Understanding the “why” in Genocide

Though I’ve studied topics such as domestic violence and human trafficking, I wanted to study the topic of genocide in depth, not only to understand how I can help, what victims face during and after the genocide, but also the why behind the genocide. For me, as tough as all three subjects are emotionally, I found it easier to understand the reasons for which people might perpetrate human trafficking or be abusers in a violent relationship. For the former, it’s a monetary drive—there’s a demand for free labor and people are willing to pay for it. Thus, traffickers can profit by kidnapping, coercing, and/or killing victims. In the latter, it is sometimes a power coefficient, in which the abuser needs to feel powerful. It may also be a religious or financial reason. However, I could not, and still have trouble wrapping my head around the reasons for which people commit genocide. Further, I can’t understand how they can live after committing such acts, or how they can avoid taking responsibility for their actions, instead blaming some other factor.

This week, we were assigned a reading on psychological perspectives, which explains certain elements that can fuel genocide. It also explains how people can shift their actions to external forces by outlining two experiments that were conducted in the United States—the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram’s authority and obedience experiment. These experiments are shocking in the fact that they clearly show how people can take their power for granted, but also how people can push the blame for their actions onto someone else. In the Milgram experiment, participants were more likely to administer high doses of shocks if the authoritative figure were present and telling them what to do. In some respects, I can understand this with regard to genocide. For one thing, I can see how someone being forced to kill would do so in the presence of the authority figure. Understanding this, I can kind of see where they would be inclined to say that they were not at fault for committing a crime because the authority figure told them to.

However, the Stanford prison experiment helped me better understand how power can get into the heads of people. A key component of genocide is that the people being killed off are first made to seem inferior and alienated. This alienation in turn leads to the superior group feeling that they have more power. Like the “prison guards” in the Stanford experiment, the superior group within the context of genocide sees it as their duty to put the inferior group in their place. As a result of the power they were given, they assume that it is their duty to keep the masses down. Thus, when asked why they were so cruel—killing, pillaging, etc—they can answer that they had to in order to protect the order of things, or that their power allowed them to.

In looking at these experiments, I can kind of understand why people commit genocide and how they can shift the blame of their actions onto an external person or power. Still, I think that this topic is, and will continue to be hard for me to understand because there is no clear “why” behind the people’s actions. That said, I found this reading extremely helpful in at least allowing me to gain some understanding of what people were thinking.

-J and V


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