Why Ordinary People Kill

One of the more pressing questions I consistently get asked about genocides and mass atrocity is: What would motivate an individual to kill their neighbor? Understanding the answer holds the key to end genocides and mass atrocity.

In August, former University of Minnesota graduate student, and current Ohio State professor, Hollie Nyseth Brehm’s work was cited in an article in the magazine ScienceNews. In it, Dr. Nyseth-Brehm suggests that the popular belief that your average citizen kills their neighbor because they were ordered to do so often misses the mark. Citing work by Dr. Nyseth Brehm, the author, Bruce Bower, suggests that people who kill during genocide are motivated by patriotism and the need to protect the homeland from perceived enemies. In the case of Rwanda these enemies were Tutsis. Additionally, killings occur sometimes not because of some high ideal of the amorphous notion of nationhood, rather it is motivated by wanting to pilfer property held by the group identified as “Other”. Another reason why people kill their neighbors is because their family members or friends have already killed. Thus, people may kill because of peer pressure both within the home and their social circles. Furthermore, Bruce also finds that there are differences in gender when looking at the rate of killing and points out that in Rwanda “Hutu women killed on a much smaller scale that the men did”.

Dr. Nyseth Brehm’s work also highlights the importance of understanding genocide and violence as a micro-level event that is affected and structured by local conditions. One benefit of taking this approach is finding that violence during the Rwandan genocide was often worse in areas where a large number of the population was educated. Here, again, we are confronted with the reality that sometimes education is not the panacea to limiting intensity of violence.

 

j. Siguru Wahutu is a 2017-2018 visiting fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota. He  was the 2013-2014 and the 2015 Bernard and Fern Badzin Graduate Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (University of Minnesota).

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