Using What We Know: Politicizing Knowledge and Scholarship to Stop Group Violence
Published on: Dec 22, 2006


Case studies of group-targeted violence reveal the enormous amount that the academic community knows about the context, design and implementation of genocidal politics. Much of the analysis in the historical or regional studies contributions has, of course, been crucially informed by the extraordinary achievements of Holocaust studies in the last 55 years. Insights from landmark studies into the political organization, sociology and psychology of the Nazi genocide against the Jews are now routinely applied, tested and developed further by scholars working on contemporary violence.

It is clear, therefore, that scholars know a lot about the politics and practice of massacre, deportation and group destruction. Indeed, it is fair to say that, in large measure, they have a clear understanding of extreme group targeted violence. And more than simply offering general frameworks for understanding mass killing, scholars have also shown themselves well able to nuance their analysis to appreciate the particular violence of any given context. They do not pretend that all group targeted violence is the same but are keen eyed about specific differences between each context. All in all, this growing comparative knowledge suggests that scholars can meaningfully claim to understand when group targeted violence tends to occur, how ideology enables it, the type of power and mentality needed to implement it and the denial required to give it cover. If they cannot predict it, scholars can usually recognize it quicker than most, see into its workings and assess what course it is likely to take. Thanks to committed and rigorous intellectual study of this most terrible of subjects, we can thus talk with confidence of having expertise in it.

But what can we do with this knowledge if it is to serve as more than just a terrible running commentary alongside genocidal events or a discipline that is used retrospectively to describe massacres and displacements post hoc? How can we politicize this expertise to give it an effective, activist edge which can help to stop mass killing? How can we apply this scholarship so that it plays a useful advocacy and policy role that is both ante and anti the development of group targeted violence? To explore this, it might help to look first at exactly what we know and then at what we might be able to do with what we know.

What We Know

It is striking how much is known about certain critical ingredients in group targeted violence. Common themes are found around causality, timing, process, power, leadership, implementation and intervention. 
  1. We know that any policy of mass killing is conceived and pursued with either essentialist or instrumental objectives, or a mixture of the two. The purpose is either absolute and genocidal—to eradicate a whole group as an essentially bad thing in itself—or, more instrumentally, to remove the group sufficiently to enable particular political strategies. So, for example, Stalin’s purges and deportations of specific nationalities were mainly instrumental rather than absolute. Their purpose was to pre-empt anticipated disloyalty, to unite the party and to secure Soviet borders rather than to destroy all “enemy nations” outright. By contrast, some aspects of Sudanese policy towards the Nuba and the killing of Hindus in East Pakistan were more absolutist and essentialist. But we also know that instrumental violence often needs to draw on essentialist prejudice in order to be carried out. The brutal anti-communist counterinsurgency strategy in Guatemala, therefore, overlapped with an unfettered racist essentialism within the perpetrating army against the Mayan people. Essentialist hatred helps implement instrumental politics. A judicious assessment of what is instrumental and what is essentialist in the political intention behind mass killing makes for a more appropriate political engagement with an emerging or full-blown crisis.
  2. It is also common knowledge that most group-targeted violence happens at times of intense political change often focused in deeply contested periods of state formation or the determined extension of imperial rule. A key part of state formation or imperial extension is the redistribution of access to wealth and position. Decisions about political ownership of a state are accompanied by critical economic competition for resources within that state. Political crisis moments that offer the opportunity to determine new degrees of political inclusion and exclusion and also set deep patterns of economic ownership are the usual settings for extreme group targeted violence. Alarmingly, apparently good moments that begin an opening up of wider political and economic participation are recognized to be just as dangerous as bad moments that involve an obvious closing down of political inclusion. Backlash or the hijack of the state by extremists can make apparent political good times as risky as the bad times. The possibility to widen political participation in East Pakistan and Nigeria became as hazardous to particular groups as the period of imperial consolidation in Stalin’s Russia.
  3. We also know that most political projects of mass killing and deportation draw easily from continuous traditions of group orientated violence. Thus Stalin’s deportations continue a Czarist tradition of mass killing, deportation and neglect. There is also a similar heredity in the murderous policy against indigenous Americans between the conquistadors of old and many elite Latin American governments and their military forces of recent times. In many countries, the same patterns of violence exist under very different political regimes to show the persistence of specific cultures and habits of violence in particular societies. Common beliefs about “how things are done here” move easily across the political spectrum and embody customary forms of violence. 
  4. The role of ideology in driving and enabling mass killing is critical and there is now significant knowledge that enables us to recognize a genocidal quality in political and religious aspiration and its discourse. The extreme dualistic way in which political challenges are framed, the absolutism of particular goals and the way in which certain “other” groups are degraded, characterized, scapegoated and labeled is now readily recognizable as potentially genocidal ideology—an upstream marker of downstream massacre. In some settings, such ideology and its discourse are not always public and have to be uncovered. But our growing familiarity with it from recent scholarship enables us to listen for it more systematically. The many examples offered by studies also helps to ensure that, when we find such ideology, we are not so surprised by it that we discount and deny it but instead take it deeply seriously.
  5. When ideology is widely internalized and accepted in key individuals and en masse, we know that the construction of an effective genocidal mentality in key sections of society is then critical to the ability of perpetrator governments and groups to implement mass killing and deportation. Everything that Lifton, Markusen and Browning have shown us about the indoctrination, dehumanizing, distancing, compartmentalizing, bureaucratizing, peer pressure and repetition that helps to construct a genocidal mentality is relevant to every case of mass killing as policy. If we can get close enough, we are able to recognize this process in individuals and organizations as it takes shape.
  6. All cases suggest that high levels of concentrated power and particular types of leadership are needed to construct and implement group targeted violence. We know that you need to be politically strong to do it and to make others do it. In strong states, you need strong, well equipped police, military and paramilitary forces. This requires a build up of arms and organization alongside high levels of loyalty and fear that will prove critical to the necessary genocidal mentality. In weak states, you need a similar platform of power and a critical mass of weapons within the apparent chaos. In both strong and weak states, we know that such policies are usually the work of particular types of leaders and cliques who have near total decision-making power and control.
  7. And, of course, with ideology, mentality and leadership a given, there is what Terry Martin has called the 80% rule. We know—no matter how much we do not want to know it—that 80% of us will carry out orders and become perpetrators of various kinds. Terribly, comparative studies now show that we can rely on this happening. Where powerful and ruthless politicians lead, the majority will follow.
  8. As mass killing is being planned, perpetrated or cleared up, there is also enough knowledge to show us that it will always be denied in various ways. Outright denial, re-framing, euphemism and forgetting will be used to misrepresent group killing policy as untrue, unfortunate or justified. To adapt Mao’s famous phrase, denial is to mass killing what water is to fish. It is the element in which the perpetrator lives and with which the anti-genocide activist has to contend.
  9. We know important things about how group targeted violence is stopped or not. It is stopped either because it has achieved its aims, because there is internal dissension in the perpetrating clique, because there has been sufficient armed resistance by the targeted group or because outside military intervention has prevailed. And, in the case of external intervention, we know that it is extremely rare and routinely comes very late, always after the first wave of massacres. 
  10. Finally, we know that the moral and legal categories of “civilian” and “non-combatant” are meaningless to those determined upon group targeted violence. These profoundly humanitarian ideas which are able to command some restraint in other areas of war, and which have recently become such a central part of international discourse and lawmaking, appear as absurdities to the genocidal mind. This suggests it would be deeply unwise to rely simply on international norms, legislation and appeals around civilian protection in political dealings with authorities and groups intent upon or already embarked upon mass killing.

