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Vol. 1, No. 1 (2017)

Journal of
ISSN 2514-7897

In this issue
Editors’ Introduction 1
Kara Critchell, Susanne C. Knittel, Emiliano Perra, Uğur Ümit Üngör

Studying Perpetrators: A Reflection 28
Scott Straus

‘Who Was I to Stop the Killing?’: Moral Neutralization among Rwandan Genocide Perpetrators 39
Kjell Anderson

Looking for Post-Traumatic Growth in Perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda: 64

A Discussion of Theoretical and Ethical Issues
Laura E. R. Blackie, Nicki Hitchcott, and Stephen Joseph

Perpetrators’ Knowledge: What and How Can We Learn from Perpetrator Testimony? 85
Sibylle Schmidt

Book Reviews
Harming Others: The Dynamics of Everyday Aggression and Genocide 105
Michelle Gordon

Duch Is Dead 110

Thijs Bouwknegt

Desirable Death? 115

Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier
The Journal of Perpetrator Research ( JPR) is an Editors
inter-disciplinary, peer-reviewed, open access Dr Kara Critchell (University of Chester)
journal committed to promoting the scholarly Dr Susanne C. Knittel (Utrecht University)
study of perpetrators of mass killings, political Dr Emiliano Perra (University of Winchester)
violence, and genocide. Dr Uğur Ümit Üngör (Utrecht University)
The journal fosters scholarly discussions
about perpetrators and perpetratorship across Advisory Board
the broader continuum of political violence. Dr Stephanie Bird (UCL)
JPR does not confine its attention to any par- Dr Tomislav Dulic (Uppsala University)
ticular region or period. Instead, its mission Prof Mary Fulbrook (UCL)
is to provide a forum for analysis of perpe- Prof Alexander Hinton (Rutgers University)
trators of genocide, mass killing and political Prof Dirk Moses (University of Sydney)
violence via research taking place within the Prof Alette Smeulers (University of Tilburg)
fields of history, criminology, law, forensics, Prof Sue Vice (University of Sheffield)
cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, phi- Prof James Waller (Keene State College)
losophy, memory studies, psychology, politics,
literature, film studies and education. In pro- Layout & Typesetting
viding this interdisciplinary and cross-dis- Dr Kári Driscoll (Utrecht University)
ciplinary space the journal moves academic
research on this topic beyond, and between, JPR is published by
disciplinary boundaries to provide a forum in Winchester University Press
which robust and interrogative research and
cross-curricular discourse can stimulate live- Support for this publication comes from:
ly intellectual engagement with perpetrators. The University of Winchester
JPR thus not only addresses issues related Utrecht University
to perpetrators in the past but also responds The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific
to present challenges. The fundamental ques- Research (NWO)
tions informing the journal include: how do
we define, understand and encounter the fig-
ure of the perpetrator of political violence?
What can we discern about their motivations,
and how can that help society and policy-mak-
ers in countering and preventing such occur-
rences? How are perpetrators represented in a
variety of memory spaces including art, film,
literature, television, theatre, commemorative
culture and education?
Journal of Perpetrator Research
Volume 1, Issue 1 (2017) ISSN 2514-7897

Editors’ Introduction 1
Kara Critchell, Susanne C. Knittel, Emiliano Perra, Uğur Ümit Üngör


Studying Perpetrators: A Reflection 28

Scott Straus


‘Who Was I to Stop the Killing?’: Moral Neutralization among 39

Rwandan Genocide Perpetrators
Kjell Anderson

Looking for Post-Traumatic Growth in Perpetrators of the 1994 64

Genocide in Rwanda: A Discussion of Theoretical and Ethical Issues
Laura E. R. Blackie, Nicki Hitchcott, and Stephen Joseph

