Unless you’ve been living under a rock and avoiding all news, chances are you’re aware that Syria is a mess right now. And what a house of horrors it is: A recent report produced by a human right group found that since the start of the Syrian war, at least 11,000 children have been deliberately targeted and killed in the conflict.
This number includes over 100 who were killed by snipers, and at least 112 who were deliberately tortured to death by government officials. Some of these torture victims were less than 5-years-old. It’s hard to imagine what crucial information these youngsters possessed that would warrant such actions. What were officials looking for, a hidden stash of juice boxes?
Thousands more have died in agonizing pain from chemical weapon attacks, a number of which deliberately targeted elementary schools and other places where children gather.
Meanwhile, another conflict is brewing up atrocities of its own. In the Central African Republic, peacekeepers say that the country is on the verge of its own civil war. Human rights workers report that some people are going through towns slitting the throats of children, while others are shooting babies with military rifles. Different continent, eerily similar horrors.
Most people try their best to turn away from stories such as this, especially when it seems they can do nothing about it. But we bring news like this to your attention for two reasons: First, organizations such as Save the Children are working in the refugee camps along the Syrian border and in Africa, doing their best to help all the families fleeing this slaughter. They could certainly use our help, and so there is something you could do.
Second, but perhaps more importantly, turning away from discomforting truths about our world leaves us in the dark about how these atrocities arise. In the same way that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, when societies choose not to confront such disturbing scenarios, they remain ignorant and naive about the causes. They may fail to recognize just how precariously their own culture balances compassion and cooperation against the darker side of human nature, and how quickly things can go wrong and spiral out of control.
If you’re like most people, upon hearing of such horrors, your gut reaction is to curse the “evil monsters” perpetrating such acts. While this is understandable, simply labeling the perpetrators as “evil” is another way of avoiding the issue. The sad fact is that such atrocious violence happens with regular occurrence – way to often to dismiss it as the deeds of a few evil, less-than-human sociopaths. Medieval Europe, Germany, our ancestors in the United States, South America, Turkey, Ecuador, Iraq, Rwanda, Congo… time and time again we see examples where otherwise ordinary people seem to lose their marbles and revert to the cruelest of actions with apparent ease. Why does this happen?
The Psychology of Genocide
Dispassionate cruelty is not about “pure evil,” but rather a destructive state of psychology that is far too easy to come by.
1.) The Division Phase
Rifts and divisions that exist between people are widened. These imagined differences are always psychological – a way of inventing separations which ignore the fact that underneath we’re all the same human creatures with identical needs and desires that are merely expressed in slightly different ways. This can be a difference in race, religion, class, ethnic categories, tribe, sexual or cultural practices – anything that allows for a certain group of people to be labeled and categorized as “others.” Once placed in this mental category of the “other,” someone or something different and apart from ourselves, the normal rules of empathy no longer apply and compassion starts to break down.
2.) The Elevation Phase
These distinctions are then hyped up and exaggerated. Their importance is elevated. Messages are spread about how horrible these evil “others” are. They are assumed to have sinister motives and malicious intentions are ascribed to their deeds. Energy starts to build behind a destructive idea. The more the idea is repeated, the more real it seems. The more real it seems, the more harsh actions seem justifiable in defense of the “greater good.”
3.) The Tension Phase
Something happens to escalate tensions: A perceived insult, an accident, and isolated case of maliciousness. This fuels the flame and sparks retaliation. That new deed stokes the other side, who then feels a need for their own counteroffensive. (You killed my child, now I’ll kill yours.) Each new aggression becomes proof of the other side’s maliciousness and evil nature. Rumor and gossip take hold, spreading like wildfire with tales of devilish acts both real and imagined. Anger and rage take hold, further limiting people’s ability to think rationally.
4. The Justification Phase
Once we make the distinction between “Us” and “Them,” separating ourselves into imaginary categories of good and evil while labeling those outside our group as “evil others,” the path toward monstrous actions is complete. The despised are no longer people, but rather animals to be slaughtered at will. Now no atrocity is beyond the scope of human cruelty (even slitting the throats of defenseless children), since attacking these evil “others” becomes an act in defense of the greater “good.” Cruelty is relabeled “justice” and considered reasonable punishment against those who deserve it. Strong emotions associated with group loyalty further enable the aggressors.
Avoiding This Pattern of Cruelty In Our Own Lives
So why this lesson in the social dynamics of genocide? Because it’s a formula inherent to human nature that exists within us all, and awareness of this tendency is the first step in guarding against such evil deeds. Even today in times of peace, look around. You can probably find hundreds of different variations in this same formula, all producing hurtful actions and lesser degrees of cruelty in everyday life.
You can see people labeling and compartmentalizing those they don’t understand, relegating them to something “less than human.” On an everyday basis people will ascribe malicious motives to the deeds of others while simultaneously dismissing their own hurtful actions as something perfectly understandable or justified (one of the most destructive double standards of all time). You’ll find all sorts of cruelty celebrated and justified… so long as it’s directed at those “evil others” who “deserve it.” You can come across all sorts of examples of people scapegoating other groups and blaming them for their problems.
Quiet obviously, the same psychology that enables the horrors of genocide exists within our own culture and resides right underneath the surface. We need to be aware of these tendencies and keep them in check. Not only so we don’t wake up one day and find ourselves in a similar mess, but to guard against all the lesser atrocities that are an everyday occurrence in the here and now.
Let us hope that the children in Syria and the Central African Republic soon find some relief from these horrors. In the meantime, it’s our duty to NOT TURN AWAY. Maybe we can’t sop the slaughter presently going on, but as individuals we can certainly do our best to combat the psychology that enables such destructive deeds.