Friday, May 11, 2007

The roots of ethnic violence

One week ago, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for Ahmad Muhammad Harun, Sudan’s former interior minister who oversaw the Darfur Security Desk, and Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman, a leader of the Janjaweed militia. Mr. Harun is now Sudan’s minister of humanitarian affairs. The two men seem to be rather small fry compared to Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, but it’s a step in the right direction. Too little, too late, of course, for the hundreds of thousands who’ve been tortured, raped and murdered in the Darfur region over the past four years.

The question, as always, is why African and Western governments have been so painfully slow in bringing pressure against the Sudanese government, which might have stopped the killing years ago. Unfortunately, the pattern is all too familiar: as Samantha Power documented in her powerful book “A Problem From Hell,” the history of genocide in this century is one of governments, including the United States, responding almost habitually with denial and delay, with excuses and inaction.

Why? Governments, no doubt, have their own secret and not always admirable reasons for staying out. Most people, I suppose, find it hard even to imagine these things happening, as they lie so far outside our personal experience.

But the failure also stems, I suspect, from a deep misunderstanding of the origins of ethnically-targeted violence – and of the way individuals in the right positions can exploit the power of social patterns for their own selfish ends. From the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in the early 20th century through Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, genocide has erupted almost never as a spontaneous orgy of mass killing, but always a result of political calculation and orchestration.

Before the massacre in Rwanda, for example, radio stations and newspapers owned by a handful of government officials began referring to the Tutsi as “subhuman.” The government funded and organized radical Hutu groups that amassed weapons and trained people as killers.

There was no spontaneous social uprising. The fate of one million Tutsis had been planned and prepared by April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying the Rwandan president and the Hutu president of Burundi was shot down in Kigali.

Ten years ago, a group of noted experts in sociology and psychology met in Northern Ireland to discuss the roots of genocide, and they concluded that most of the ethnopolitically motivated killings in the 20th century could be traced not to “spontaneous popular actions,” but to “dominant state elites trying to maintain their nations’ unity and their own monopoly on power.”

But this understanding is complete only if we see that leaders aren’t able to do anything they like. They wield power by stirring up social patterns and directing them for their own ends. Unfortunately, we humans are in many ways almost pre-programmed to make this possible.

In natural ethnic groups, of course, ethnocentrism is a universal phenomenon, with people everywhere convinced in no uncertain terms that their culture is superior. This isn’t just a characteristic of the uneducated; ethnocentrism presumably finds its roots in the structure of the human mind, and in the evolutionary experience of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived in small groups.

More surprising yet, a readiness for group-level prejudice may also be linked to the collective mechanisms that support human cooperation. On the basis of computer simulations in recent years, political scientists Ross Hammond of the Brookings Institute and Robert Axelrod of the University of Michigan suggest that in especially primitive social conditions – when people have limited opportunities to use reputation or character as a guide to someone’s trustworthiness – raw prejudice, based on crude ethnic markers, can actually be beneficial.

Roughly speaking, Hammond and Axelrod found that ethnic prejudice – again, only in these primitive conditions – helps to organize people into homogeneous ethnic groups within which interaction is easy and mostly cooperative, while minimizing the more difficult and often costly interactions between groups. Without prejudiced behavior, you would not get as much cooperation.

The conclusion is that ethnocentrism, while it may be ugly, also may be effective. The researchers suggest that it may be no coincidence that ethnic divisions and tensions tend to become enhanced and more influential in conditions of economic
collapse or when war tears apart the social fabric.

Sadly, it is our innate preparedness for ethnocentric behavior that politicians such as Slobodan Milosevic – or President Bashir today – use so effectively. In 2003, when various African tribes began rebelling in Darfur, Bashir responded by arming irregular militias and directing them to attack black civilians indiscriminately. Many of the militiamen were of Arabic descent, driven and motivated by powerful ethnic prejudice.

Historians once argued over whether individuals or social forces control history. The truth is that both are important. An individual can “pluck the strings” of a social pattern much as a musician would those of a guitar, and wield power far beyond his own personal being.

This abstract understanding does nothing to lessen the unspeakable suffering of the millions of people with names and faces and dreams whose lives have been and are being ruined or cut short. But it should alert us that genocide is not the direct consequence of unstoppable age-old hatreds, but that of people in power who use their influence to stoke hatred for strategic purposes.

It is only these people who need to be stopped.

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