Why does mass violence and genocide happen?



In my course called “Causes and Consequences of Civil War” with Professor Dara Cohen, we’re analyzing research and studies for why mass violence and genocide happens.  In our exploration of this highly consequential question, we recently watched Dartmouth Professor Ben Valentino’s Ted Talk called “When Bad Men Combine: Understanding the Causes of Mass Violence” who spoke about some causes for mass violence and genocide. He strongly argues against ethnic hatred being a sufficient explanation for mass violence.  Cross-national statistical studies reveal that our measures of ethnic differences in societies do not strongly correlate with whether or not a country experiences mass killings and violence.

What he argues for is that mass violence is much easier to carry out than we think.  The more we study mass killings, we see that the killings are carried out by shockingly small numbers of people in a society.  Generally, we see no more than 1-2% of the male population in a society who carry out these mass killings. [Note: In the United States, 5% of our male population is either incarcerated or on probation.]  He states a few examples:

  • CAMBODIA: in 1975, the Khmer Rouge, no more than 70,000 soldiers, took power over a country of 8 million people. Four years later, over 2 million were dead.
  • SUDAN: In 2004, the Janjaweed killed over half a million people and ethnically cleansed 3 million people. The Janjaweed never exceeded over 20,000 members.

How can such small groups cause so much trouble, so much bloodshed?  What bad men need from people like us is not our participation or sympathy for their work, their work being slaughtering people. All they need is for us to stand aside and let their work happen. This is where everyday hatreds /stereotypes enter the equation. Professor Valentino states that, “although the hatreds are not enough for people to rise up and kill our neighbors, theyre MORE than enough to prevent us from rising up to protect our nehgibors from the small groups of determined bad men who do the killings in these kinds of killings.”

Professor Valentino titled his talk after the wise words of Irish-English statesman Edmund Burke, which I urge you to contemplate: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” We each have this  power to associate with one another.

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