Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Why Not Kill Them All?

by Daniel Chirot & Clark McCauley, 2006, new edition 2010

The authors begin their analysis by pointing out four main, often-overlapping motives for mass political murders: convenience, revenge, fear, and fear of pollution.

Review in Political Science Quarterly, Sept. 22, 2007

Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder by Daniel Chirot and Clark McCauley. Princeton, N J, Princeton University Press, 2006. 268 pp. $24.95.

Daniel Chirot and Clark McCauley, in their superbly written book, rhetorically ask why a dominant group with overwhelming power would engage in genocide of its weaker rivals, and having established reasons for fratricidal frenzies, they proceed to lay out measures that could prevent such human rights catastrophes. In their way toward to a comprehensive explanation, they not only draw examples from many cases of mass killings in history--some well-known, some obscure--but also traverse an amazingly wide range of disciplines, from cognitive science and psychology to most branches of the social sciences. The result is a highly readable synthesis of the extant theories, and should be seen as a significant contribution to the understanding of these deplorable manifestations of the darker side of human nature.

The authors begin their analysis by pointing out four main, often-overlapping motives for mass political murders: convenience, revenge, fear, and fear of pollution. To Chirot and McCauley, convenience represents the instrumental benefits of ethnic cleansing and genocide, in which a group undertakes mass murder because it believes that it is "cheaper" to kill the others than to share resources with them. From William the Conqueror's cleansing of the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Yorkshire to the expulsion of the Cherokees by the United States government, eliminations of groups have followed the logic of convenience. Although such campaigns have been motivated by convenience, the perpetrating group has often hidden its intentions under the pretense of moral equanimity. Thus, as an incredulous Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, "The Spaniards were unable to exterminate the Indian race by those unparalleled atrocities with indelible shame ... but the Americans of the United States have accomplished this ... with singular felicity, tranquilly, legally, philanthropically.... It is impossible to destroy men with more respect for the laws of humanity" (quoted on p. 22).

When a group feels that injustice has been done to them, they seek revenge. The fine line between justice and revenge is often blurred. The authors point out that many acts of mass killings, from the Biblical massacre of the Midianites by the ancient Israelites to the "Rape of Nanking" by the Japanese during WWII, have been undertaken to avenge past humiliations or to restore wounded collective pride.

Perhaps the most potent source of genocidal frenzy is simple fear. When a social group feels that its very existence is at stake in the face of an actual or perceived threat, it can often react with extreme violence. The "prospect theory," originally proposed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, supports evidence of people framing their fear of losses at a higher level than the corresponding possibilities of gain. Such risk-averse behavior plays into the hands of those who advocate the immediate elimination of threat through extreme violence. From deadly ethnic riots around the world to the genocide of the ethnic Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda, elimination of groups...