Perpetrator (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
Perpetrators (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Perpetrators are those who initiate, facilitate, or carry out acts of genocide or crimes against humanity. Genocide and crimes against humanity involve many of the same acts; the distinction between them is primarily that of intent. For genocide, the goal is the elimination of a group in whole or substantial part, whereas for other crimes against humanity, the goal is primarily to render a group powerless. The motivations of the perpetrators in other respects are the same. In what follows, the focus will be on perpetrators of genocide in its various forms, because the study of perpetrators in that context is most advanced.
The Variable Characteristics of Perpetrators
Genocide may involve the forcible transfer of children from the victim group to that of the perpetrators, or systematic rape that is intended to contribute to the disintegration of the group. Perpetrators also inflict on members of the victimized group conditions of life calculated to bring about its complete or partial physical destruction, such as the inducement of famine, deportations into deserts, or sealing victims into disease-ridden ghettos. Although it can be argued that all perpetrators of genocide intend the elimination of a definable human group, it is important to recognize that individual perpetrators may play different roles and bear different degrees of responsibility within the overall genocidal project. Various scholars have dealt with this by contrasting the roles of decision-makers and direct perpetrators, "desk murderers" and "shooters," and ideologues and technicians. Similarly, courts have assigned punishment, not on the basis of a convicted perpetrator's proximity to violence, but rather in accordance to his or her degree of responsibility for it. There are also those who design and manufacture the implements of death, use slave labor, drive the vehicles used to transport victims to their death, or propagandize in order to incite violence, as in Rwanda, where radio broadcasts were used to tell the Hutu that "the graves of the Tutsi are only half-full."
The concept of perpetrator is complicated further by its blurred edges. Numerous Holocaust memoirs mention that the first blows struck against the Jews at Auschwitz were delivered by fellow prisoners. These accounts are filled with descriptions of the brutalities committed by the kapos (prisoner-functionaries who helped run the camps). Were these kapos perpetrators? Or, is another term necessary, such as victim-perpetrator? Similarly, bystanders might not generally be considered perpetrators, but what if they supplied the weapons, chemicals, or tools used to commit genocide? In an even grayer area, does an individual's inaction qualify him as a perpetrator if that inaction facilitates genocide?
A commonly held view of the perpetrator is that only those who are mad, bestial, evil, or primitive commit genocide. While it is true that madmen and sadists are found among those who commit genocide, it is unlikely that the thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of perpetrators necessary to carry out genocide are insane. Likewise, if the perpetrators of genocide were invariably mad, no one could be held responsible for the commission of this, the worst crime that can befall a people. The charge that those who commit genocide must be bestial in nature is equally false, for the perpetration of the crime of genocide requires distinctly human capacities, such as abstraction, symbolization, and organization, in order to envision and carry out the destruction of entire human groups. Humans are the only animals that commit genocide.
The charge that the commission of genocide is something that is done only by primitive peoples is equally untenable. The crime has, in fact, been committed by peoples well-versed in science, technology, medicine, and the arts. Not only that, but in many instances, those who actually initiate and manage the destruction in such societies are often highly educated: professors, doctors, lawyers, skilled technicians. Finally, evil people for the most part are not the source of genocide, but the result: prolonged involvement in killing tends to dehumanize the perpetrator and removes from them any pity for the suffering of the victims. In rare cases, however, hardened criminals are recruited to augment the forces available for killing and rape. This was the case most notably in the Armenian genocide.
The view that perpetrators of genocide and other massive crimes against humanity are utterly different from average folk derives from the human desire to believe that this is a just and orderly world, composed mainly of persons who would harm others only in self-defense. In fact, however, genocide is committed by ordinary persons, more or less normal, more or less moral, who are caught up in a particular set of circumstances.
