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Course 10664 - Genocide

Reflections on the Inconceivable:
Theoretical Aspects in Genocide Studies

Appendix 4
In Black and White

While the anniversary of any nation's founding is taken as cause for its inhabitants to celebrate, Australians had special cause in 1988, their bicentennial year. Few groups of colonists faced such obstacles as those who landed with the First Fleet at the future site of Sydney in 1788. Australia was still terra incognita: the colonists had no idea what to expect of how to survive. They were separated from their mother country by a sea voyage of fifteen thousand miles, lasting eight months. Two and a half years of near- starvation would pass until a further supply fleet arrived from England. Many of the settlers were convicts who had already been traumatized by the most brutal aspects of brutal eighteenth-century life. Despite those beginnings, the settlers survived, prospered, filled a continent, built a democracy, and established a distinctive national character. It's no wonder that Australians felt pride as they celebrated their nation's founding.

Nevertheless, one set of protests marred the celebrations. The white settlers were not the first Australians. Instead, Australia had been settled around fifty thousand years ago by the ancestors of people now usually referred to as "Australian Aborigines" and also known in Australia as "Blacks." In the course of English settlement, most of those original inhabitants were killed by the settlers or died of other causes, leading to some modern descendants of the survivors to stage bicentenary protests instead of celebrations. The celebrations focused implicitly on how Australia became white. I shall begin this chapter by focusing instead on how Australia ceased to be black, and how courageous English settlers came to commit genocide.

Lest white Australians take offense, I should make clear that I am not accusing their forefathers of having done something uniquely horrendous. Instead, my reason for discussing the extermination of the Aborigines is precisely because it isn't unique; it's a well documented example of a phenomenon whose frequency few people appreciate. While our first association to the world "genocide" is likely to be the killings in Nazi concentration camps, those were not even the largest-scale genocide of this century. The Tasmanians and hundreds of other peoples were modern targets of successful smaller extermination campaigns. Numerous peoples scattered throughout the world are potential targets in the near future. Yet genocide is such a painful subject that either we'd rather not think about it at all, or else we would like to believe that nice people don't commit genocide, only Nazis do. But our refusal to think about it has consequences: we've done little to halt the numerous episodes of genocide since World War II, and we're not alert to where it may happen next. Together with our destruction of our own environmental resources, our genocidal tendencies coupled to nuclear weapons now constitute the two most likely means by which the human species may reverse all its progress virtually overnight.

Despite increasing interest in genocide on the part of psychologists and biologists as well as some lay people, basic questions about it remain disputed. Do any animals regularly kill members of their own species, or is that a human invention without animal precedents? Throughout human history, has genocide been a rare aberration, or has it been common enough to rank as a human hallmark along with art and language? Is its frequency now increasing, because modern weapons permit push-button genocide and thereby reduce or instinctive inhibitions about killing fellow humans? Why have so many cases attracted so little attention? Are genocidal killers abnormal individuals, or are they normal people placed in unusual situations?

To understand genocide, we cannot proceed narrowly but must draw on biology, ethics, and psychology. Hence our exploration of genocide will begin by tracing its biological history, from our animal ancestors to the twentieth century. After asking how killers have reconciled genocide with their ethical codes, we can examine its psychological effects on the perpetrators, surviving victims, and on-lookers. But before we search for answers to these questions, it is useful to start with the extermination of the Tasmanians, as a case study typical of a wide class of genocides.

Tasmania is a mountainous island similar in area to Ireland and lying two hundred miles off Australia's southeast coast. When discovered by Europeans in 1642, it supported about five thousand hunter-gatherers related to the aborigines of the Australian mainland and with perhaps the simplest technology of any modern people. Tasmanians made only a few types of simple stone and wooden tools. Like the mainland aborigines, they lacked metal tools, agriculture, livestock, pottery, and bows and arrows. Unlike the mainlanders, they also lacked boomerangs, dogs, nets, knowledge of sewing, and ability to start a fire.

Since the Tasmanians' sole boats were rafts capable of only short journey's, they had had no contact with any other humans since rising sea level cut off Tasmania from Australia ten thousand years ago. Confined to their private universe for hundreds of generations, they had survived the longest isolation in modern human history — an isolation otherwise depicted only in science fiction. When the white colonists of Australia finally ended that isolation, no two peoples on Earth were less equipped to understand each other than were the Tasmanians and whites.

The tragic collision of two peoples led to conflict almost as soon as British sealers and settlers arrived around 1800. Whites kidnapped Tasmanian children as laborers, kidnapped women as consorts, mutilated or killed men, trespassed on hunting grounds, and tried to clear Tasmanians off their land. Thus, the conflict quickly focused on lebensraum, which throughout human history has been among the commonest causes of genocide. As a result of the kidnappings, the native population of northeast Tasmania in November 1830 was reduced to seventy-two adult men, three adult women, and no children. One shepherd shot nineteen Tasmanian's with a swivel gun loaded with nails. Four other shepherds ambushed a group of natives, killed thirty, and threw their bodies over a cliff remembered today as Victory Hill.

Naturally, Tasmanians retaliated, and whites counter-retaliated in turn. To end the escalation, Governor Arthur in April 1828 ordered all Tasmanians to leave their part of the island already settled by Europeans. To enforce this order, government-sponsored groups called "roving parties," consisting of convicts led by police, hunted down and killed Tasmanians. With the declaration of martial law In November 1828, soldiers were authorized to kill on sight any Tasmanian in the settled areas. Next, a bounty was declared on the natives: five British pounds for each adult, two pounds for each child, caught alive. "Black catching," as it was called because of the Tasmanians' black skins, became big business pursued by private as well as official roving parties. At the same time a commission headed by William Broughton, the Anglican archdeacon of Australia, was set up to recommend an overall policy toward the natives. After considering proposals to capture them for sale as slaves, poison or trap them, or hunt them with dogs, the commission settled on continued bounties and the use of mounted police.

