As I read through a variety of articles describing the transformation of not only a group of people to oppressive perpetrators of genocide, but also the transformation of the average individual to a murderer, I find myself questioning the frailty of humanity. I keep trying to distinguish between the severity of guilt of those who carry out heinous crimes of genocide and those who order it to be done.
Is the guilt equal? Who determines? How do we condemn someone’s humanity?
By definition, a perpetrator is anyone who knowingly contributes in some tangible fashion to the deaths of others or to injuring others as part of an annihilationist program. This would include everyone from the individual who could have intervened but didn’t, to the individual signing off on the genocide policies, to the individual holding the murder weapon.
But who are these people that commit such heinous crimes? Are they madmen?
Based on a chapter called “Psychological Perspectives” from the book Genocide: a Comprehensive Introduction, perpetrators are not madmen! In fact, they are generally ordinary people, like your doctors and neighbors, who are motivated by one or several factors to participate in acts of genocide. Although conflict fueling genocide may me deeply rooted in many individuals, the transformation from an ordinary individual to a murderer is not overnight. It is those in positions of power who, over time, use propaganda, false information, diction that speaks down to the target group and scapegoating to create a paranoid and ultimately brainwashed population. In addition, there are those individuals who may not elect to participate in carrying out the genocide but do, because they risk the consequences of having the same fate as the target group.
With that said, can we condemn the humanity of the one who participates in a genocide out of fear for their own life the same way we would condemn the executive forces behind it?
I am most intrigued by the 8th stage of genocide, as stated by George H. Stanton: denial. We must consider what happens to the perpetrators when the genocide ends. By this, I mean what happens when the genocide is over and the perpetrators reclaim their individuality? Is their denial the result of remorse and humiliation for their actions? Or is it simply about not wanting to confront the world for consequences of their actions?
As a member of the human race, how do we cope with knowing that ordinary people, like you and me become perpetrators? How do we protect ourselves from being sucked into the dark depths of human nature?