accommodation with the Tutsis was impossible. This cancelled any popular confidence in the Arusha peace accords that were designed to stop the civil war and create democratic elections in Rwanda.

The other propaganda message that struck such a deep chord was that the loss of the civil war and a UN-brokered peace with the Tutsis would end the Hutu political ascendance in Rwanda. When the state-owned radio and newspapers advocated wiping out the Tutsis in their entirety, it was heard as an act of Hutu political self-preservation. Propaganda does not neutralize deviance as much as generate the hysteria required to make it self-righteous. In such a condition, neutrality or moderation is interpreted as treason, with the consequence that moderate Hutu politicians and citizens, including tens of thousands in mixed marriages became targets for elimination.

Our position here differs from the usual role attributed to the mass media in studies of TV violence and aggression. While social learning theorists argue that normal viewers may acquire aggressive conduct as a result of exposure to violent entertainment, the evidence for this is weak (Fowles 1999). However, this does not mean that mass media can have no important role in inciting violence. The people drawn into acts of genocide typically have experienced cycles of murder, massacre and reprisal killing. Sometimes violence is provoked simply by news. For example, the assassination of President Ndadaye resulted in some 50,000 murders in Burundi, victims more or less evenly split between Hutus and Tutsis. Sometimes violence can be provoked deliberately by political speeches and propaganda. What they have in common is making the motive for genocide respectable, and inflaming the appetite for self-defense and vengeance. This is a media “effect” but the mechanisms have nothing to do with social learning and everything to do with hate promotion and provocation.

IV. The Role of the State and the Rule of Law

                  The fourth hard fact to be explored concerns the role of the state in mobilizing the perpetrators against their victims. In Rwanda, the Hutu-led government compiled lists of Tutsis, broadcast their names and license numbers by radio, purchased and distributed thousands of weapons, and used the militias to turn out the Hutus and dispatch their erstwhile neighbors. The Serbian militias (e.g. ‘Arkan’s Tigers’) were makeshift armies of non-professional fighters and barely disguised pawns of the Yugoslav army, armed and supplied to carry out the war against civilians. They assumed the dirty work of ‘ethnic cleansing’ at the behest of the political elite. Gottfredson and Hirschi note: “If indeed some crime is the product of formal organization, or if indeed the mob is structured like a legitimate firm, then there may be merit invoking principles of organizational behavior to explain some criminal behavior” (1990: 202). The principles would include hierarchical structures of command, systems of reinforcement to ensure compliance with role expectations and some overall consensus regarding the political desirability of the actions. In addition, the fact that the state becomes implicated means that the usual role of authorities in creating conditions of personal security evaporates. During genocide, people who look for succor among those who have monopolized the legitimate use of force (i.e. politicians acting through police and armed forces) are turning to the very agents of death for protection.

The state as such is not a concept found in control theory. However, Gottfredson and Hirschi do explain how pain and pleasure are regulated by various “systems”—natural, moral, religious and political. The state is the political apparatus that regulates behavior. Horowitz (2002) outlines how states have been critical to the major genocides of the past century and he points out that they tend to be associated with authoritarian regimes. Often these regimes are dominated by a small coterie of elites who use their access to power to further their individual interests.[6] This suggests that if they are premised even nominally on the rule of law, they will tend to be unstable and dictatorial because they lack any transcendent legitimacy and reflect individual megalomanias.

                  In Hirschi’s Causes of Delinquency (1969), one of the key covariates of misconduct was “belief” in societal values and respect for the law and authority figures. One of the hallmarks of the rule of law is its indifference to the specific identities of citizens of the sort that are implicated in ethnic cleansing. The logic of the rule of law in democratic societies is that it tends to valorize questions of ‘uniformity’, and hence to create a moral dissonance between particularistic justice and the ideals of universality (Thompson, 1975). Also related is the common sense perception of equity. The modern secular state treats the rights of citizens as equal. Historical animosities between groups motivate aggression of a collective kind that suppresses the respect for the rule of law. The state historically has assumed the role of arbitrating competing claims to citizenship and the rights it entails. In homogenous states, consensus is probably achieved relatively easily due to common values (religion, language, culture, ethnicity). The divided society complicates the task of a ‘transcendent’ or ‘inclusive’ rule of law for the whole state and is more prone to genocide.