In 1830 a remarkable missionary, George Augustus Robinson, was hired to round up the remaining Tasmanians and take them to Flinders Island, thirty miles away. Robinson was convinced that he was acting for the good of the Tasmanians. He was paid £300 in advance, £700 on completing the job. Undergoing real dangers and hardship, and aided by a courageous native woman named Truganini, he succeeded in bringing in the remaining natives — initially, by persuading them that a worse fate awaited them if they did not surrender, but later at gunpoint. Many of Robinson's captives died en route to Flinders, but about two hundred reached there, the last survivors of the former population of five thousand.

On Flinders Island Robinson was determined to civilize and Christianize the survivors. His settlement was run like a jail, at a windy site with little fresh water. Children were separated from parents to facilitate the work of civilizing them. The regimented daily schedule included Bible reading, hymn singing, and inspection of beds and dishes for cleanliness and neatness. However, the jail diet caused malnutrition, which combined with illness to make the natives die. Few infants survived more than a few weeks. The government reduced expenditures in the hope that the natives would die out. By 1869 only Truganini, one other woman, and one man remained alive.

These last three Tasmanians attracted the interest of scientists, who believed them to be a missing link between humans and apes. Hence, when the last man, one William Lanner, dies in 1869, competing teams of physicians, led by Dr. George Stokell from the Royal Society of Tasmania and Dr. W.L. Crowther from the Royal college of Surgeons, alternatively dug up and reburied Lanner's body, cutting off parts of it and stealing them back and forth from each other. Dr. Crowther cut off the head, Dr. Stokell the hands and feet, and someone else the ears and nose, as souvenirs. Dr. Stokell made a tobacco pouch out of Lanner's Skin.

Before Truganini, the last woman, died in 1976, she was terrified of similar post-mortem mutilation and asked in vain to be buried at sea. As she had feared, the Royal Society dug up her skeleton and put it on display in the Tasmanian Museum, where it remained until 1947. In that year the Museum finally yielded to complaints of poor taste and transferred Truganini's skeleton to a room where only scientists could view it. That too stimulated complaints of poor taste. Finally, in 1976 — the centenary year of Truganini's death — her skeleton was cremated over the museum's objections, and her ashes were scattered at sea as she had requested.

While the Tasmanians were few in number, their extermination was disproportionately influential in Australia history, because Tasmania was the first Australia colony to solve its native problem and achieved the most nearly final solution. It had done so by apparently succeeding in getting rid of its natives. (Actually, some children of Tasmanian women by white sealers survived, and their descendants today constitute an embarrassment to the Tasmanian government, which has not figured out what to do about them.) Many whites on the Australia mainland envied the thoroughness of the Tasmanian solution and wanted to imitate it, but they also learned a lesson from it. The extermination of the Tasmanians had been carried out in settled areas in full view of the urban press, and had attracted some negative comment. Hence the extermination of the much more numerous Aborigines was instead effected at or beyond the frontier, far from urban centers.

The mainland government's instrument of this policy, modeled on the Tasmanian government's roving parties, was a branch of mounted police termed "Native Police," who used search-and-destroy tactics to kill or drive out Aborigines. A typical strategy was to surround a camp at night and to shoot the inhabitants in an attack at dawn. White settlers also made widespread use of poisoned food to kill Aborigines. Another common practice was roundups in which captured Aborigines were kept chained together at the neck while being marched to jail and held there. The British novelist Anthony Trollope expressed the prevailing nineteenth-century British attitude toward Aborigines when he wrote, "Of the Australian black man we may certainly say that he has to go. That he should perish without unnecessary suffering should be the aim of all who are concerned in the matter."

These tactics continued in Australia long into the twentieth century. In an incident at Alice Springs in 1928, police massacred thirty-one Aborigines. The Australian Parliament refused to accept a report on the massacre, and two Aboriginal survivors (rather than the police) were put on trial for murder. Neck chains were still in use and defended as humane in 1958, when the Commissioner of Police for the State of Western Australia explained to the Melbourne Herald that Aboriginal prisoners preferred being chained.

The mainland Aborigines were too numerous to exterminate completely in the manner of the Tasmanians. However, from the arrival of British colonists in 1788 until the 1921 census, the Aboriginal population declined from about 300,000 to 60,000.

Today, the attitudes of white Australians toward their murderous history vary widely. While government policy and many whites' private views have become increasingly sympathetic to the Aborigines, other whites deny responsibility for genocide. For instance, in 1982 one of Australia's leading news magazines, The Bulletin, published a letter by a lady named Patricia Cobern, who denied indignantly that white settlers had exterminated the Tasmanians. In fact, wrote Ms. Cobern, the settlers were peace-loving and of high moral character, while Tasmanians were treacherous, murderous, warlike, filthy, gluttonous, vermin-infested, and disfigured by syphilis. Moreover, they took poor care of their infants, never bathed, and had repulsive marriage customs. They died out because of all those poor health practices, plus a death wish and lack of religious beliefs. It was just a coincidence that, after thousands of years of existence, they happened to die out during a conflict with settlers. The only massacres were of settlers by Tasmanians, not vice versa. Besides, the settlers only armed themselves in self-defense, were unfamiliar with guns, and never shot more than forty-one Tasmanians at one time […]

Genocides prove as hard to pigeonhole in their motivation as in their definition. While several motives may operate simultaneously, it is convenient to divide them into four types. In the first two types there is a real conflict of interest over land or power, whether or not the conflict is also disguised in ideology. In the other two types such conflict is minimal, and the motivation is more purely ideological or psychological.

