The vile ties that spawn unforgivable inhumanity

Purify and Destroy
October 19, 2007

Massacre and genocide are, unfortunately, all too thinkable. To claim that they surpass human rationality would be to concede that the intellectual power of the perpetrators of atrocity is greater than that of the scholar. Jacques Semelin's Purify and Destroy, newly and ably translated from French by Cynthia Scoch, is a fine attempt to bring social science methods (from political science through anthropology to psychology) to bear on understanding genocide. As Semelin notes, to understand is not to forgive.

The sub-discipline of genocide studies faces a difficulty in that its name and subject matter were enshrined in a United Nations convention (the very first such convention, in fact, adopted on December 9, 1948), which juridically defined the crime of genocide before social and political scientists had had the opportunity to grapple with the subject matter. Semelin contends that "it is crucial for genocide research to disengage itself from the legal approach in order to come into its own in the field of the social sciences" and prefers to use the word "massacre". He is correct: one can explain genocide only by seeking to understand its political functions and facilitating conditions.

The sources that Semelin taps show that writers have succeeded in putting aside restrictive legalistic frameworks. For example, Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland and Jean Hatzfeld's Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak provide compelling insights into the social and psychological processes whereby ordinary people become part of vast mechanisms of mass killing. Enthusiastic killers are a small minority. Fewer participate from outright coercion or fear of being killed themselves than from peer pressure - they do not want to let down their friends and colleagues, or seem weak in front of them. Very few object outright, and most of those who resist do so in quiet, unobtrusive ways. The first killing is the hardest, and thereafter a "vile camaraderie of massacre" binds together the killing bands. Semelin notes "the ambiguity of evil" - the way in which the killers retain elements of humanity, caring for their partners and even sympathising with some of their victims.

Semelin focuses on three cases: the Nazi Holocaust, the massacres in the civil wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the Rwanda genocide. It's a deliberately narrow selection, each of them falling within Semelin's category of genocides of "eradication". His central insight is that the political purpose of genocide is as much to do with transforming "us" as destroying "them". Mass murder can be a foundational act, a sacrificial or totemic exercise that changes the identity of the perpetrator group. Usually it is so under a threat, real or perceived, to the survival of the perpetrator group. Semelin explores the role of paranoia and the "imaginaire of death" in creating the conditions whereby political leaders cross the threshold from desiring to eradicate the other to acting to do just that.

Semelin outlines two other putative categories, namely genocides of "subjugation" (examples of which occur during wars and in the aftermath of communist revolution) and "insurrection" (arguably closer to terrorism). He has much less to say on these categories, which is a shame because they are both more common and less clear cut. The atrocities committed in Darfur during 2003-04 arguably count as a case of "destroying to subjugate" but once the label "genocide" was attached, many writers assumed that the crisis should be seen within the "eradication" paradigm of the Holocaust and Rwanda.

Semelin's exploration of genocide and massacre is thought-provoking and resists the temptation of easy moralising.

- Alex de Waal is a programme director at the Social Science Research Council in New York. He is editor of War in Darfur and the Search for Peace (Harvard University Press, 2007).

Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide

Author - Jacques Semelin
Publisher - Hurst and Co
Pages - 440
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9781850658177

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