V. Unguarded Targets in Ethnic Conflicts

                  The fifth hard fact we need to deal with is that the victims are basically unarmed and defenseless. Or they are confronted with force so overwhelming that they cannot resist effectively. This fact is co-extensive with the observation that the targets of genocide are “civilians”, i.e. people by definition unarmed. Who would expect children and women to be armed? This means that genocide is an act devised to destroy what Hegel referred to as “civil society”, the normal transactions of everyday life based on what Durkheim emphasized as ‘contract law’. Students of sociology will recall Durkheim’s comparison on the mentality of primitive versus modern societies. The former were governed by a collective consciousness of ‘mechanical solidarity’ in which social cohesion was based on vivid and emotional condemnation of the criminal and outcast, and based on the use of lethal force to eliminate the enemies of the community. Modern societies marked by “organic solidarity’ are governed by contracts, a form of law based on trust, and policed by informal methods of social control, and by social expectations of reciprocal dependence and respect. The Tutsis lived side by side with Hutu neighbours in a civil society created by European colonial powers. The walled cities and moats defending feudal properties had been abandoned by European powers as the economies of Europe became more integrated, and material and cultural exchanges became normative, and xenophobia declined. Under such trends, why would modern people revert to ethnic bunkers? Durkheim’s world emphasized interdependence in what we have come to call “open societies”. Genocide flourishes under such conditions. Where social groups are differentiated in terms of collective conflicts and where they take steps to secure arms against the dominant state, civil war or feud, as opposed to genocide, is the result. Genocide is a condition that reflects the vulnerability or defenselessness of the target group. Civil war and feud are hazards during historical transition from Durkheim’s closed, ethnically homogeneous (mechanical) societies to pluralistic, ethnically mixed open (organic) societies. Genocide is a condition that emerges when the state fails to broker the conflicts between its competing racial or ethnic constitutents.

VI. When casualties constitute genocide

                  The sixth hard fact about genocide is that the casualties are considerable. In the last century, a person was far more likely to die violently as a result of a state-sponsored action like genocide than to die at the hands of a common criminal. However, there is no numerical criterion as to when murder crosses the threshold to genocide. Although there is some debate as to the precise number of victims of the Holocaust, it matters little whether the number is put at “5.5” million versus “6.0” million. The numerical ambiguity does not detract from the special category of mass murder that occurred (Horowitz 2002: 35ff.). Likewise when observers put the number of deaths in the Rwanda genocide at between 500,000 and 1,000,000, no one disputes that the requisite number of deaths, however indecisively identified, constitutes genocide. The magnitude of the killing may be simply a function of opportunities, methods of killing or the vulnerability of the targets.[7] Ambiguity arises from the group nature of the conflict and the motive and opportunities to inflict injury on the group “as such”. International agreements do not identify a cut-point that turns murder into genocide. This is not an irrelevant point from a practical perspective since signatories to the Geneva Convention have a duty to prevent genocide. How many deaths need occur before the UN member states spring to the defense of the victims? This is not a “hard fact.” The killing of one member of the group, or a plane-load or bus-load may amount to ‘mere’ murder or terrorism. Genocide implies a wholesale destruction of a group, not a targeting of individuals qua individuals, or individual Jews/Muslims/Catholics as individual Jews/Muslims/Catholics. The group qua group, whatever its identity, is the object of lethal violence. Also, this fact exploits earlier ones in which non-combatants are selected as targets and are unprepared to engage an enemy in conventional forms of armed conflict. A final relevant point here is that even if killings fail to meet the actus reus of genocide as laid down in the UN conventions, the normal prohibitions in respect of ‘mere’ murder ought to apply. What is remarkable in the cases we have discussed is that there was no civil authority to bring the killers to account within ordinary criminal procedures because of the conditions of war and because the ‘security’ forces and the agents of genocide were often the same institutions.

