Genocide and the Psychology of evil

Exploring the psychology behind genocide or mass atrocity; Do mass killers such as genocidaires and terrorists think differently from those who commit petty crimes?

It is difficult to support the proposition that all criminals think alike since the motivations and ideas behind the atrocities that mass killers or genocidaires inflict on their victims seem vastly different to the thoughts and drives possessed by petty criminals like shoplifters and fraudsters;

vastly different at least in the way their thoughts manifest themselves in horrific harms inflicted on their victims.

Consider for a moment the lack of empathy associated with mass murderers for the lives of their victims, a lack of emotion for their victims’ pain or suffering that some associate with the moral concept of ‘evil’, is hardly comparable to the lack of respect that a shoplifter evinces towards the property rights of another.

Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University writes in his book, ‘The Science of Evil‘: ”’People responsible for acts of cruelty (or who remain bystanders to such acts) lack the neural” basis for empathy.” The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.pdf – Google Drive;

One might argue that this degree of lack of empathy or ability to appreciate the feelings or pain of another varies depending on an individual’s unique personality, experiences, thoughts and motivations. The permutations of such cognitve thought patterns existing within the minds of individual criminals may be as numerous as the myriad of human experiences they sense every second and moment of their lives.

For instance, the perverse motivations, convictions and thinking behind the orders given by Ratko Mladic to his Serbian military to carry out the senseless genocide of nearly 8000 Bosniak Muslims in Srebrenica can hardly be said to be similar to the thinking of one who commits a seemingly innocuous cime in comparison; a crime such as petty theft or shoplifting. The personality traits and thinking patterns of a remorseless psychpathic killer such as Ted Bundy, for instance, would arguably be markedly different from that of other criminals.

Dr. Michael Stone, professor of Clinical psychiatry at Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons, argues that ‘if someone is callous, totally lacking remorse or compassion, and is a habitual liar and a con artist, he is far less likely to outgrow his dangerousness over the years, in comparison with those who are impulsive and hot tempered. Many outgrow those behavioral traits as they enter middle age. In contrast, the personality qualities listed by Hare remain throughout one’s life”( Michael Stone MD, 2017, p.118, The Anatomy of Evil)

Might one argue that psychological theories on cognition, although useful in helping us delve into the complex thought patterns of criminals, and how their thinking may differ from those of law abiding citizens , are inadequate in providing a universal theory of crime, a theory of why all criminals from genocidaires to petty thieves do what they do.

Understanding the thinking behing the crime of Genocide would inevitably require criminal psychologists and Criminologists to adopt what the Sociologist, David Matza described as an appreciative stance rather than a correctional one;

an approach that necessitates exploring the cognitve processess, drives and affective structures of those who commit such indescribable evils against their fellow human beings.

As genocide scholar Adam Jones notes, ‘understanding genocide requires probing the minds of those who commit it’. Adam Jones ( Genocide, p. 541)

A glaring question remains: how could seemingly ordinary men and women commit such horrific atrocities against their fellow human beings?

In the book “Ordinary Men’ by Christopher Browning, the men of Reserve Battalion 101 are depicted as the ”unlikeliest of mass murderers… mostly middle aged men too old for active service …simply ordinary people who went about completing the murderous tasks assigned to them with considerable indifference” ( Waller , Becoming Evil. pp.72-73 quoted in Adam Jones p. 542). Such tasks included executing Jewish women and children with ‘rifle shots to the back of the head.’ (Adam Jones , Genocide, p. 541):

No single psychological factor could plausibly be relied upon to explain the thinking behind the horrific acts of Reserve Battalion 101; Browing himself did recognize the significant role that the ”deluge of racist and anti- Semitic propaganda” had to play ( Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland 1993); while giving importance to variables such as the ”mutually intensifying effects of war and racism”; obedience to authority, peer pressure…..machisimo; and feelings of obligation, duty and honor.'(Adam Jones , Genocide, p. 541);

Such feelings of obligation, duty and honor to one’s group or ‘tribe’ may sometimes be said to pervade the experiences and thoughts of those who commit petty crimes such as shoplifting, but not always in ways that manifest themselves in homicidal mass killings.

