Understanding Genocides
Why the Perpetrators Act

From the book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009. For more information, please visit Public Affairs

To understand what motivates mass murderers and elimina­tionists, we must keep in mind all the perpetrators do. Until re­cently, the rare analyses of mass murder that focus on the perpetrators’ conduct addressed only the killing itself. Such blinders exclude much, perhaps most, of the perpetrators’ conduct needing explanation, specif­ically the perpetrators’ other eliminationist deeds, brutalities, and ex­pressive acts. For instance, the perpetrators’ treatment of children is not focused on, let alone appropriately highlighted, even though they immensely brutalize children and kill them, often most gruesomely. This failure, repeated for the perpetrators’ other nonlethal acts, effec­tively excludes or greatly reduces such acts’ enormous descriptive signif­icance from the recounting of events, and their analytical centrality from the inquiry into the events’ causes and meaning. Such omissions pro­duce faulty depictions, conclusions, and explanations of the perpetra­tors’ actions, and false understandings of the broader events—renderings that bear only a caricatured relationship to the actual horrors and their commission.

Perhaps even more surprising, until a dozen years ago the writings about mass murder paid little attention to the perpetrators and their actions. This oversight probably derived from various factors, the most important being the widespread reflexive assumption among inter­preters and the general public that genocidal killers approve of their own deeds. There was no pressing reason to investigate something that seemed so obvious. Still, even since this theme became a topic of investi­gation, a systematic lack of engagement and therefore clarity about the killers’ actions and motives remain. The perpetrators’ willing participation in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, and elsewhere seems so obvious that in treatments of individual mass murders the question “Why did they do what they did?” has been mainly a nonis­sue. Yet in general treatments of genocide, one or another untested postulate that, strangely, often denies this willingness, is simply as­serted. Thus critical questions are not explicitly asked: Do the perpe­trators think their victims deserving or undeserving of their fate? This question may seem akin to asking whether Japanese soldiers in World War II wanted to win and believed killing American soldiers right, or whether the American soldiers fighting the Japanese similarly supported their cause. The question seems nonsensical, or certainly not worth dwelling upon. As a result, the relevant evidence is not systematically explored. The answers to this and other questions are therefore also not sharply etched.

To be sure, slaughtering unarmed men, women, and children might be met with more varied and complex attitudes than killing enemy soldiers in a war that is deemed just. And in some wars, many sol­diers are uncertain about their cause’s wisdom and justice. This was so for American soldiers in Vietnam, particularly in the war’s latter stages, producing widespread insubordination, including soldiers killing officers so frequently that the term for it, fragging, entered the war’s lexicon.

The questions about people’s willingness to perpetrate violence are anything but nonsensical—for war, mass murder, and eliminations. When leaders give eliminationist orders, why do people implement them? In answering this question we must consider that the motiva­tions of the eliminationist leaders and of their followers committing the brutalities and murders might not be the same. As with other political acts, leaders might not be candid about their motives and aspirations, being more interested in gaining their followers’ compliance than en­suring their agreement. The perpetrators on the ground may have rea­sons to act that, while compatible with the leaders’ goals, differ from what moves the leaders. Just as leaders have various reasons for initi­ating eliminationist programs, including mass murder, and just as vir­tually every aspect of such programs varies, it may be that, in different mass murders and eliminations, killers kill and eliminate their victims for different reasons, whatever commonalities or patterns also exist.

Why do the killers kill? Why do they slaughter children? Why do they treat their victims in all their dehumanizing and violent ways? Analogous questions about bystanders’ actions and nonactions should be asked. Why do they do what they do?

Bringing clarity to this nexus of themes about perpetrators’ willing­ness and motivation to kill (and about bystanders) requires that a series of related questions and possibilities be systematically addressed so that some notions can be excluded and others examined in greater depth. The most important and certainly the initial such question is: Does the per­petrator believe the victims deserve to die or, more broadly, to be elimi­nated? This question is critical and unavoidable, even if it is typically ignored and unmentioned. It is not possible for people not to have a view about whether it is right or wrong to slaughter or to drive from their homes and country thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of men, women, and children. A two-by-two matrix, with one dimension being a perpetrator’s attitude to the annihilation (or elimination)—does he ap­prove or not approve?—and the second dimension being his actions— does he kill or does he not kill?—specifies in each case the question that must be answered:


If the answer is yes, that the perpetrator believes the victims deserve to die, that the eliminationist program, including its lethal component, is right and just, then the next question is: How does he come to believe this? If the answer is no, namely that the perpetrator thinks that killing or eliminating the victims is morally wrong, then other questions must be asked to ascertain why he kills or contributes to the elimination pro­gram’s goals. Does he believe the victims are dangerous, guilty of severe transgressions, unfit to exist within the perpetrators’ society, or for whatever reason deserving of elimination, but disapproves of the pun­ishment of death or of other violent eliminationist measures? If this is so, does he disapprove because he deems the punishment too harsh—in other words, unjust because it is disproportionate—or because he con­siders the punishment itself inherently immoral? If the perpetrator is disapproving for whatever reason, then he is being induced to act against his will. How is this done?

Put differently, do the perpetrators think they are doing their people a great, historic service, or do they think they are morally transgressing and committing a great crime? If the latter, then how, emotionally and psychologically, do they persist?

To answer the questions relevant to understanding why the perpe­trators act as they do, we must first establish why the killers kill and why the expellers expel.

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