Perhaps the commonest motive for genocide arises when a militarily stronger people attempts to occupy the land of a weaker people, who resist. Among the innumerable straightforward cases of this sort are not only the killing of Tasmanian and Australian Aborigines by white Australians, but also the killing of American Indians by white Americans, of Araucanian Indians by Argentinians, and of Bushmen and Hottentots by the Boer settlers of South Africa.

Another common motive involves a lengthy power struggle within a pluralistic society, leading to one group's seeking a final solution by killing the other. Cases involving two different ethnic groups are the killing of Tutsi in 1972–73, of Serbs by Croats in Yugoslavia during World War II, of Croats by Serbs at the end of the war, and of Arabs in Zanzibar by blacks in 1964. However, the killer and killed may belong to the same ethnic group and may differ only in political views. Such was the case in history's largest known genocide, claiming an estimated twenty million victims in the decade 1929-1939 and sixty million between 1917 and 1959: that committed by the U.S.S.R. government against political opponents among its own citizens. Political killings lagging far behind this record are the Khmer Rouge purge of several million fellow Cambodians during the 1970s, and Indonesia's killing of hundreds of thousands of Communists in 1965-67.

In these two just-adjusted motives for genocide, the victims could be viewed as a significant obstacle to the killer's control of land or power. At the opposite extreme are scapegoat killings of a helpless minority blamed for frustrations of their killers. Jews were killed by fourteenth-century Christians as scapegoats for the bubonic plague, by early twentieth-century Russians as scapegoats for Russia's political problems, by Ukrainians after World War I as scapegoats for the Bolshevist threat, and by Nazis during World War II as scapegoats for Germany's defeat in World War I. When the U.S. Seventh Cavalry slaughtered several hundred Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in 1890, the soldiers were taking belated revenge for the Sioux's annihilating counterattack on Custer's Seventh Cavalry force at the battle of the Little Big Horn fourteen years previously. In 1943-44, at the height of Russia's suffering from the Nazi invasion, Stalin ordered the killing or deportation of six ethnic minorities who served as scapegoats: the Balkars, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ingush, Kalmyks, and Karachai.

Racial and religious persecutions have served as the remaining class of motives. While I do not claim to understand the Nazi mentality, the Nazis' extermination of Gypsies may have stemmed from relatively "pure" racial motivation, while scapegoating joined religious and racial motives in the extermination of Jews. The list of religious massacres is almost infinitely long. It includes the First Crusaders' massacre of all Moslems and Jews in Jerusalem when that city was finally captured in 1099, and the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of French Protestants by Catholics in 1572. Of course racial and religious motives have contributed heavily to genocides provoked by land struggles, power struggles, and scapegoating.

Even if one allows for disagreements over definition and motives, plenty of cases of genocide remain. Let us now see how far back in and before our history as a species the record of genocide extends.

Is it true, as often claimed, that man is unique among animals in killing members of his own species? For example, the distinguished biologist Konrad Lorenz, in his book On Aggression, argued that animals' aggressive instincts are held in check by instinctive inhibitions against murder. But in human history this equilibrium supposedly became upset by the invention of weapons: our inherited inhibitions were no longer strong enough to retrain our newly acquired powers of killing. This view of man as the unique killer and evolutionary misfit has been accepted by Arthur Koestler and many other popular writers.

Actually, studies in recent decades have documented murder in many, though certainly not all, animal species. Massacre of a neighboring individual or troop may be beneficial to an animal, if it can thereby take over the neighbor's territory, food, or females. But attacks also involve some risk to the attacker. Many animal species lack the means to kill their fellows, and of those species with the means some refrain from using them. In may sound utterly repugnant to do a cost/benefit analysis of murder, but such analyses nevertheless help one understand why murder appears to characterize only some animal species.

In nonsocial species, murders are necessarily just of one individual by another. However, in some carnivorous species, like lions, wolves, hyenas, and ants, murder may take the form of coordinated attacks by members of one troop on members of a neighboring troop — i.e., mass killings or "wars." The form of war varies among species. Males, may spare and mate with neighboring females, kill the infants, and drive off (langur monkeys) or even kill (lions) neighboring males; or both males and females may be killed (wolves). As one example, here is Hans Kruuk's account of a battle between two hyena clans in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater:

"About a dozen of the Scratching Rock hyenas . . . grabbed one of the Mungi males and bit hum wherever they could — especially in the belly, the feet, and the ears. The victim was completely covered by his attackers, who proceeded to maul him for about ten minutes . . . The Mungi male was literally pulled apart, and when I later studies the injuries more closely, it appeared that his ears were bitten off and so were his feet and testicles, he was paralyzed by a spinal injury, had large gashes in the hind legs and belly, and subcutaneous hemorrhages all over."

Of particular interest in understanding our genocidal origins is the behavior of two of our three closest relatives, gorillas and common chimpanzees. Two decades ago, any biologist would have assumed that our ability to wield tools and to lay concerted group plans made us far more murderous than apes — if indeed apes were murderous at all. Recent discoveries about apes suggest, however, that a gorilla or a common chimp stands at least as good a chance of being murdered as does the average human. Among gorillas, for instance, males fight each other for ownership of harems of females, and the victor may kill the loser's infants as well as the loser himself. Such fighting is a major cause of death for infant and adult male gorillas. The typical gorilla mother loses at least one infant to infanticidal males in the course of her life. Conversely, 38 percent of infant gorilla deaths are due to infanticide.

Especially instructive, because it could be documented in detail, was the extermination of one of the common chimpanzee bands that Jane Goodall studies, carried out between 1974 and 1977 by another band. As of the end of 1973 the two bands were fairly evenly matched: the Kasakela band to the north, with eight mature males and occupying fifteen square kilometers; and the Kahama band to the south, with six mature males and occupying ten square kilometers. The first fatal incident occurred in January 1974, when six of the Kasakela adult males, one adolescent male, and one adult female left behind the young Kasakela chimps, traveled south, then moved silently and more quickly south when they heard chimp calls from that direction, until they surprised a Kahama male referred to as Godi. One Kasakela male pulled the fleeing Godi to the ground, sat on his head, and held down his legs while the others spent ten minutes hitting and biting him. Finally, one attacker threw a large rock at Godi, and the attackers then left. Although able to stand up, Godi was badly wounded, bleeding, and had puncture marks. He was never seen again and presumably died of his injuries.