What We Can Do

Knowing what we know, how can the scholarly community engage the political realm with its expertise in order to stop group targeted violence? There are two main moments when expertise could be applied—before and during mass killing—with one obviously being a much longer moment than the other.

Before group targeted violence begins, the knowledge of scholarship can actively contribute to the careful and deliberate creation of Kuper’s “non-genocidal society.” This kind of upstream political engagement must be sustained with all kinds of vulnerable polities—big, small, weak and strong—where, at any moment, the powerful could decide upon group targeted violence as a policy of choice. In such a context, expertise could be used to guide domestic policy, concerned foreign policy and international aid flows in such a way as to prevent the emergence of genocidal politics. Just and peaceful state formation thus becomes a major locus for the application of the kind of knowledge presented in this forum. Government policy makers, civil servants of all kinds and civil society activists could be usefully supported by the practical lessons we have acquired so that they can work to avoid or recognize group targeted violence in times of intense political change.

Tragically, knowledge of group targeted violence is also always likely to be required downstream as well when mass killing and group destruction is embarked upon. During this moment, it is critical that scholarly expertise is close at hand to inform the threatened community itself as well as concerned and responsible officials, diplomats, journalists, politicians, security forces and activists. All that we know must be readily available so that, despite strategies of denial and misrepresentation, everyone can recognize a situation of group targeted violence for what it is.

After recognition comes response. Case studies show that group targeted killing can be halted from two main directions—from inside the violence and from outside it. Dissension and contest within the perpetrator group can lead to a halt. Analysts can identify such disagreement and design strategies to maximize it. Alternatively, the targeted group can be actively supported in its own resistance. The form and potential of this resistance also needs careful analysis if support is to be appropriate and timely. Finally, a significant military response from outsiders will need to be similarly calculated and designed if they are to be applied to the right pressure points in time and space.

One critical issue in designing such strategies will be the nature of the “ask.” Evidence suggests that national and international politicians often feel that activists have faced them with impossible requests that compromise their own position. They have simply asked for too big a thing. An all or nothing presentation of policy choices—invasion or failure—has often appeared politically unrealistic and so has either put off or let off politicians from responding to mass killing. Some of the evidence in case studies shows that there are less extreme but still highly effective and disruptive options in between invasion or nothing. Using the knowledge and experience gained from cases of group targeted violence will help to get a better sense of what can work and so enable scholars and activists to shape a better political ask which cannot so easily be resisted and may even be welcomed.

Case studies of genocides suggest that the knowledge we now have can be applied politically to find real purchase on or within a killing machine before or after it starts. Studying these and other terrible precedents can help to sharpen national and international prevention and response in the face of group targeted violence. Expertise could now begin to replace fatalism in political and popular reaction to mass killing.