Contexts and Justifications
Genocide is not inevitable; it occurs because those in power choose to resolve political and social issues by eliminating the groups that are said to constitute the problem. Nor is genocide a discrete act. Rather, it is a process, typically initiated by the state, legitimated by tradition or ideology, carried out through a variety of organizations, and requiring the cooperation of individuals, some of whom may be bystanders, others perpetrators. It most often occurs when the state and society have been weakened by defeat in war, economic collapse, the breakdown of old ideologies, or demands by minority groups for autonomy or independence. Nationalism, new ideologies, demands for security, and the increasing dehumanization of the "other"sually a subgroup who can be blamed for the current social illsome to the fore. War is another natural context for genocide: the centralization of power, absence of restraints on the use of violence, a heightened sense of fear, and the pre-existence of organizations dedicated to killing, provide a cover for and justification of the elimination of the targeted group.
Those who initiate genocide do so for a variety of reasons: conquest, revenge, economic gain, monopolization of power, and, where a utopian ideology is involved, as in Nazi Germany and Cambodia, the purification of society leading to salvation for the nation. For individuals who become perpetrators, the motives are also varied and usually mixed. These depend in part on the mode of participation in genocide and the perpetrator's location with regard to the commission of genocidal acts. Some perpetrators act in obedience to orders; others become involved because of peer pressure, fear, careerism, and opportunities for material benefits, ideology, or dedication to a "higher cause." Some are drawn into committing acts that they would otherwise condemn because the circumstances provide them with permission to do so, others are encouraged through role playing, and some "learn by doing," starting with small acts of cruelty that lead to acts of increasing brutality until atrocity begins to seem normal because it has become routine. But whether they are conscripted into their roles or, more commonly, assume them voluntarily, individuals who become perpetrators enter into a continuum of destruction, in which their very behavior transforms their values and beliefs. Moreover, perpetrators operate not as isolated individuals, but as members of groups. Groups provide a shared view of the world and rewards for conformity, both of which facilitate the shedding of inhibitions.
The Role of Authority
The types of groups and organizations most often involved in genocide are authoritarian in structure, provide strong incentives for obedience, and encourage perpetrators to develop a psychological distancing from the victims through an emphasis on bureaucratic routines and the dehumanization of the group under attack. For example, bureaucracy was crucial in the Holocaust, and in less developed forms, it has been important in all of the genocides of the twentieth century. Perpetrators can sit at their desks and impersonally issue orders that send millions to their death. Logistics, communications, and technology used in the commission of genocide or other massive crimes against humanity must all pass through the hands of bureaucrats, who are culpable for their roles in the crimes but remain far from the killing fields or the routes of deportation.
Military and paramilitary organizations are also common institutional structures used to facilitate the perpetration of genocide or crimes against humanity. Such organizations enforce obedience, encourage conformity, provide training in violence, desensitize their members' responses to killing, and provide absolution. In some cases, pre-existing military organizations are used, but new ones may be created specifically for the commission of genocidal acts. Such was the case for the SS of Nazi Germany, and the creation of the "Special Organization" in Turkey in 1915, whose sole purpose was the destruction of the Armenians.
This latter group was a secret Young Turk organization that controlled elements of the army, police, and local officials, and brought into the killing process thousands of Kurds and Turkish peasants. Most notably, however, it released some 30,000 criminals from jail, placed them under the control of the Special Organization, and gave them permission to murder, rape, and kidnap Armenians. Neither the peasants nor the criminals were under strict control. Rather, they were given permission to work their will on helpless people, with those in charge of the Special Organization knowing full well what that would mean. In contrast, militias and paramilitary groups, along with regular army troops, have played major roles in the perpetration of genocide in East Timor, Bosnia, and Rwanda. In East Timor and Rwanda, many of those in the militia were teenagers; in Bosnia, many were also young, recruited from soccer club hooligans, and some of the leaders were criminals. In each case, members of the militias were trained and armed by the military and had governmental support, but could be officially disavowed, fending off any international criticism.
Numbers of Perpetrators Needed
Genocide of any magnitude requires a sizable number of participants, but the extent to which this is true varies from case to case. The number required is partly determined by the technology that is employedome forms of genocide are labor-intensive, others less sond whether or not the victims are concentrated in one area or over a large territory. A further determining factor is the extent to which the victims are able to resist. In addition, some regimes, such as that of Ugandan President Idi Amin, restrict genocidal acts to an elite killing force. Others, such as Ottoman Turkey, Indonesia, and Rwanda, involve the participation of large segments of the population.
