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The essential human foundations of genocide

By Louis René Beres


“In the end,” says Goethe, “we are creatures of our own making.” Although offered as a sign of optimism, this insight seems to highlight the underlying problem of human wrongdoing. After all, in the long sweep of human history, nothing is more evident and palpable than the unending litany of spectacular crimes. Most spectacularly of all, these properly codified public wrongs include genocide, terrorism, and crimes against humanity.

After Nuremberg, after the Holocaust, one might have expected a far-reaching change in human conduct, a welcome reduction of egregious harms occasioned by both new knowledge and new law. Yet, let us look around us at the present moment. The views are not encouraging. Look at Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan, Uganda, and the Congo. Let us try to figure out the presumptively democratic but also riotous ethos sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East. Not to be forgotten, there is present-day Iran. Today, its faith-based leaders openly declare a determinedly genocidal intent against Israel. Let us also consider Cambodia, Argentina, Rwanda, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia.

War and genocide are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes, war is simply the optimal means by which an intended genocide can be most efficiently carried out. How has an entire species, miscarried from the start, scandalized its own creation? Are we all potential murderers of those who live beside us?

What about slavery? In every form and permutation, this “natural” crime continues to grow, insidiously but without evident disguise, in Mali and Mauritania, and in other more conspicuous places. Shall we recall the murderous diamond mines of Sierra Leone and Liberia? And let us not forget the ever-widening radius of human child trafficking, an ancient and medieval practice, now especially visible in Nigeria and Benin.

Where is civilization? These devastating crimes are still far-flung and robust. Paradoxically, they are flourishing even now, in the “developed” and thoroughly “modern” 21st century.

For as long as we can identify the tangled skeins of world history, the corpse has been in fashion. Today, on several continents, whole nations of corpses are the rage. As for the international community, it stands by as it has so often, incredulously, with self-righteous indignation, sheepish, yet also arrogant, simultaneously calculating and lamenting its own self-reinforcing impotence.

Why? The answer has several intersecting levels, and several overlapping layers of pertinent meaning. At one level, certainly the one most familiar to political scientists and legal scholars, the basic problem lies in the changing embrace of power politics. Representing a transformation of traditional political realism, the relentless deification of states has finally reduced billions of prospective individuals to barely residual specks of significance.

In such an world, wherein the “self-determination of peoples” is a weighty value, sanguinary executions of the innocent must always be expected and applauded. Moreover, such executions, sometimes a thinly disguised or expressly secular form of religious “sacrifice,” are heralded defiantly as “sacred.” To prevent terrorism, genocide, and crimes against humanity, nation-states must first be shorn of their presumed sacredness.

Before even this can happen, however, individuals must first be allowed to discover alternative and equally attractive sources of belonging. Somehow, humanity must finally conquer the continuing incapacity of individual persons to draw true, vital, and existential meaning from within themselves.

Although generally unseen, the core problem we face on earth is the universal and omnivorous power of the herd in human affairs. This power is based upon individual submission. Ultimately, the problem of international criminality is always one of distraught and unfulfilled individuals. Ever fearful of having to draw meaning from their own inwardness, most human beings, like a moth to a flame, will draw closer and closer to the nearest collectivity.

Whatever the gripping claims of the moment, the herd spawns contrived hatreds of dissimilarity that can make even mass murder seem warm, welcome, and reasonable. Fostering a persistent refrain of “us” versus “them,” it encourages each submissive member to ceremoniously celebrate the death of “outsiders.”

The overriding task, then, must be to discover the way back to ourselves as persons. Understood in terms of the contemporary prevention of genocide, terrorism, and crimes against humanity, we are thus commanded to look beyond ordinary politics, and toward a determinedly worldwide actualization of authentic persons.

At its source, the unrecognized but critical human task is to migrate from the Kingdom of the Herd, to the Kingdom of the Self. In succeeding with this very nuanced and unambiguously grand movement, one must first want to live in the second kingdom. We must fix the fragmented and fractionated world at its most elementary individual source. Then, after so many millennia of brutishness and exclusion, we could do whatever is needed to enable our fellow human beings to find sufficient comfort and reassurance outside the segregating and always-potentially murderous herd.

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland. Dr. Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue. He is a frequent contributor to OUPblog.

If you are interested in this subject and want to learn more, The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies is the first book to subject both genocide and the young discipline it has spawned to systematic, in-depth investigation. Thirty-four renowned experts study genocide through the ages by taking regional, thematic, and disciplinary-specific approaches. The work is multi-disciplinary, featuring the work of historians, anthropologists, lawyers, political scientists, sociologists, and philosophers.

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Recent Comments

  1. Annie Morgan

    Why do you leave out North America and most of Europe? People on both continents have, at times, equalled the horrors of those benighted countries you mentioned.

    Do you root out religion first? Where do you start?

    It is impossible to believe that humans will change into something different – there will always be the leaders, always the mindless followers, always in the name of some Thing. Tribalism, and its partner the herd instinct, is primal, (something the North American world, it seems to me, finds hard to understand).

    My only qualification for daring to post in this erudite category is my age (82), and that my awareness of the horrors people do to others started in my early teens reading about the holocaust. What “…must never happen again.” has happened, and is happening, in some form or other, everywhere. I cannot see it ever stopping.

  2. Nathaniel Wenger

    Instate wengerocracy so it never happens again or just say never again and sound like an idiot to start the day.

  3. Robert

    It doesn’t matter who gets into the winner’s circle or how: the winners, their genes, are rewarded by natural selection. By corollary, genocide is rewarded by natural selection. There are no philosophical answers to human nature, to the man’s inhumanity to man other than biogenetically refashioninig himself into a more rational, kinder and gentler species

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