Perpetrators’ Knowledge: What and How Can We Learn from 85

Perpetrator Testimony?
Sibylle Schmidt

Book Reviews

Harming Others: The Dynamics of Everyday Aggression and Genocide 105

Review of The Genocide Contagion by Israel W. Charny (2016)
Michelle Gordon

Duch Is Dead. Review of Man or Monster? by Alexander Hinton (2016) 110

Thijs Bouwknegt

Desirable Death? Review of La Mort du Bourreau, ed. by Sévane Garibian 115

Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier
Editors’ Introduction
Kara Critchell, Susanne C. Knittel, Emiliano Perra, Uğur Ümit Üngör

erpetrator studies is booming. The past twenty-five years have seen a marked
increase in scholarly and cultural engagement with perpetrators of genocide,
mass killings and political violence across fields and disciplines within the so-
cial sciences and the humanities, as well as in law, medicine, and psychology.
In one sense, of course, there has always been a great deal of interest in the perpetra-
tors of history’s atrocities, but the 1990s witnessed a confluence of a number of factors
that contributed to this upsurge in attention to the perpetrator and perpetration. Fol-
lowing the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, vast archives de-
tailing atrocities committed under National Socialism and under Communist regimes
became available for study. The end of Apartheid in South Africa and the ensuing
work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission likewise focused public attention
on state violence and its perpetrators. At the same time, the war in Yugoslavia and
the genocide in Rwanda sparked a renewed discussion about crimes against human-
ity. The establishment of International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
(ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), as well as the
International Criminal Court (ICC), are important legal milestones in the ‘era of the
perpetrator’ that provide a framework for the international and comparative study
of perpetrators and perpetration.
Within the field of perpetrator studies as it has developed, the Holocaust and Nazi
atrocities represent a key point of reference, and here the publication in 1992 of Chris-
topher Browning’s Ordinary Men has had an impact that can scarcely be overstated
and whose reverberations can be felt to this day. The 2000s were to a certain extent
defined by the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. This
new context has had a profound effect on the study and representation of perpetra-
tors of mass violence. On the one hand, it has carried with it a shift from genocide
and state crime toward fundamentalist paramilitary organizations and global mili-
tant groups such as Al Qaida and ISIS. On the other hand, the wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq, and the global ‘War on Terror’ have also focused attention on the guilt and
responsibility of the United States and its allies. The acts of torture and extra-judicial
incarceration in Abu-Ghraib and at Guantanamo Bay, for example, not to mention
the killing of civilians as a result of drone warfare, have contributed to a pervasive
ambiguity surrounding the distinction between victims and perpetrators, heroes and
villains. The same period has also seen a growing number of films, novels, plays, and
other cultural artefacts dealing with the figure of the perpetrator, many of which sub-
vert or otherwise play with the traditional dichotomy of good and evil. If anything,

Journal of Perpetrator Research, 1.1 (2017), 1–27

doi: 10.21039/jpr.v1i1.51 © 2017 by the Editors
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
To view a copy of this license, visit
2 Editors’ Introduction

it is this ambiguity and the proliferation of grey zones and the necessary acknowl-
edgement of the complexity of the issues at stake that have given rise to the field of
perpetrator studies in its current form.
While there has been research on perpetrators in various disciplines on a variety
of cases for several decades, it is only really in the last five to ten years that this re-
search has begun to coalesce into an interdisciplinary field in its own right with a set
of common foundational texts, questions, and concerns. The overwhelming response
to the call for papers for the ‘Encountering Perpetrators of Mass Killings, Political Vi-
olence, and Genocide’ conference held at the University of Winchester in September
2015 and the extraordinary breadth of topics represented there provided palpable evi-
dence of the extent of scholarly interest in perpetrators and perpetration. At the same
time, the conference also demonstrated the need for a forum for the interdisciplinary
exchange of ideas and knowledge among members of this growing community of
The Journal of Perpetrator Research (JPR) seeks to be just that forum. In founding
this journal, our aim is not only to help consolidate work being carried out in this
area but also to concur in shaping the field through the publication of cutting-edge
research to help set the research agenda. JPR is an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed,
open access journal committed to promoting the scholarly study of perpetrators of
mass killings, political violence, and genocide. The journal will foster scholarly dis-
cussions about perpetrators and perpetration across the broader continuum of polit-
ical violence without confining its attention to any particular region or period. Our
mission is to provide a forum for research within and between fields including, but
not limited to, history, sociology, anthropology, law, political science, criminology,
forensics, philosophy, literary and cultural studies, film studies, memory studies, psy-
chology, gender and ethnicity studies, area studies, and education.
It is our firm belief that such disciplinary variety and cross-pollination is one of
the main strengths of this intellectual project. Moreover, we wish to emphasize that
while the primary focus of JPR is on perpetrators and perpetration, it is of course im-
perative to regard perpetrators in the context of victims, bystanders, and other sub-
ject positions within historical, theoretical, and ethical frameworks. This is important
to emphasize above all with respect to the oft-repeated concern that any attempt to
understand the motivations or rationale of perpetrators of genocide or mass violence
may lead to condoning or even justifying their actions. On the contrary, refusing to
engage with perpetrators for fear of losing one’s moral compass is to ascribe to them
a power and influence that is both unwarranted and dangerous, particularly in the
current climate of re-ascendant white supremacism and ethnocentric nationalism.
The fundamental questions at the heart of JPR are thus: How do we define, un-
derstand and encounter perpetrators of political violence? What can be learned from
studying the perpetrators? How are perpetrators made and unmade? Which socio-
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 3