The next month, three Kasakela males and one female again travelled south and attacked the Kahama male Dé out of a tree, stamped on him, bit and hit him, and tore off pieces of his skin. A Kahama estrus female with Dé was forced to return northward with the attackers. Two months later Dé was seen still alive but emaciated, with his spine and pelvis protruding, some fingernails and part of a toe torn off, and his scrotum shrunk to one-fifth of normal size. He was not seen thereafter.

In February 1975 five adult and one adolescent Kasakela males tracked down and attacked Goliath, and old Kahama male. For eighteen minutes they hit, bit, and kicked him, dragged him over the ground and twisted his leg. At the end of the attack Goliath was unable to sit up and was not seen again.

While the above attacks were aimed at Kahama males, in September 1975 the Kahama female Madam Bee was fatally injured after at least four nonfatal attacks over the course of the preceding year. The attack was carried out by four Kasakela adult males, while one adolescent male and four Kasakela females (including Madam Bee's kidnapped daughter) watched. The attackers hit, slapped, and dragged Madam Bee, stamped and pounded on her, threw her to the ground, picked her up and slammed her down, and rolled her downhill. She died five days later.

In May 1977 five Kasakela males killed the Kahama male Charlie, but details of the fight were not observed. In November 1977 six Kasakela males caught the Kahama male Sniff and hit, bit, and pulled him, dragged him by the legs, and broke his left leg. He was still alive the next day but was not seen again.

Of the remaining Kahama chimps, two adult males and two adult females disappeared from unknown causes, while two young females transferred to the Kasakela band, which proceeded to occupy the former Kahama territory. However, in 1979 the next band to the south, the larger Kalande band with at least nine adult males, began to encroach on Kasakela territory and may have accounted for several vanished or wounded Kasakela chimps. Similar intergroup assaults have been observed in the sole other long-term field study of common chimps, but not in long-term studies of pygmy chimps.

If one judges these murderous common chimps by the standards of human killers, it is hard to be struck by their inefficiency. Even though groups of three to six attackers assaulted single victims, quickly rendered him or her defenseless, and continued the assault for ten to twenty minutes or more, the victim was always still alive at the end of that time. However, the attackers did succeed in immobilizing the victim and often causing eventual death. The pattern was that the victim initially crouched and may have tried to protect his head but then gave up any attempt at defense, and the attack continued beyond the point where the victim ceased moving. In this respect the interband attacks differ from the milder fights that often occur within a band. Chimps' inefficiency as killers reflects their lack of weapons, but it remains surprising that they have not learned to kill by strangling, although that would be within their capabilities.

Not only is each individual killing inefficient by our standards, but so is the whole course of chimp genocide. It took three years and ten months from the first killing of a Kahama chimp to the band's end, and all killings were of individuals, never of several Kahama chimps at once. In contrast Australia's settlers often succeeded in eliminating a band of Aborigines in a single dawn attack. Partly, this inefficiency again reflects chimps' lack of weapons. Since all chimps are equally unarmed, killings can succeed only by several attackers' overpowering a single victim, whereas Australia's settlers had the advantage of guns over unarmed Aborigines and could shoot many at once. Partly too, genocidal chimps are much inferior to humans in brain power and hence in strategic planning. Chimps apparently cannot plan a night attack or a coordinated ambush by a split attack team.

However, genocidal chimps do seem to evince intent and unsophisticated planning. The Kahama killings resulted from Kasakela groups' proceeding directly, quickly, silently, and nervously toward or into Kahama territory, sitting in trees and listening for nearly an hour, and finally running to Kahama chimps that they detected. Chimps also share xenophobia with us: they clearly recognize members of other bands as different from members of their own band, and treat them very differently.

In short, of all our human hallmarks — art, spoken language, drugs, and the other — the one that has derived more straight-forwardly from animal precursors is genocide. Common chimps already carried out planned killings, extermination of neighboring bands, wars of territorial conquest, and abduction of young nubile females. If chimps were given spears and some instruction in their use, their killings would undoubtedly begin to approach ours in efficiency. Chimpanzee behavior suggests that a major reason of our human hallmark of group living was defense against other human groups, especially once we acquired weapons and as large enough brain to plan ambushes. If this reasoning is correct, the anthropologists' traditional emphasis on "man the hunter" as a driving force of human evolution might be valid after all — with the difference that we ourselves were our own prey as well as the predator that forced us into group living.


Thus, of the two patterns of genocide commonest among humans, both have animal precedents: killing both men and women fits the common chimpanzee and wolf pattern, while killing men and sparing women fits the gorilla and lion pattern. Unprecedented even among animals, however, is a procedure adopted from 1976 to 1983 by the Argentine military, in the course of killing over 10,000 political opponents and their families, the desaparecidos. Victims included the usual men, non-pregnant women, and children down to the age of three or four years, who were often tortured before being killed. But Argentina's soldiers made a unique contribution to animal behavior when they arrested pregnant women: the women were kept alive until they delivered, and only then were they shot in the head, so that the newborn infant could be adopted by childless military parents.

