Last night, I watched a rather depressing documentary on SBS called The Anatomy of Evil. It was about people who perpetrate genocide. I’ve been morbidly fascinated with this question for a while now, as I’ve explained in an earlier post. I’ve never quite been able to fathom how people could shoot/gas/blow up an innocent civilian.
This documentary consisted mainly of interviews with former members of the Einsatzgruppen and Serb paramilitaries, each of whom conducted ethnic cleansing of villages by lining up people and shooting them at point blank range. Some interviewees were unrepentant, and said they’d “do it again if it was necessary”. Some still regarded the people whom they had shot as sub-human. A few regretted their actions and felt less than human.
The director, Ove Nyholm, concludes that the trigger which compels ordinary people to behave like this is anxiety and fear of a threat. In such circumstances, people put aside normal feelings and become ruthless. This is a survival mechanism, and can actually be a positive thing. People can survive in terrible circumstances through sheer willpower. But in the scenario where a group of people who live alongside you are identified as the threat, there is a risk that you will become ruthless towards those people and cease to see them as human. Add to that a wartime context where violence and killing is condoned and people are forced to follow orders, and the results can be deadly. And there’s the notion of retaliating for past wrongs. One of the most unpleasant interviewees featured in the documentary cited the fact that his family had been driven from Kosovo by Albanians in the past, and that he felt satisfied and a sense of righteous revenge when killing villagers and burning down their houses. Another interviewee said that he became a member of the paramilitary group after his own parents had been brutally killed.
It occurred to me too that this analysis can also help explain other wars and ethnic and religious conflicts which do not involve genocide as such, but where innocent civilians are killed.
Take, for example, terrorist attacks. The way in which terrorists become galvanised to kill innocent people is by considering wrongs done to their own people, and desiring to take revenge. I recall that during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, someone forwarded a Powerpoint slide of dead Lebanese civilians, including a young boy. The purpose was obviously to provoke outrage against Israel. If I was a radical Hezbollah supporter, I am sure that such pictures would be used to whip me into a state of righteous indignation and revenge. And I am sure that an Israeli defending the incursion into Lebanon would ask me to consider Israeli civilians injured or killed by Hezbollah rockets, or Hezbollah terrorist bombs. They might also point to the suffering of Jewish people in the past in Europe as a reason as to why Israeli territory should be staunchly defended. Personally, I consider the loss of life on both sides to be tragic. Neither side can be said to be blameless, but by the same token, the natural human propensity for revenge makes the outraged response of each side understandable. This is why I am so reluctant to “take sides” in discussions on the Middle East, although I am a firm believer that the State of Israel has a right to exist in its original boundaries.
Conflict is fuelled by the notion that the other group represents a threat to the way of life or security of the group. Sometimes, as in Israel, Northern Ireland or Cyprus there are settlers and occupying forces. Sometimes there are competing claims to the same piece of land, or the same holy site (as with some mosques which are targeted by Hindu militants in India). Sometimes the particular ethnic group wants to be separate from the rest of the country, as with Basques in Spain, Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere and Tamils in Sri Lanka, because they feel that their way of life and culture is not adequately represented by the government of the particular country of which they are a part. Sometimes, the victimised group is a minority who have been made a scapegoat for a nation’s ills (as with Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany, who were targeted because they were different).
When terrorist attacks are mounted, there are retaliatory attacks, often by armed forces. So the US felt justified in attacking Afghanistan because its innocent citizens had been killed by a terrorist plot which had been planned from Afghan territory. One can understand this. The perpetrators had been sheltered by the Taliban regime. But the problem with attacking terrorist or guerilla groups with military force is that they tend to blend back into the normal population, so when you attack them, there is a risk of killing and wounding innocent civilians, which further fuels the fires of righteous outrage.
I don’t know what the answer to all this is, I just know that we should be wary of those trying to whip up moral outrage, whatever side they are on. Take the Cronulla riots in Sydney. Those organising the rally whipped up moral outrage against young men of Middle Eastern background who had been harrassing beachgoers. Yes, it’s true, harrassing innocent people at the beach is a bad thing. As a result of the rally/riot, several people “of Middle Eastern appearance” were beaten and attacked. Bashing people who happen to look like they come from the Middle East is also a bad thing. Then young men in Lakemba whipped up moral outrage to fuel a retaliatory attack. Attacking the houses and cars of people in Maroubra is another bad thing. The thing is that it’s all bad, and it’s mostly innocent people on both sides who suffer.
Perhaps it’s just instinctive that the “ruthless” switch is tripped when we feel that our safety, territory or way of life is under threat. Perhaps we need to recognise that it’s all just part of the way we’re hardwired. Of course one is outraged by injustice suffered by one’s family, friends or compatriots. How much worse would it be if someone in your family or friendship group is killed by a particular group? I’m not sure how I would cope in those circumstances. As Nyholm said in the documentary, he had to acknowledge that he had doubt as to how he would behave. I don’t know either. I’ve never known how I would behave if I were in the Milgram experiment, although I hope that I’m ornery enough to disobey orders. I do hope that if my “ruthlessness” switch was tripped, I would be able to recover my reason and morality. As one of the interviewees said, the scary thing is not that man becomes a beast, but how long he remains a beast.
Perhaps we need to consider that old piece of Klingon wisdom: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. (Seriously, its first recorded use in that form is in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…the things you learn from Wikipedia!) When our moral outrage switch is tripped, perhaps we need to be aware that our “ruthlessness” switch may also be switched on at the same time, and guard against taking out our anger against anyone who is or may be associated with the group who is said to be morally outrageous. It is difficult to look into the heart of human darkness, but I am glad that I had the courage to watch this documentary.