logical, psychological, historical, and political processes are relevant in understand-

ing perpetrators and perpetration? What can we discern about their motivations, and
how can that help society and policy-makers in countering and preventing such oc-
currences? How are perpetrators represented in a variety of memory spaces includ-
ing art, film, literature, television, theatre, commemorative culture, and education?
We are delighted to be able to present the inaugural issue of JPR featuring contribu-
tions by Scott Straus, Kjell Anderson, and Laura Blackie, Nicki Hitchcott and Stephen
Joseph. All these contributions focus on different aspects of the Rwandan genocide
and its aftermath and reflect on what it means methodologically and ethically to
study perpetrators. Sibylle Schmidt’s contribution, on the other hand, focuses on the
philosophical and ethical concerns related to perpetrator testimony. In addition to
these articles, the issue also features reviews of the following books: The Genocide
Contagion: How We Commit and Confront Holocaust and Genocide by Israel W. Charny,
Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer by Alexander Laban Hinton and
La Mort du Bourreau: Réflexions Interdisciplinaires sur le Cadavre des Criminels de Masse,
edited by Sévane Garibian, all published in 2016. We hope you will enjoy reading this
inaugural issue and look forward to receiving your submissions for future editions.
For the remainder of this introduction, we would like to indicate some of the avenues
of enquiry which, as we see it, will be central to JPR, and to the field of perpetrator
studies, going forward.

Broad View of Political Violence

JPR deliberately conceives political violence as a continuum ranging from terrorism

to genocide; its interest is in everything revolving around the acts of perpetration and
their actors, as well as the aftermath of such acts, including how perpetrators of politi-
cal violence are presented and represented. From this point of view, the notion of polit-
ical violence adopted by JPR is one that includes extra-legal warfare, ethnic cleansing
and genocide, civil war, terrorism and state repression, revolution and counter-rev-
olution. It includes state perpetrators as well as non-state perpetrators, acts of perpe-
tration carried out within or outside warfare and revolution, and for political reasons
that might be secular or religious. In short, JPR focuses on the perpetrators of violence
enacted pursuant of socio-political control or change.1 Political violence, including its
more extreme exterminationist forms, is to a large extent inherent to human social
life. The foundational texts of Western civilization are replete with examples of such

1 This theoretical framework is borrowed from Donald Bloxham and Robert Gerwarth, ‘Introduction’ to Political
Violence in Twentieth Century Europe, ed. by Bloxham and Gerwarth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2011), pp. 1–10, in particular pp. 1–2.
4 Editors’ Introduction

acts and with descriptions and often glorification of those who carry them out.2 By the
same token, the West has drawn extensively from such texts as sources providing jus-
tification for acts of extreme violence throughout its history. The briefest mention of
the Old Testament’s influence in justifying the Crusades, or the role played by Ancient
Greek and Roman texts such as the Iliad and the Aeneid in providing a repository for
European colonial and imperial expansions, is sufficient illustration of this point.3 JPR
is interested in developing the innovative research already underway in this area by
investigating perpetrators across the broadest chronological and geographic scope, in
line with the interdisciplinary principle underpinning the journal.4