If we are not unique among animals in our own propensity for murder, might our propensities nevertheless be a pathological fruit of modern civilization? Modern writers, disgusted by destruction of "primitive" societies by "advanced" societies, tend to idealize the former as noble savages who supposedly are peace-loving, or who commit only isolated murders rather than massacres. Erich Fromm believed the warfare of hunter-gatherer societies to be "characteristically unbloody." Certainly some preliterate peoples (Pygmies, Eskimos) seem less warlike than some others (New Guineans, Great Plains and Amazonian Indians). Even the warlike peoples — so it is claimed — practice war in a ritualized fashion and stop only when a few adversaries have been killed. But this idealization does not match my experience of the New Guinea highlanders, who are often cited as practicing limited or ritualized war. While most fighting in New Guinea consisted of skirmishes leaving no or few dead, groups sometimes did succeed in massacring their neighbors. Like other peoples, New Guinea tried to drive off or kill their neighbors on occasions when they found it advantageous, safe, or a matter of survival to do so.

When we consider early literate civilizations, written records testify to the frequency of genocide. The wars of the Greeks and Trojans, of Rome and Carthage, and of the Assyrians and Babylonians and Persians proceeded to a common end: the slaughter of the defeated irrespective of sex, or else the killing of men and enslavement of women. We all know the biblical account of how the walls of Jericho came tumbling down at the sound of Joshua's trumpets. Less often quoted is the sequel: Joshua obeyed the Lord's commandment to slaughter the inhabitants of Jericho as well as of Ai, Makkedah, Libnah, Hebron, Debir, and many other cities. This was considered so ordinary that the Book of Joshua devotes only a phrase to each slaughter, as if to say: of course he killed all the inhabitants, what else would you expect? The sole account requiring elaboration is of the slaughter of Jericho itself, where Joshua did something really unusual: he spared the lives of one family (because they had helped his messengers).

We find similar episodes in accounts of the wars of the Crusaders, Pacific islanders, and many other groups. Obviously, I'm not saying that slaughter of the defeated irrespective of sex has always followed crushing defeat in war. But either that outcome, or else milder versions like the killing of men and the enslavement of women, happened often enough so that they must be considered more than a rare aberration in our view of human nature. Since 1950 there have been nearly twenty episodes of genocide, including two claiming over a million victims each (Bangladesh in 1971, Cambodia in the late 1970s) and four more with over a hundred thousand victims each (the Sudan and Indonesia in the 1960s, Burundi and Uganda in the 1970s).

Evidently, genocide has been part of our human and pre-human heritage for millions of years. In light of this long history, what about our impression that the genocides of the twentieth century are unique? There is little doubt that Stalin and Hitler set new records for number of victims, because they enjoyed three advantages over killers of earlier centuries: denser populations of victims, improved communications for rounding up victims, and improved technology for mass killing. As another example of how technology can expedite genocide, the Solomon Islanders of Roviana Lagoon in the Southwest Pacific were famous for their head-hunting raids, which depopulated neighboring islands. However, as my Roviana friends explained to me, these raids did not blossom until steel axes reached the Solomon Islands, and the axe blade quickly loses its sharp edge and is tedious to re-sharpen.

A much more controversial question is whether technology also makes genocide psychologically easier today, as Konrad Lorenz has argued. His reasoning goes as follows. As humans evolved from apes we depended increasingly for our food on killing animals. However, we also lived in societies of more and more individuals, between whom cooperation was essential. Such societies could not maintain themselves unless we developed strong inhibitions about killing fellow humans. Throughout most of our evolutionary history, our weapons operated only at close quarters, hence it was enough that we be inhibited from looking another person in the face and killing him/her. Modern push-button weapons bypassed these inhibitions y enabling us to kill without even seeing our victims' faces. Technology thus created the psychological prerequisites for the white-collar genocides of Auschwitz and Treblinka, of Hiroshima and Dresden.

I am uncertain whether this psychological argument really contributed significantly to the modern ease of genocide. The past frequency of genocide seems to have been at least as high as today's, though practical consider-ations limited the number of victims. To understand genocide further, we must leave dates and numbers and inquire about the ethics of killing.


That our urge to kill is restrained by our ethics almost all the time is obvious. The puzzle is: what unleashes it?

­Today, while we may divide the world's people into "us" and "them," we know that there are thousands of types of "them," all differing from each other as well as from us in language, appearance and habits. To waste words on pointing this out seems silly: we all know it from books and television, and most of us also know it from firsthand experience of travel. It is hard to transfer ourselves back into the frame of mind prevailing throughout much of human history and already described in Chapter 13. Like chimpanzees, gorillas, and social carnivores, we lived in band territories. The known world was much smaller and simpler than it is today: there were only a few known types of "them," one's immediate neighbors.

For example, in New Guinea until recently, each tribe maintained a shifting pattern of warfare and alliance with each of its neighbors. A person may enter the next valley on a friendly visit (never quite without danger or on a war raid, but the chances of being able to traverse a sequence of several valleys in friendship were negligible. The powerful rules about treatment of one's fellow "us" did not apply to "them," those dimly understood, neighboring enemies. As I walked between New Guinea valleys, people who themselves practiced cannibalism and were only a decade out of the Stone Age routinely warned me about the unspeakably primitive, vile, and cannibalistic habits of the people whom I would encounter in the next valley. Even Al Capone's gangs in twentieth-century Chicago made a policy of hiring out-of-town killers, so that the assassin could feel that he was killing one of "them" rather than of "us."

The writings of classical Greece reveal and extension of this tribal territorialism. The known world was larger and more diverse, but "us" Greeks were still distinguished from "them" barbarians. Our word "barbarian" is derived from the Greek barbaroi, which simply means non-Greek foreigners. Egyptians and Persians, whose level of civilization was like that of the Greeks, were nevertheless barbaroi. The ideal of conduct was not to treat all men equally, but instead to reward one's friends and to punish one's enemies. When the Athenian author Xenophon wanted to express the highest praise for his admired leader Cyrus, Xenophon related how Cyrus always repaid his friends' good turns more generously, and how Cyrus retaliated on his enemies' misdeeds more severely (e.g., by gouging out their eyes or cutting off their hands).