The decision to utilize a large number of perpetrators may also be influenced by certain political objectives. Those who initiate genocide may seek to gain support for their actions by allowing elements of society to satisfy their passions and greed at the expense of the victims. Alternatively, by plunging large numbers of the population into murder, the forces encouraging genocide may more tightly bind the perpetrators to the regime. In other cases, such as that of Nazi Germany, the intended magnitude of destruction is so great, and the victims so scattered, that most social and political institutions must be harnessed to the overriding aim of taking life.
Gender and Genocide
During the three thousand years for which genocidal acts have been documented or inferred, perpetrators have been predominantly males. For the most part, women have been involved in subordinate roles, but in rare cases female rulers, such as the first-century Celtic queen Boadicea, have also initiated genocide. One explanation for the relative absence of women from direct participation in genocide is the claim that women are naturally less aggressive and more compassionate. However, twentieth-century women have committed atrocities in Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda. It is therefore more likely that women's lesser participation in genocide, historically speaking, is because they have been excluded by males from active involvement in the crimes. This exclusion derives from basic tenets of patriarchal society: women are weak and dependent, and their sexual and reproductive capacities too valuable to risk in war and genocide. In this view, the function of women is to produce life, whereas the function of men (at times) is to take life. Women are viewed as resources and, particularly in societies with small populations, were therefore far too valuable to risk in battle.
In the twentieth century, however, there were three major examples of women directly participating in genocide: in Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda. There were some three thousand female SS who supervised the numerous Nazi concentration and extermination camps for women from 1939 to 1945. Most were labor conscripts and few were members of the party. They came from all social classes and occupations, and most appeared normal. Nonetheless, they learned quickly to whip and club their female prisoners, to work them to the point of exhaustion, and to assist in the selection process that sent many victims to their deaths. For the most part, it was the more sadistic women who rose to the top of the women's SS, but there were also female kapos who carried out much of the administration of the camps and made beatings and brutality of every sort a part of the inmate's daily existence.
Women were also deeply involved as perpetrators of genocide in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, but the contrast with female perpetrators in Nazi Germany is striking. First, the Cambodian genocide was directly controlled by the Khmer Rouge, and the entire country functioned as a labor camp. Second, the scale of participation was greater: instead of the approximately three thousand (primarily conscripted) female prison guards in Germany, tens of thousands of Cambodian women served as leaders and guards, and the roots of their participation and commitment were much more varied. Perhaps the greatest motivator for female (as well as male) Cambodian perpetrators was the need to establish a more secure identity in the face of ongoing warfare. Participation also provided a means of dealing with bewildering changes in government. A further motivation arose from the widely shared fear that Khmer culture was being destroyed by both Vietnamese and Western influence. Cambodian women were involved in the whole process of destruction: enforcing the killing pace of work, maintaining close surveillance over individuals and families, using violence to whip people into line, and direct killing. Moreover, Cambodia presents one of the few modern examples of a woman (Ieng Thirith) being one of the initiators of genocide.
Rwanda's political leaders attempted to involve as much of the nation's Hutu population in the genocide of Tutsi (and Tutsi sympathizers) as possible. Among the initiators of this genocide were at least three womenhe wife of the assassinated President and two cabinet membersut many thousands of others joined in the killing, incited the militias to attack, betrayed the hunted, looted the dead, and encouraged men to rape Tutsi women. Some women were coerced into killing, but many joined in enthusiastically. Rwanda is a largely male-dominated society, however, and few women were members of the main organizations that carried out the genocide: the army, police, and militias. But, the women who did participate in the genocide were a cross-section of the country: peasants, teachers, nurses and doctors, nuns, journalists, school girls, local administrators, and even staff members of international aid organizations.
Enlisting the Children
If genocide's perpetrators include women, they also include children. In Cambodia, a large number of those who carried out the genocide were male and female children between the ages of twelve and seventeen. The pervasive role of children in the Khmer Rouge stemmed in part from their availability (the young generally comprise a large part of guerilla movements, worldwide). There was also a strong ideological dimension. In their quest to inaugurate an entirely different kind of society, the Khmer Rouge eliminated distinctions between adults and children.
