Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Mentality of Mass Murder - Part Three: How is Mass Annihilation Accomplished?




 This is the third part of a five-part review of The Killing Compartments; The Mentality of Mass Murder (Yale University Press, 2015), a new book by Abram De Swaan, Professor Emeritus of Social Science, University of Amsterdam. (Page numbers referenced are for the e-version of the book). Due to its length, the review is broken up into five parts. I hope you read it all.

Abstract: The book under review offers a profound analysis of the phenomenon of Mass Extermination. There are four types: The Conqueror’s Frenzy, Rule by Terror, the Loser’s Triumph and the Megapogrom. De Swaan provides rich and vivid case studies from past and current history. The author refutes the fundamental fallacy of situationism, which suggests that we are all potential mass murderers. He does this with a four-level analysis, the levels of macro-sociology, meso-sociology, micro-sociology and psycho-sociology. Human societies go through both the civilizing process AND the de-civilizing process - regression towards barbarism. I conclude with some speculation about the future of our species and its potential for survival as well as for self-destruction.


1. Introduction 
2. Taxonomies, Terminology, classifications 
3. How is Mass Annihilation Accomplished? 
4. Are we All Potential Mass Murderers? 
5. Conclusion: Towards Armageddon for the Human Species, or the Golden Age? 

3. How is Mass Annihilation Accomplished? As the title of De Swaan’s book indicates, a central thesis is that we, humans, manage to perpetrate unimaginable horror upon one another through a process of Compartmentalization Chapter Six).

What is first required is a process of identification and disidentification: (Chapter Three). Throughout history, humans have identified with the groups to which they belong, and dis-identified with “others.” It is in our nature to harbor “we-feelings” and “they feelings.” In Chapter Three De Swaan, following Elias, traces the gradual expansion of the scope of identification. Today, identification typically occurs with the modern nation state (in the form of patriotism, nationalism and chauvinism) which is a much larger unit than earlier sources of identification such as clan, tribe and (other) kin and local groups.

At the same time, all groups also disidentify with many human conglomerates, whom they despise, hate and reject. These groups may be foreigners or internal minorities. (De Swaan recognizes a third possibility: indifference). In order for mass annihilation to occur, there must first be disidentification. Chapter Four traces the history of violence. It is also the history of HATRED, i.e. disidentification. While modern nation states provide more stability and security and less violence, they also present an opportunity for more EFFECTIVE mass violence - both in the form of war, and in the form of the asymmetrical mass violence which is the topic of this book.

A question occurs in my mind: what roles do modern mass, social media and the Internet play in this? For example: we now have Al Qaeda, ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and other similar groups. The violence of such groups is rendered far more visible and spectacular by the modern social and mass media. Does this affect and perhaps intensify the mutual processes of dis-identification and hatred?

The final requirement for mass extermination to occur is compartmentalization, or the creation of killing compartments (Chapter Six): This is defined as the “process through which people are ideologically separated in opposite categories, socially and spatially segregated, institutionally discriminated, and mentally isolated” (259). Compartmentalization is the “psychic defense mechanism” (125) which makes it possible for otherwise “civilized” members of “civilized” society to participate in or to condone mass annihilation at certain distinctly delineated times and sites (De Swaan uses terms such as “enclaves of atrocity” and “reservations of atrocity,” (125)), while continuing to function as psychologically “normal” and civilized citizens. The classic example is what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945. The oft heard excuse of many Germans after the war that “Wir haben es nicht gewusst” (“we didn’t know”) is a lie. Clearly, a vast majority of Germans did know what was going on at Auschwitz and elsewhere. What occurred was compartmentalization.

While all forms of mass extermination require some degree of compartmentalization, its severity varies: For example, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution was relatively anarchistic and chaotic, often taking the form of free-for-all, improvised assaults upon innocent victims by young urban thugs, making this a hybrid between Rule by Terror and the Megapogrom. (159).

I should add that compartmentalization, in some form or another, is almost an everyday occurrence, even in today’s peaceful Western democracies. One only needs to think of Guantanamo, or even the average state prison.      

(To be Continued)

© Tom Kando 2015

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