Like the Mungi and Scratching Rocks hyena clans, humans practiced a dual standard of behavior: strong inhibitions about killing one of "us,", but a green light to kill "them" when it was safe to do so. Genocide was acceptable under this dichotomy, whether one considered the dichotomy as an inherited animal instinct or as a uniquely human ethical code. We all still acquire in childhood our own arbitrary dichotomous criteria for respecting or scorning other humans. I recall a scene at Goroka airport in the New Guinea highlands, when my Tudawhe field assistants were standing awkwardly in torn shirts and bare feet, and an unshaven, unbathed, white man with a strong Australia accent and hat crumpled over his eyes approached. Even before he had begun to sneer at the Tudawhes as "black bums, they won't be fit to run this country for a century," I had begun to think to myself, "Dumb Aussie redneck, why doesn't he go home to his goddamn sheep dip." There it was, a blueprint for genocide: I scorning the Australia, and he scorning the Tudawhes, based on collective characteristics taken in at a glance.

With time, this ancient dichotomizing has become increasingly unacceptable as a basis for an ethical code. Instead, there has been some tendency toward paying at least lip service to a universal code — i.e., one stipulating similar rules for treating different peoples. Genocide conflicts directly with a universal code.

Despite this ethical conflict, numerous modern genocidists have managed to take unabashed pride in their accomplishment. When Argentina's General Julio Argentino Roca opened the pampas for white settlement by ruthlessly exterminating the Araucanian Indians, a delighted and grateful Argentina nation elected him president in 1880. How do today's genocidists wriggle out of the conflict between their actions and a universal code of ethics? The resort to one of three types of rationalizations, all of which are variations on a simple psychological theme: "Blame the Victim!"

First, most believers in a universal code still consider self-defense justified. This is a usefully elastic rationalization, because "they" can invariably be provoked into some behavior adequate to justify self-defense. For instance, the Tasmanians delivered an excuse to genocidal while colonists by killing an estimated total of 183 colonists over 34 years, after being provoked by a far greater number of mutilations, kidnappings, rapes, and murders. Even Hitler claimed self-defense in starting World War II: he went to the trouble of faking a Polish attack on a German border post.

Possessing the "right" religion or race or political belief, or claiming to represent progress of a higher level of civilization, is a second traditional justification for doing anything, including genocide, to those possessing the wrong principle. When I was a student in Munich in 1962, unrepentant Nazis still explained to me matter-of-factly that the Germans had had to invade Russia, because the Russian people had adopted communism.. My fifteen field assistants in New Guinea's Fakfak Mountains all looked pretty similar to me, but eventually they began explaining to me which of them were Moslems and who were Christians, and why the former (or the latter) were irredeemably lower humans, There is an almost universal hierarchy of scorn, according to which literate peoples with advanced metallurgy (e.g., white colonialists in Africa) look down on herders (e.g., Tutsi, Hottentots), who look down on farmers (e.g., Hutu), who look down on nomads or hunter-gatherers (e.g., Pygmies, Bushmen).

Finally, our ethical codes regard animals and humans differently. Thus, modern genocidists routinely compare their victims to animals in order to justify the killings. Nazis considered Jews to be subhuman lice; the French settlers of Algeria referred to local Moslems as ratons (rats); "Civilized" Paraguayans described the Aché hunter-gatherers as rabid rats; Boers called Africans bobbejaan (baboons); and educated northern Nigerians viewed Ibos as subhuman vermin. The English language is rich with animal names used as pejoratives: you pig (ape, bitch, cur, dog, ox, rat, swine).

All three types of ethical rationalizations were employed by Australian colonists to justify exterminating Tasmanians. However, my fellow Americans and I can get a better insight into the rationalization process by focusing on the case that we have trained from childhood to rationalize: A set of attitudes that we absorb goes roughly as follows:

To begin with, we don't discuss the Indian tragedy very much — not nearly as much as s the genocides of World War II in Europe, for instance. Our great national tragedy is instead viewed as the Civil War. Insofar as we stop to think about white-vs.-Indian conflict, we consider it as belonging to the distant past, and we describe it in military language: The Pequod War, Great Swamp Fight, Battle of Wounded Knee, Conquest of the West, etc. Indians, in our view, were warlike and violent even toward other Indian tribes, masters of ambush and treachery. They were famous for their barbarity, notably for the distinctively Indian practices of torturing captives and scalping enemies. They were few in number and lived as nomadic hunters, especially bison hunters. The Indian population of the United States as of 1492 is traditionally estimated at 1 million. This figure is so trivial, compared to the present U.S. population of 250 million, that the inevitability of whites' occupying this virtually empty continent becomes immediately apparent. Many Indians died from smallpox and other diseases. The aforementioned attitudes guided the Indian policy of the most admired U.S. presidents and leaders from George Washington onward (see quotations in "Indian Policies of Some Famous Americans," at the end of the appendix).

These rationalizations rest on a transformation of historical facts. Military language implies declared warfare waged by adult male combatants. Actually, common white tactics were sneak attacks (often by civilians) on villages or encampments to kill Indians of any age and either sex. Within the first century of white settlement, governments were paying scalp bounties to semiprofessional killers of Indians. Contemporary European societies were at least as warlike and violent as Indian societies, when one considers the European frequency of rebellions, class wars, drunken violence, legalized violence against criminals, and total war, including destruction of food and property. Torture was exquisitely refined in Europe: think of drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, and the rack. While the precontact Indian population of North America is the subject of widely varying opinions, plausible recent estimates are about eighteen million, a population not reached by white settlers of the U.S. till around 1840.. Although some Indians in the U.S. were semi-nomadic hunters without agriculture, most Indians in the U.S. were settled farmers living in villages. Disease may well have been the biggest killer of Indians, but some of the diseases were intentionally transmitted by whites, and the diseases still left plenty of Indians to kill by more direct means. It was only in 1916 that the last "wild" Indian in the United States (the Yahi Indian known as Ishi) died, and frank and unapologetic memoirs by the white killers of his tribe were still being published as recently as 1923.