Despite the very long history of political violence, however, the scholarly study of per-
petrators is a much more modern phenomenon, largely stemming from the attempt
to make sense of Nazi crimes. From this point of view, the obvious starting points
for discussion are two judicial events: the 1945–46 Nuremberg Trials and the 1960–61
Eichmann Trial. Whilst impossible to discuss in any detail here, it must at least be
mentioned that the former had a momentous impact on key topics from scholarly and
popular understanding and presentation of Nazi perpetrators, to the development of
international law, to Germany’s post-war self-perception and willingness to come to
terms with the past.5
The Eichmann Trial had an equally momentous impact thanks to Hannah Arendt’s
extremely influential, if controversial, interpretation of Eichmann as an example of
2 Many general works in the field of genocide studies state this at the outset; as mere examples, see Ben Kiernan,
Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2007), pp. 1–6; Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, 3rd edn (London: Routledge, 2017),
pp. 3–9.
3 For a recent brief introduction to this fruitful area of research vis-à-vis the concept of genocide, see Norman
M. Naimark, Genocide: A World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
4 For examples of the adoption of the concept of genocide to ancient, medieval, and early modern history, see
Hans Van Wees, ‘Genocide in the Ancient World’, in The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, ed. by Donald
Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 239–58; James E. Fraser, ‘Early Medieval
Europe: The Case of Britain and Ireland’, in ibid., pp. 259–79; Nicholas A. Robins, ‘Colonial Latin America’, in ibid.,
pp. 304–21; Len Scales, ‘Central and Late Medieval Europe’, in ibid., pp. 280–303.
5 On these topics, see respectively Donald Bloxham, Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Hol-
ocaust History and Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Caroline Sharples, ‘Holocaust on Trial: Mass
Observation and British Media Responses to the Nuremberg Tribunal, 1945–1946’, in Britain and the Holocaust:
Remembering and Representing War and Genocide, ed. by Caroline Sharples and Olaf Jensen (Basingstoke: Pal-
grave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 31–50; Philippe Sands, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against
Humanity (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016); Susanne Karstedt, ‘The Nuremberg Tribunal and German So-
ciety: International Justice and Local Judgment in Post-Conflict Reconstruction’, in The Legacy of Nuremberg:
Civilising Influence or Institutionalised Vengeance?, ed. by David A. Blumenthal and Timothy L.H. McCormack
(Leiden: Nijhoff, 2008), pp. 13–35.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 5

the ‘banality of evil’.6 Arendt’s interpretation, centred on an evil that was at the same
time ‘radical’ in its consequences and ‘banal’ in its perpetrators, dovetailed with the
equally well-known ‘obedience to authority’ and Stanford Prison experiments in so-
cial psychology carried out by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, respectively.7
Originating in the 1960s and 1970s, what these works have in common is the rejection
of essentialized or dispositional views of perpetrators in favour of incrementalist
or situational ones.8 Arendt, Milgram, and Zimbardo, and a host of other scholars
along with them, did not believe that the perpetration of ‘evil’ acts can be simply
explained in terms of personality, agency, sadism and other dispositions (let alone in
terms of nature and genetic make-up), but that ‘evil’ is something people are capable
of depending on circumstances. In other words, when the situational force fields are
dominated by deindividuation, obedience to authority, peer pressure, rationalization,
and dehumanization of the victims, individuals can end up participating in acts that
they might not have previously seen themselves capable of.9 Although in recent years
these influential studies have been revisited and the ideas raised within them both
challenged and developed, perhaps most notably, within the experimental BBC pris-
on case study conducted by Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam, the role they have had in
shaping the field of perpetrator research should not be underestimated.10
The most remarkable application of these theories to the empirical study of Hol-
ocaust perpetrators came in 1992 with Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, which
famously investigated a group of around 500 members of Reserve Police Battalion 101
and their role in the mass murder of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland.11 Ex-
plicitly drawing on the work of Milgram, Browning explains the participation of the
reserve policemen from the Hamburg area, most of them not particularly noticeable
for their pre-existing dedication to the Nazi cause, with the combination of ideology,
traditions of racism, siege mentality, careerism, obedience to authority, peer pressure,
and the brutalization of war. In the closing stages of the book, he draws an explicit

