Monday, April 13, 2015

The Mentality of Mass Murder - Part Two: Humanity's Prospects for Civilization and for Self-Destruction

This is the second 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? 

2. Taxonomies, Classifications and Cases: To get a more precise idea of the contents of De Swaan’s book, one needs to understand his taxonomy of different sorts of mass violence:

The book is not about all forms of violence, not even all forms of mass violence. For example, it is not about war. The book’s topic is mass annihilation, or mass extermination. Even though De Swaan uses the French word “genocidaire” throughout the book in reference to those who engage in the mass annihilation of their fellow men, mass annihilation is distinct from genocide, which is only ONE form of mass annihilation (5).

Mass annihilation is “massive, asymmetric violence at close range, where killers and victims are in direct confrontation.” (5). It is therefore one-sided, whereby the aggressors are armed and organized, and their victims are defenseless. Furthermore, the perpetrators usually enjoy the fiat of the authorities, which is what gives them their enormous power. Instances of mass annihilation often occur during, or as the aftermath of Coup d’Etats or revolutions. Obvious examples are the Holocaust, the Soviet terror, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. This form of violence has killed by far the most people of any form of violence - three to four times as many as war alone.

Two further peculiar and unique features of mass annihilation are the fact that when such an episode is over, the violence disappears almost without a trace (9), and the fact that there is rarely any punishment of the culprits (180). Occasionally, a culprit is brought to justice before a body such as the International Court of Justice, as happened with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, but these are exceptions. Mao Zedong remains a major Chinese icon. The Hutus and the Tutsis are said to be now living in harmony.

Massive violent events which fall OUTSIDE De Swaan’s purview include the 9/11 attack, the violence between settlers and American Indians on the American frontier, slavery and war. Mass annihilation is asymmetric. It often occurs in the shadow of war (116), but it shouldn’t be confused with war itself.

Genocide” and “classicide” (151) are two sub-categories of mass annihilation. The former refers to the extermination of an ethnic group, the latter to that of a class, for example the extermination of property owners/the bourgeoisie.

De Swaan mentions other related terms coined by other scholars, for example “Democide,” which is the murder of a whole population (85) and “Politicide,” the murder of a whole political group (182). These are also sub-categories of Mass Extermination. Examples include Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975-1979, and the extermination of the communists in Indonesia in 1965. Both of these resulted in the death of not thousands of people, but several million in Cambodia and at least one million in Indonesia.

 In the end, De Swaan comes up with his own elegant heuristic classification: He distinguishes between four major types of mass annihilation (11): (1) The conqueror’s Frenzy, (2) Rule by Terror, (3) the Loser’s Triumph, and (4) the Megapogrom. These are detailed in Chapter Seven:

 (1) The Conqueror’s Frenzy occurs when victorious armies confront defeated (foreign) enemies and defenseless populations (143). An example are the actions of Belgium in the Congo at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of which the Congo’s population declined from 20 million to half that number. This probably makes Belgian 19th century colonialism the single most lethal one among all Western colonialism.

(2) Rule by Terror is inflicted by established regimes upon their own citizens (151). A prime example is the the Soviet Union under Stalin, whose terror and famine are estimated to have caused fifty million deaths (154). Staggering as this number is, it is exceeded by the reign of terror imposed by the Communist Chinese government upon its population. Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution (1966-1976) and the Red Guards who carried it out may have caused more deaths than any other terror in history, perhaps as many as fifty five million (285, footnote 32). In terms of absolute numbers, the USSR and Communist China have been the two greatest terrorist regimes in history (160). A current example of rule by terror is North Korea.

(3) The Loser’s Triumph (139, 170) is particularly “interesting,” i.e. perverse: It occurs when a “genocidal regime faces imminent defeat by an (external) foe and surprisingly continues or even intensifies its campaign to annihilate target groups, even at the cost of undermining its effort in the war against its armed foreign opponent” (11). The Loser’s Triumph means that a losing regime turns from a war which it cannot win, to one which it can. From passive to active. (176). ” It is said, for example, that “the Holocaust is the war which Hitler won.” (151). This is, of course, utterly self-destructive. It is also unspeakably cruel, as De Swaan’s vignettes attest to. For example, during Pol Pot’s terror, food “rations were at starvation levels. Someone who stealthily devoured a snail could be executed on the spot.” (181). De Swaan provides detailed data on many “Loser’s Triumphs:” The prototype of all such cases is the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” An earlier case is the Turkish extermination of Armenians (over one million deaths). The Ottoman Empire carried out this genocide against an internal group even as it was collapsing from the outside. Another example is the Pol Pot regime, whose Khmer Rouge persisted in exterminating millions of Cambodians until 1979, even as it was being defeated by the invading Vietnamese army. Pakistan’s mass murder in Bangladesh also belongs in this category. This occurred in 1971. The vast majority of the victims were Hindus. Due to Indian intervention and a thousand mile separation from Bangladesh, there was no possibility of Pakistan prevailing militarily. Its mass murder of tens of thousands of victims was another “Loser’s Triumph.” Another example of a loser’s campaign against an internal foe, even as it ended up losing the total war, was the genocide perpetrated by Serbs upon Bosnians in the 1990s. De Swaan devotes an entire separate chapter (Five) to the 1994 genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda, as a case study in “Self-destructive Destruction.” The description (and absurdity) of this recent event, which caused a million deaths among civilians, is vivid. As De Swaan explains, the Hutus and the Tutsis are not clearly distinct, either phenotypically or genotypically. The assault upon a segment of the population was stoked by an utterly artificial propaganda campaign.

 (4) Megapogroms are the one form of mass annihilation where the state plays a less prominent role (141, 189). They consist of massive riots across vast territories, aimed at exterminating or expelling a target group. An example is the mass expulsion and mass murder of three million Germans from Central and Eastern Europe after World War Two (190). In sum, one of the book’s fortes is that it presents an enormous amount of data on specific events, estimated numbers of casualties, etc. Many other historical and contemporary cases of genocide and other forms of mass extermination are described, from the Taiping rebellion (1850-1864) (which, at an estimate of one hundred million casualties, i.e. one third of China’s population, may be the deadliest conflict in all of history) to the genocide of the indigenous Guatemalans in the 1980s, from the massacres during the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century to the sometimes lethal Dutch colonial practices in Indonesia. Obviously, De Swaan cannot cover all instances of mass annihilation. Missing are some spectacular ancient cases, such as Rome’s treatment of such enemies as Carthage, Genghis Khan, Timur (Tamerlane), etc. But this is immaterial.     (To be Continued)

© Tom Kando 2015

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