In short, Americans romanticize the white versus the Indian conflict as battles of grown men on horseback, fought by U.S. cavalry and cowboys against fierce nomadic bison hunters able to offer strong resistance. The conflict is more accurately described as one race of civilian peasant farmers exterminating another. We Americans remember with outrage our own losses at the Alamo (around 200 dead), on the battleship U.S.S. Maine (260 dead), and at Pearl Harbor (about 2,200 dead), the incidents that galvanized our support for the Mexican War, Spanish-American War, and World War II respectively. Yet these numbers of dead are dwarfed by the forgotten losses that we inflicted on the Indians. Introspection shows us how, in rewriting our great national tragedy, we like so many modern peoples reconciled genocide with a universal code of ethics. The solution was to plead self-defense and overriding principle, and to view the victims as savage animals.


Our rewriting of American history stems from the aspect of genocide that is of greatest practical importance in preventing it: its psychological effects on killers, victims, and third parties. The most puzzling question involves the effect, or rather the apparent non-effect, on third parties. On first thought, one might expect that no horror could grip public attention as much as the intentional, collective, and savage killing of many people. In reality, genocides rarely grip the public's attention in other countries, and even more rarely are interrupted by foreign intervention. Who among us paid much attention to the slaughter of Zanzibar's Arabs in 1964, or of Paraguay's Aché Indians in the 1970s.

Contrast our non-response to these and all the other genocides of recent decades with our strong reaction to the sole two cases of modern genocide that remain vivid in our imagination: that of the Nazis against the Jews, and (much less vivid for most people) that of the Turks against the Armenians. These cases differ in three crucial respects from the genocides we ignore: the victims were whites, with whom other whites identify; the perpetrators were our war enemies, whom we encouraged to hate as evil (especially the Nazis); and there are articulate survivors in the United States who go to much effort to force us to remember. Thus, it takes a rather special constellation of circumstances to get third parties to focus on genocide.

The strange passivity of their parties is exemplified by that of governments, whose actions reflect collective human psychology. While the United Nations in 1948 adopted a Convention on Genocide that declared it a crime, the UN has never taken serious steps to prevent, halt, or punish it, despite complaints lodged before the UN against ongoing genocides in Bangladesh, Burundi, Cambodia, Paraguay, and Uganda. To a complaint lodged against Uganda at the height of Idi Amin's terror, the UN Secretary-General responded by asking Amin himself to investigate. The United States is not even among the nations that ratified the UN Convention on Genocide.

Is our puzzling non-response because we did not know, or could not find out, about ongoing genocides? Certainly not: many genocides of the 1960s and 1970s received daily publicity at the time, including those in Bangladesh, Brazil, Burundi, Cambodia, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, Lebanon, Paraguay, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and Zanzibar. (The casualties in Bangladesh and Cambodia each topped a million.) For example, in 1968 the Brazilian government filed criminal charges against 134 of the 700 employees of its Indian Protection Service for their acts in exterminating Amazonian Indian tribes. Among the acts detailed in the 5, 115-page Figueiredo report by Brazil's attorney General, and announced at a press conference by Brazil's minister of the interior, were the following: Killing of Indians by dynamite, machine guns, arsenic-laced sugar, and intentionally introduced smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, and measles; kidnapping of Indian children as slaves; and the hiring of professional killers of Indians by land-development companies. Accounts of the Figueiredo report appeared in the American and British press, but failed to stimulate much action.

One might thus conclude that most people simply do not care about injustice done to other people, or regard it none of their business. This is undoubtedly part of the explanation, but not all of it. Many people care passionately about some injustices, such as apartheid in South Africa; why not also about genocide? This question was addressed poignantly to the Organization of African States by Hutu victims of the Tutsi in Burundi, where somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 Hutu were killed inn 1972: "Tutsi apartheid is established more ferociously than the apartheid of Vorster, more inhumanely than Portuguese onialism. Outside of Hitler's Nazi movement, there is nothing to compete with it in world history. And the peoples of Africa say nothing African heads of state receive the executioner Micombero [president of Burundi, a Tutsi] and clasp his hand in fraternal greeting. Sirs, heads of state, if you wish to help the African peoples of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau to liberate themselves from their white oppressors, you have no right to let Africans murder other Africans. . . . Are you waiting until the entire Hutu ethnic group of Burundi is exterminated before raising your voices?"

To understand this non-reaction of third parties, we need to appreciate the reaction of surviving victims. Psychiatrists who have studies witnesses of genocide, such as Auschwitz survivors, describe the effects on them as "psychological numbing." Most of us have experienced the intense and lasting pain that comes when a loved friend or relative dies a natural death, out of sight. It is virtually impossible for us to imagine the multiplied intensity of pain when one is forced to watch at close hand many loved friends and relatives being killed with extreme savagery. For the survivors, there is a shattering of the implicit belief system under which such savagery was forbidden; a sense of stigma that one must indeed be worthless to have been singled out for such cruelty; and a sense of guilt at surviving, when one's companions died. Just as intense physical pain numbs us, so does intense psychological pain: there is no other way to survive and remain sane. For me, these reactions were personified in a relative who survived two years in Auschwitz, and who remained practically unable to cry for decades afterward.

As for the reactions of the killers, those killers whose ethical code distinguishes between "us" and "them" may be able to feel pride, but those reared under a universal ethical code may share the numbing of their victims, exacerbated by the guilt of perpetration. Hundreds and thousands of Americans who fought in Vietnam suffered this numbing. Even the descendants of genocidists — descendants who have no individual responsibility — may feel a collective guilt, the mirror image of the collective labeling of victims that defines genocide. To reduce the pain of guilt, the descendants often rewrite history; witness the response of modern Americans, or that of Ms. Cobern and many other modern Australians.

