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History is replete with examples of leaders who bore direct responsibility for hundreds of thousands or, in the case of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot, millions of deaths. Whether these individuals could be considered to be psychologically “sound” or healthy, however, is essentially unanswerable. In each of four cases, and in the case of Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Atilla the Hun, Robespierre, and many others, understanding the psychological element to their murderous behavior is dependent upon both social and physical research that is often not attainable. There are many variables that determine personality, and finding commonalities among mass murderers is extremely difficult.
Saddam Hussein is a relatively easy case to consider. Saddam grew up desperately poor and fatherless. His earliest and most dominant influences were themselves the product of a tyrannical political system that placed a premium on subterfuge and the willingness to commit murder to accomplish one’s political goals. Young Saddam grew up in an atmosphere of intrigue and murder, and his military experiences, which included participation in coup attempts and radical political activities, reaffirmed the requirement for ruthlessness on the part of whoever succeeds to positions of power.
Whether Saddam Hussein was psychotic or solely the product of external influences is unknown. What is known is that family, tribe, clan, and religion (in the case of Iraq, Sunni versus Shia Islam) were major determinants of social outlook, and that Saddam’s route out of poverty involved a willingness to do anything necessary, including murdering as many people as deemed warranted. Similarly, Stalin was the product of a desperately poor upbringing whose upward mobility was dependent upon his ability to engage in political subterfuge and murder. The lessons one of the greatest mass murderers in history drew from his experiences in the Russian underground plotting first against the czarist regime, then against Mensheviks, then against fellow Bolsheviks, and, finally, against any Russian or Soviet citizen deemed untrustworthy, was that the enemy is numerous and must be eliminated.
It seems possible that a psychologically health person could order the murder of thousands of people if the circumstances warranted it, but only if the environment in which such an individual grew up was conducive to the development of certain personality traits. Saddam, Hitler, Stalin, and others could be perfectly cogent human beings under benign circumstances, but devolve into a murderous rage at the slightest provocation, let alone under the conditions in which these individuals operated.
If one had to arrive at a conclusion, it would be probably be that no psychologically health person could do what the mass murderers discussed above did during their reigns of terror. What is known, however, is that, under the right circumstances, some people are capable of acts of great depravity, whether their psychological profile could have predicted that or not.
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