6 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963). On the
impact of this interpretation on Holocaust historiography, see Hans Mommsen, ‘Hannah Arendt’s Interpretation
of the Holocaust as a Challenge to Human Existence: The Intellectual Background’, in Hannah Arendt in Jerusa-
lem, ed. by Steven E. Aschheim (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), pp. 224–31.
7 Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (London: Tavistock, 1974); Philip Zimbardo, The
Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (London: Rider, 2007).
8 On this, see Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect, pp. 6–7 and Paul A. Roth, ‘Social Psychology and Genocide’, in The Oxford
Handbook of Genocide Studies, ed. by Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010),
pp. 198–216.
9 Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect, xii. On these three scholars’ interpretations, see also Claudia Card, Confronting Evils:
Terrorism, Torture, Genocide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 10–16.
10 Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, ‘Rethinking the Psychology of Tyranny: The BBC Prison Study’, British
Journal of Social Psychology, 45 (2006), 1–45
11 Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. 2nd edn
(London: Penguin, 2001).
6 Editors’ Introduction

parallel between those perpetrators and American soldiers responsible for mass mur-
ders in Vietnam. His chilling conclusion is: ‘If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101
could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?’12
This ‘situational’ approach adopted by Browning was a far cry from more tradi-
tional views of Nazi perpetrators which centred on their inhuman sadism, popular-
ized in best-selling books such as The Scourge of the Swastika, or the sensationalized
presentation of female camp-guards such as Irma Grese and Ilse Koch.13 Brown-
ing’s interpretation of some German perpetrators as ordinary men did not go un-
challenged, most vehemently by Daniel Goldhagen and, with much higher degrees
of nuance, by Yaacov Lozowick and Jürgen Matthäus.14 The controversy highlights
a key analytical problem in the study (and definition) of perpetrators: how far can
the perpetrators be seen as separate from society as a whole? Despite their differing
conclusions, both Browning and Goldhagen emphasize the ordinariness of the per-
petrators in their study. The term ‘perpetrator society’ (Tätergesellschaft), which has
recently found its way into discussions about the Nazi past in Germany, illustrates
the difficulty of neatly separating perpetrators and the society they lived in, while
at the same time running the risk of inflating the concept to the point of conflating
society and perpetrators. In the context of this Editorial and for reasons of space, we
shall leave aside the extensive developments in the specific scholarly literature on
Holocaust perpetrators since the 1980s and early 1990s, to focus briefly on two other
points instead — the gendering of perpetrators and the study of what JPR terms dem-
ocratic perpetrators.15

12 Browning, Ordinary Men, p. 189. He further developed this interpretation in Christopher R. Browning, Nazi Policy,
Jewish Workers, German Killers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 116–69.
13 Lord Russell of Liverpool, The Scourge of the Swastika: A Short History of Nazi War Crimes (London: Cassell, 1954).
On the sensationalist take on female perpetrators, see Sybil Milton, ‘Women and the Holocaust: The Case of
German and German-Jewish Women’, in When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, ed.
by Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann and Marion Kaplan (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984), pp. 297–333.
14 Yaacov Lozowick, Hitler’s Bureaucrats: The Nazi Security Police and the Banality of Evil, trans. by Haim Watzman
(London: Continuum, 2002); Jürgen Matthäus, ‘What About the “Ordinary Men”?: The German Order Police and
the Holocaust in the Occupied Soviet Union’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 10 (1996), 134–50; Jurgen Matthäus,
‘Historiography and the Perpetrators of the Holocaust’, in The Historiography of the Holocaust, ed. by Dan Stone
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 197–215. For an insightful discussion of these themes, see Richard
Overy, ‘“Ordinary Men,” Extraordinary Circumstances: Historians, Social Psychology, and the Holocaust’, Journal
of Social Issues, 70 (2014), 515–30.
15 For a succinct and comprehensive discussion of the historical literature on this, see Dan Stone, Histories of the
Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 95–111.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 7