In Rwanda, on the other hand, young men and, to a lesser extent, teenage girls, were involved in the killing. This was, again, partly a matter of availabilityore than half the population was under twenty, and many young people were unemployed, without prospects for the future. Where extreme deprivation exists, material rewards may be all that are needed to bring the young into the killing process. However, in Rwanda it was also a matter of how the genocide was organized. Political parties had formed youth groups to attack opposing political groups, and these groups were later converted into local militias to carry out the genocide.
Whether in Cambodia, Rwanda, or some other place, it has not been difficult for adult perpetrators to recruit children to help with the dirty work. There are a variety of techniques that can be used to turn child members of the perpetrators' group into killers. Some may simply need encouragement, others may be forced into doing brutal acts, sometimes beginning with killing, but always ending there. Children learn by doing, but they also learn by seeing the acts of others. When children commit brutal acts that are sanctioned by authority, and when, over time, such acts become routine; they learn to define morality strictly in terms of loyalty to the group. These children can be seen as victims, but they also are perpetrators. How they are to be legally judged is problematic.
Aftermath for Perpetrators
Few survivors of genocide ever free themselves from the horrors they have experienced. Most perpetrators, however, seem able to distance themselves from the acts they committed and go on with their lives. Nor is there evidence that many suffer from a guilty conscience. Those involved in direct killing are brutalized by the very process, becoming desensitized to the sufferings of others. In addition, many perpetrators of genocide participate in the killing from a distance. These, too, frequently show no remorse. Both the individuals directly, physically involved in the killing and those who participate bureaucratically may overcome remorse through individual psychological mechanisms, such as denial and repression. Further, they can attempt to find excuses for their actions, the main varieties being: "I knew nothing," and "I was only obeying orders." More powerful, however, are techniques of neutralization that combine both excuses and justifications. These include the denial of responsibility (an inability to control the situation, self-defense), denial of the humanity of the victim, transforming the victim into the perpetrator and condemning the condemners, (by asserting that theyictim or condemnerave done worse deeds), and appealing to a higher loyaltyo race, class, God's will, the good societys the motivation for the violence. All cultures encourage responsibility, but also provide escape routes (excuses, distancing, justification) for offenses both minor and grave. Perpetrators seize upon the cues society provides for neutralizing responsibility, magnifying them to a self-serving extreme. Paradoxically, while many survivors feel guilt for being alive, those who perpetrate genocide more frequently are able to look back upon their actions with consciences at rest.
There are many approaches to understanding the behavior of perpetrators and why humans resort to genocide. Psychologists once focused on the "authoritarian personality," but later started focusing on a combination of social identity, culture, and historical context. Political scientists tend to focus on the policy process, institutions, leadership, and international relations. Social science offers three overlapping approaches that help to explain specific portions of the behavior of perpetrators. Structuralism explores how the social environment shapes choices: structures of authority, group dynamics, and bureaucracy. Functionalism, in contrast, is concerned with how particular structures perform various functions. Applied to the study of genocide, it can illuminate the role of various organizations in the process of destruction. Perhaps more important, however, a functional approach can help to illuminate the many purposes that genocide actually serves: physical, material, political, and psychological. For instance, rape may be encouraged to reward the perpetrators while simultaneously terrorizing and shaming the victim group, making resistance to genocide or ethnic cleansing more difficult. It poses a series of questions: Why do perpetrators so often engage in acts of cruelty or perform rituals of degradation? What do these acts mean to the perpetrator? Symbolic interaction theory can also help explain the formation of social identity, the growth of stereotypes, and dehumanization of those who will fall victim to genocide.
All of these approaches and disciplines have their uses, but none is adequate in itself. Moreover, much investigation of perpetrators requires a moral theory that allows distinction between different kinds of responsibility (criminal, moral, political) and acknowledgement of different degrees of responsibility. To arrive at such a moral theory, philosophers must grapple with the fundamental question of the nature of "good" and "evil."
SEE ALSO Collaboration; Memoirs of Perpetrators; Psychology of Perpetrators; Sociology of Perpetrators
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Roger W. Smith