VII. Deterrence and Opportunity Theory

                  The seventh hard fact is that the behaviour constituting genocide, from an international perspective, is deterrable. State officials can be called to account. Genocidal field operations can be met with force. For example, Honig and Both (1996) describe the Serb advance on Srebrenica in early July 1995, and particularly on the tentative nature of the advance into the enclave under threat of US F-16 airpower reprisals. Serb tanks were primary targets for air strikes. The Dutch peace-keepers briefed the terrified Bosnian population to the effect that air strikes were immanent, and indeed, the Serbs hesitated at every point under the apprehension of airborne offenses from US forces stationed in Italy – only minutes across the Adriatic Sea from Yugoslovia. However, NATO was so preoccupied with the appearances of bias or alignment with one side vis a vis the other, that the decision to bomb Serbian columns on the outskirts of the UN enclave was never made, and the Serbs overran Srebrenica without opposition, after days of approach and withdrawal, testing the NATO resolve. The enclave was cleared of every Bosnian within 33 hours, and the males dispatched to shallow graves on the pretext of retribution for war crimes. The Serbs forced the UN to pay for the gasoline to remove the Bosnians since their removal was characterized as a humanitarian re-location. Honig and Both are quite clear in their judgment that effective NATO action against the Serbs in the form of air strikes would have prevented the ethnic-cleansing of Srebrenica.

The case for deterrence in Rwanda is similar. Powers (2001) in “By-standers to Genocide” records how the Belgian and US governments colluded to prevent the Hutu-Tutusi conflict from being labeled as “genocide” despite the reports of UN peace-keepers to the contrary. For months, leading members of the Hutu political elite were calling for the elimination of Tutsis from Rwandan society at mass rallies and on the national government-controlled radio station. The peace-keepers pointed out that the destruction of the broadcast facilities would have stemmed the tide of propaganda that mobilized the Hutu population against the traditionally more ‘aristicratic’ Tutusis. Since the state played such an important role in escalating the violence, curtailment of the organs of state would have hobbled the political mobilization essential for the killing. Even after the UN reduced the size of the peace-keeping mission, from 3000 soldiers to about half that number (on the justification that there was civil war and no peace to keep), Canadian General Romeo Delaire found that the government-sponsored militias were reluctant to kill in the face of the peace-keepers, that killings took place after their departure, and that, however thinly spread the remaining peace-keepers, they succeeded in preserving the security of civilians under their direct supervision. In a parallel way, the record in Kosovo suggests that when Serb military units were targeted by air strikes, they ultimately desisted (Charny and Jacobs 1999).

                  General theory has little confidence in the mechanisms of deterrence in the case of common criminals. This is because the trait at issue, low self-control or impulsiveness, tends to be persistent over the life course, and because the state’s intervention typically occurs only after such traits have developed. However, where the mechanism is a transitory state, the circumstances that precede the violence (i.e. political provocations) can be challenged and targets at risk can be guarded. That is one of the awful lessons of Rwanda. Preparations for genocide were an open secret yet the international community failed to act effectively either to curb the provocation or to guard the potential targets.

Conclusion: Implication for General Theory

                  In the preceding discussion, our use of A General Theory shifted to a reference of “general theory” and not a general theory nor the general theory. The shift was deliberate since we wanted to avoid, on the one hand, the idea that the theoretical perspective, general theory, is singular (“a theory”) or, on the other hand, that it is already fully articulated (“the theory”). However, we are committed to a perspective that is broad or general in scope. At the same time, our perspective is one that is not quite settled since we believe that general theory construction is on-going in the control tradition, and that application to areas like genocide likely questions the adequacy of the perspective as articulated to date, without dismissing the explanatory power of the ambitious vision laid out by Gottfredson and Hirschi. By use of the term “general theory” we convey our indebtedness to the work of Gottfredson and Hirschi without limiting our analysis exclusively to the issues articulated by them, while asserting our commitment to a theoretical framework that is truly inclusive.

                  However, Gottfredson and Hirshi’s A General Theory seemed to us to be sufficiently, if not masterfully, articulated, and an eloquent model for the application of general criminological control theory to the phenomenon of genocide. Indeed, no other approach to date could serve as well without facing endless typologies of causes for every variety of crime. We believe that genocide and terrorism should be rightfully studied within criminology, and likely better understood as a consequence, using criminological theory. Although we incorporated phenomenological theory into our explanation, we feel that the application of A General Theory as the primary organizing principle, has proven fruitful. While we discovered that it is likely unreasonable to assume that all those directly (or indirectly) responsible for genocide suffer from individual-level low self-control as a stable predisposing trait that can account for their criminal actions, it did not follow that the low self-control profile could not be applied. For instance, in many cases, there does appear to be a disposition to act with little regard for future consequences. More and more, this is true with respect to the potential international repercussions or responses to genocide, however severe or swift those consequences may be in coming (Ball, 1999; Bass, 2000). Furthermore, it is quite credible to characterize genocide as providing, if not an “easy” gratification, at least a simple gratification of desires. The desire to exterminate is often manifested by simply picking up the “weapon” closest to hand whether that be a gun, axe, pitchfork, or whatever. In fact, we suggest that those actively involved in the attempt to eradicate large numbers of relatively defenseless humans can (and perhaps should) be characterized as impulsive, risk-taking, physical and indifferent or insensitive to the needs and suffering of those they are attempting to annihilate. Such acts require little skill and the long-term benefits of genocide remain unclear. The difficulty, then, lies not so much in matching the profile of the low self-control actor to those who commit acts like genocide but, instead, in applying (and understanding) the distal and proximal mechanisms that create the situationally contingent “readiness” or predisposition to engage in mass destructive activities and the specific circumstances which trigger or facilitate them.