Clinical research psychologist, Dr, Stanton Samenow, however, presents a very different perspective on whether criminals of mass crimes such as terrorism or genocide do really think differently from those who commit domestic crimes.

Dr. Samenow argues that in his years of counselling individual criminals who had committed a range of different crimes he has begun to note ”similairites between such indiviudals and heads of state who have committed atrocities against their own citizens.” (Inside the Criminal Mind, Stanton Samenow. p. 193).

In particular, Dr Samenow posits that “errors in thinking are pervasive in the lives of offenders from different backgrounds and who have been arrested for different types of crimes.” Such erroneous thinking patterns include:

the lack of concept of injury to others’; ‘Claiming to be a victim and blaming others when held accountable; “an ability to shut off conscience.” “An extreme sense of entitlement.” “a sense of uniqueness.’ ‘the lack of a concept of obligation.’ ‘an ability to shut off fear.’ ( Samenow , p.113)

Such thought patterns which might potentially manifest themselves in destructive and possibly criminal behaviors are said to have existed during the childhood of some mass killers

Dr. Samenow Stanton argues that ”Most men who become ruthless dictators were criminals long before they attained their positions of absolute authority.” (Samenow, pp.197-198).

The thinking and behavior patterns patterns of Adolf Hitler, for instance, were those found in criminals: that of ‘temper tantrums’ which Hitler used ‘to frighten his doting mother into compliance with his demands,’ and that lack of empathy for other racial groups evinced when he was said to have commented: ‘Do I intend to erdicate whole races? of course I do ….Cruelty and brute strength … The masses want it. They need the thrill of terror to make them shudderingly submissive.” (‘The Psychopathic God, Robert G. L. Waite quoted in Samenow, pp.197-198)

Such thought patterns evinced among those with personality traits such as malignant narcissism and psychopathy are ‘common among genocidaires in modern history’ says the Genocide scholar Adam Jones; From Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong to Slobodan Milosevic such personality traits were manifested in the coldblooded killing of millions during the era of the Holocaust, Cultural Revolution and Balkan wars. (Adam Jones , Genocide, p. 529)

Milosevic who was described by US psychiatrists as possessing a malignant narcissistic’ personality was depicted as ‘strongly self-centred, vain, and full of self-love….indifferent to almost anyone or anything else around him. (Adam Jones , Genocide, p. 529).

Milosevic, who was sometimes described as a pathological liar, had been indicted for the crime of Genocide, the killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats between 1992 and 1995 as well as the massacre of civilians at Srebrenica in 1995. The killings he ordered were described in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, as ”almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare“. The charges against Milosevic | War crimes | The Guardian; Yet Milosevic weaved a narrtaive of lies when he testified in court:

Speaking of Bosnia, do you know that 70,000 Muslim refugees sought sanctuary in Serbia during the Bosnian conflict? Do you think someone would flee their home and take refuge in the very territory from which they were endangered? How many lives did we save, how many of your hostages did we rescue from Bosnia – from UN peacekeepers to pilots – and how many peace treaties did we insist on and make possible? Eventually, we were the most responsible for the success of the Dayton talks and the peace that ensued.Slobodan Milošević: By Adding Three Lies, One Does Not Get The Truth – Only A Bigger Lie – Slobodan Milošević International Committee (

For all the lies he spun, Milosevic knew ”that his own depictions of events that diverge from reality are lies, but at the same time he believes so strongly in his own lies that he sometimes gives the appearance of crossing the line into unreality.” (Adam Jones , Genocide, p. 529).

The argument that perpetrators of Genocide evince thinking patterns similar to petty criminals, displaying a lack of empathy or “lack of concept of injury to others’ ,“an ability to shut off conscience’, or the craving for power such that the criminal will do almost anything to acquire it”(Samenow, p.111)) is not entirely convincing. Such an argument fails to explain why some individuals evincing such thought patterns, such as Milosevic, transgress the boundaries of what is considered humane, and commit indescribably evil crimes such as Genocide, while the majority do not.



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