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Battling to Understand Our Genocidal Instinct
Published on Saturday, June 5, 2004 by the Toronto Star
Battling to Understand Our Genocidal Instinct
by Olivia Ward
 

"Animals fight, but they don't wage war," says the German social critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger. "Only man — unique among the primates — practices this large-scale, deliberate and enthusiastic destruction of his fellow creatures."


The key element is that we all divide ourselves into those who are inside the group and those who are not: what psychologists call the `self' and the `other.' Once trouble strikes, many people retreat to the security of that group, and polarize their identities. `Us and them' becomes the order of the day.

One good example was the increase in patriotic sentiment in the United States following the attacks of Sept. 11.

Landon Hancock
specialist in conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University in Virginia
With scenes of near-anarchy in Iraq, murder and destruction in Israel and the Palestinian territories, slaughter in Sudan and new killings in Chechnya fresh in their minds, a group of international scholars will gather at University of Western Ontario this weekend to examine a topic that underlies much of the current news: Why Neighbors Kill.

Subtitled "Explaining the Breakdown in Ethnic Relations," it is the 10th international conference of the university's Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict Research Group. And at a time of ongoing warfare in many parts of the globe, it will look at such vexing questions as "how do groups that share economic ties, social space and public facilities come to engage in deadly violence against each other?"

For many people, such topics merely spark anger, anguish and despair. And as one war follows another with barely a pause for breath, they wonder if discussing them has lost its point. The urge to kill is widespread: Endless war has become part of the 21st-century psyche.

Howard Adelman, a visiting professor at Princeton University and senior scholar at York University, has studied the question closely, in the Middle East and currently Rwanda, where one of the worst genocides in modern history took place in the 1990s.

"We've learned a lot about why and when people kill each other," he says. "But we still haven't learned our lessons well enough. Countries can slide toward war, while people cry out for something to be done. In Sudan just now, a crisis has been going on for a year. There were many committed people willing to help, but the peace process foundered. The information was there, but it wasn't used for a constructive policy."

The case of Sudan has many of the elements of the catastrophic recent wars of Africa, Asia and Europe. There, in the western province of Darfur, two anti-government guerrilla groups began an uprising last February, and the government responded by backing local Arab militias, the Janjaweed, to attack suspected rebels. A humanitarian disaster followed, with thousands killed, a million driven from their homes and more than 100,000 fleeing to Chad.

The drastic outcome is similar to that of the ethnic cleansing wars that swept across the Balkans after the regime of strongman Josip Broz Tito, the destruction of Afghanistan under the Taliban, and the killings in Rwanda.

One of the most powerful elements common to those cases was a breakdown of order and lack of institutions that provide a system of justice.

Once the slaughter begins, it is often too late to prevent the worst excesses. But the question of how individuals make the transition from Neighbors to enemies, and eventually killers, is the one of the most vital to understanding the nature of conflicts.

Landon Hancock, a specialist in conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University in Virginia, says seeds of war are planted from the time humans first develop a sense of identity as part of a group.

"It could be an ethnic group, a religious group, a tribal or purely national affiliation," he says. "The key element is that we all divide ourselves into those who are inside the group and those who are not: what psychologists call the `self' and the `other.'" Once trouble strikes, many people retreat to the security of that group, and polarize their identities. `Us and them' becomes the order of the day.

"One good example was the increase in patriotic sentiment in the United States following the attacks of Sept. 11," he says.

When the threat worsens, a "fear of extinction" sets in, says Hancock. The threat need not be real; it could be the result of propaganda. Governments and guerrillas often exploit primitive fears in a cynical way, to turn anxious people to violence.

"To get a war going you need the people on the top policy level to create the vision," says Adelman. "You need the people in the middle who administer the plan and give the orders. And you need the `little guys' who actually kill. They are usually not motivated at all. They need different kinds of inducements, like fear, peer pressure and drugs. It's a distasteful thing they are going to do, and it's hard work convincing them."

Most ethnic and religious wars are not spontaneous, analysts say. Although small skirmishes may result from local incidents, a network of planning is required to motivate a society to fight.

One element that drives the fighting instinct is a history of injustice. In time of instability, groups look back at a "chosen trauma" that reminds them who their enemy is. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, for instance, recalled a 14th-century battle in Kosovo that led to the occupation of Serbia by the Ottoman Empire, as added justification for "ethnic cleansing" of the Albanian Muslims from Kosovo.

© Copyright 2004 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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