                  Recall that according the Gottfredson and Hirschi the distal mechanism responsible for low self-control is ineffective or poor parenting. If we could rightly assume that all of those responsible for genocide were predisposed to criminality, then the application of this mechanism would be unproblematic. However, we have discovered that it is more likely that many if not most of the perpetrators are incited to low self-control, or righteous anger by a confluence of historical, situational, and/or “momentary” provocations. Thus, it becomes necessary to propose an alternative distal mechanism or mechanisms to the phenomenon of genocide. Here, we are searching for mechanisms or processes that can reasonably explain why individuals might be willing and ready to systematically attempt to destroy large numbers of other individuals. We suggested that it is the state or culture or a combination of both that provides the predisposition to genocide by employing propaganda, selective education, subornment of group hatred, misinformation, and the creation of special militias perhaps populated to some extent by key “role models” (i.e. criminals). The fact that genocides frequently occur in cycles of retaliation is another distal condition that may motivates murder out of fear and self-defense. However, we cannot separate these processes from the historical context that is vitally important to understanding genocide. All of this creates a populous, or at least a significant proportion of the population, that is predisposed or “ready” to partake in genocide. Proximately, then, all that is then required is the creation of opportunity.         


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[1] Hitchens (2001) argues in a similar vein that Henry Kissinger was directly implicated in the murder of the Chilean chief of defense in 1973 and in the mass destruction of peasants by indiscriminant bombing in Cambodia and Laos during the Viet Nam war.

[2] Goldhagen said in short: “No Germans, no Holocaust”. For a critique of this racial/ethnic perspective, see Finkelstein and Birn (1998).

[3] One of the methodological weaknesses of case selection and the de-contextualized nature of his accounts is that Katz cannot rule out that such cases are unrepresentative or that the individuals reported on do not show other expressions of low self control. Certainly, Katz recognizes that those who rob tend also to gamble, assault, pimp and are involved in conflict-prone domestic arrangements. Righteous slaughter does not seem to show similar evidence of versatility. Katz argues that most persons who are confronted with humiliating conflict resolve it short of homicide. The bouts of humiliation that result in slaughter appear to be episodic and result in murder when precipitated by contextual factors resulting in provocation – the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. This suggests that these expressions of the loss of self-control, however deadly, are exceptional.

[4] Ed Vulliamy (1999: 365) reports from an account at the Serb-operated concentration camp at Omarska: “One prisoner was forced to bite off the testicles of another who, as he died, had a live pigeon stuffed into his mouth to stifle his screams. An eyewitness, testifying later at the United Nations International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague described the behavior of the guards during this barbarism as being ‘like a crowd at a sports match.’”

[5] Moffit (1993) distinguishes persons who engage in offending as a function of age (“adolescent limited”) from persons with a stable, impulsive tendency towards misconduct (“life course persistent”). She argues that the latter may function as models for the former, initiating activities the latter copy. A similar process may operate in genocide where individuals prone to violence and low self-control set the pace for persons acting in a transitory or ‘state dependent’ frame of mind.

[6] Melvern (2000: 43) writes that there was an oligarchy behind the presidency of Juvenal Habyarimana involving his wife, her brothers and other family members that ran Rwanda as their personal fiefdom: “This group was using ethnic hatred to increase its power and was determined to resist democracy. Knowing that it would be suicidal to oppose reform directly, the group relied on propaganda to instill fear among the people about an invasion by the Ugandan army supporting the RPF.”

[7] When the RPF defeated the Rwandan army in July 1994, a million Hutus fled to Zaire. Subsequent attacks by the RPF on the civilian refugee camps to scotch Hutu raids on the new government in Rwanda resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Hutu civilians. The former “genocidaires” became the victims.



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