We can now begin to understand better the non-reaction of third parties to genocide. Genocide inflicts crippling and lasting psychological damage on the victims and killers who experience it firsthand. But it may also leave deep scars on those who hear about it only secondhand, such as the children of Auschwitz survivors, or the psychotherapists who treat the survivors and Vietnam veterans. Therapists who have trained professionally to be able to listen to human misery often cannot bear to hear the sickening recollections of those involved in genocide. If paid professionals cannot stand it, who can blame the lay public for refusing to listen?

Consider the reactions of Robert Jay Lifton, an American Psychiatrist who had already had much experience with survivors of extreme situations before he interviewed survivors of the Hiroshima A-bomb ". . . now, instead of dealing with 'the atomic bomb problem,' I was confronted with the brutal details of actual experiences of human beings who sat before me. I found that the completion of each of these early interviews left me profoundly shocked and emotionally spent. But very soon — within a few days, in fact — I noticed that my reactions were changing. I was listening to descriptions of the same horrors, but their effect on me had lessened. The experience was an unforgettable demonstration of the 'psychic closing off' we shall see to be characteristic of all aspects of atomic bomb exposure. . . ."


What genocides can we expect from Homo sapiens in the future? There are plenty of obvious reasons for pessimism. The world abounds in trouble spots that seem ripe for genocide: South Africa, Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, New Caledonia, and the Middle East, to name just a few. Totalitarian governments bent on genocide seem unstoppable. Modern weaponry permits one to kill ever larger numbers of victims, to be a killer while wearing a coat and tie, and even to effect a universal genocide of the human race.

At the same time, I see grounds for cautious optimism that the future need not be as murderous as the past. In many countries today, people of different races or religions or ethnic groups live together, with varying degrees of social justice but at least without open mass Murder: for instance, Switzerland, Belgium, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, even the post-Ishi U.S.A. Some genocides have been successfully interrupted, reduced or prevented by the efforts or anticipated reactions of third parties. Even the Nazi extermination of Jews, which we view as the efficient and unstoppable of genocides, was thwarted in Denmark, Bulgaria, and every other occupied state where the head of the dominant church publicly denounced deportation of Jews or as soon as it began. A further hopeful sign is that modern travel, TV, and photography enable us to see other people living ten thousand miles away as human, like us. Much as we damn twentieth-century technology, it is blurring the distinction between "us" and "them" that makes genocide possible. While genocide was considered socially acceptable or even admirable in the pre-first-contact world, the modern spread of international culture and knowledge of distant peoples has been making it increasingly hard to justify.

Still, the risk of genocide will be with us as long as we cannot bear to understand it, and as long as we delude ourselves with the belief that only rare perverts could commit it. Granted, it's hard not to go numb while reading about genocide. It's hard to imagine how we, and other nice ordinary people that we know, could bring ourselves to look helpless people in the face while killing them. I came closest to being able to imagine it when a friend whom I had long known told me of a genocidal massacre at which he had been a killer:

Kariniga is a gentle Tudawhe tribesman who worked with me in New Guinea. We shared life-threatening situations, fears, and triumphs, and I like and admire him. One evening after I had known Kariniga for five years, he told me of an episode from his youth. There had been a long history of conflict between Tudawhes and a neighboring village of Daribi tribesmen. Tudawhes and Daribis seem quite similar to me, but Kariniga had come to view Daribis as inexpressibly vile. In a series of ambushes the Daribis finally succeeded in picking off many Tudawhes, including Kariniga's father, until the surviving Tudawhes became desperate. All the remaining Tudawhe men surrounded the Daribi village at night and set fire to the huts at dawn. As the sleepy Daribis stumbled down the steps of their burning huts, they were speared. Some Daribis succeeded in escaping to hide in the forest, where Tudawhes tracked down and killed most of them during the following weeks. But the establishment of Australian government control ended the hunt before Kariniga could catch his father's killer.

Since that evening, I've often found myself shuddering as I recalled details of it — the glow in Kariniga's eyes as he told me of the dawn massacre; those intensely satisfying moments when he finally drove his spear into some of his people's murderers; and his tears of rage and frustration at the escape of his father's killer, whom he still hoped to kill some day with poison. That evening, I thought I understood how at least one nice person had brought himself to kill. The potential for genocide that circumstances thrust on Kariniga lies within all of us. As the growth of the world population sharpens conflicts between and within societies, humans will have more urge to kill each other, and more effective weapons with which to do it. To listen to first-person accounts of genocide is unbearably painful. But if we continue to turn away and not understand it, when will it be our own turn to become the killers, or the victims?

Indian Policies of Some Famous Americans

President George Washington. "The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more."

Benjamin Franklin. "If it be the Design of Providence to Extirpate these Savages in order to make room for Cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that Rum may be the appointed means."

President Thomas Jefferson. "This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate."

President John Quincy Adams. "What is the right of the huntsman to the forest of a thousand miles over which he has accidently ranged in quest of prey?"

President James Monroe. "The hunter or savage state requires a greater extent of territory to sustain it, than is compatible with the progress and just claims of civilized life . . . and must yield to it."

President Andrew Jackson. "They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear."

Chief Justice John Marshall. "The tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were savages, whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn from the forest . . . That law which regulates, and ought to regulate in general, the relations between the conqueror and conquered was incapable of application to a people under such circumstances. Discovery [of America by Europeans] gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest."

President William Henry Harrison. "Is one of the fairest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature, the haunt of a few wretched savages, when it seems destined by the Creator to give support to a large population and to be the seat of civilization?"

President Theodore Roosevelt. "The settler and pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side; this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages."

General Philip Sheridan. "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."


From Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1992.