Gendering Perpetrators

The growing interest in the situational contexts in which ordinary people were able
and willing to perpetrate acts of violence, particularly within the Third Reich, also
gave rise to greater engagement with questions surrounding the role of women within,
and across, the social and political stratum of perpetrator nations, exemplified by the
so called ‘female historian’s debate’ of the 1980s between feminist scholars Claudia
Koonz and Gisela Bock.16 Although this debate did much to stimulate increased schol-
arly attention on the position of women in the Third Reich and encouraged greater
engagement with gendered experiences of violence, specifically of female actors with-
in that context, understandings of perpetrators have continued to be defined by gen-
eralizations of both male and female experience and cultural understandings about
gender and gender roles. For many years interpretations of violence have intersected
with gendered ideas of, and assumptions about, femininity and masculinity in which
women are perceived as nurturing caregivers and men are seen as being imbibed
with fierce and forceful tendencies. These assumptions have, in turn, fed into under-
standings of both victimhood and perpetration in which the victim of mass violence is
viewed as female whilst the perpetrator is archetypally male.
It is of course clear that in many instances women are the victims of political
violence and are often targeted in particular ways as a direct result of their gender
and what their biological and cultural position in society represents to both the vic-
timized group and the perpetrators.17 Yet, the prevalence of gendered assumptions
and interpretations has both shaped and distorted the way in which political violence
has been imagined and discussed. Whilst the depiction of the female as victim has
allowed for the necessary recognition of, and research on, sexual violence carried
out against women, the issue of male victimhood is still relatively understudied.18
Moreover, deeply ingrained conventional wisdom around male perpetration has led
to relatively limited critical engagement with male perpetrators and victims through

16 See Claudia Koonz, Mother’s in the Fatherland: Women, The Family and Nazi Politics (Abingdon: Routledge, 1987);
Gisela Bock, ‘Racism and Sexism in Nazi Germany: Motherhood, Compulsory Sterilization and the State’, Signs, 8
(Spring 1983), 400–21.
17 For an excellent recent collection of essays on this topic, see Women and Genocide: Gendered Experiences of
Violence, Survival, and Resistance, ed. by JoAnn DiGeorgio-Lutz and Donna Gosbee (Toronto: Women’s Press,
18 Having said that, there is growing awareness on the issue. See on this R. Charli Carpenter, ‘Recognizing Gender-
Based Violence against Civilian Men and Boys in Conflict Situations’, Security Dialogue, 37 (2006), 83–103. The
rise in awareness has led to a number of studies on specific cases, such as Gabrielle Ferrales, Hollie Nyseth
Brehm, and Suzy Mcelrath, ‘Gender-Based Violence against Men and Boys in Darfur’, Gender & Society, 30 (2016),
565–89; Adam Jones, ‘Masculinities and Vulnerabilities in the Rwandan and Congolese Genocides’, in Genocide
and Gender in the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Survey ed. by Amy E. Randall (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), pp.
8 Editors’ Introduction

a gendered lens.19 JPR welcomes submissions investigating the perpetration of gen-

der-specific forms of violence against women and men by male as well as female per-
In fact, women do participate in political violence, including in its most extreme
forms. However, women are, alongside children, essentially perceived in public dis-
course as outside archetypal gendered understandings of the perpetrator. As a result
of deep-seated gender constructions, when women do participate in acts of atrocity
they are often sensationalized and characterized as deviant aberrations of woman-
hood who have betrayed their supposedly innate nurturing instinct. This is the case
of the already mentioned infamous Nazi perpetrators Irma Grese and Ilse Koch as
well as more recent figures such as Pauline Nyiramasuhuko and Biljana Plavsic. By
committing acts of extreme cruelty, such women are often seen to have transcended
traditional gender boundaries and to have adopted male characteristics which enable
them to perform tasks deemed by society as being fundamentally situated against
notions of femininity. Alongside sensationalism, this discourse surrounding female
perpetrators runs the risk of minimising women’s agency in the commission of acts
of political violence to the extent that they present female perpetrators as being ma-
nipulated to perform acts of violence against their will either out of fear or through a
process of indoctrination that they were unable, or unwilling, to resist.
The subordination of women to the role of passive actors or the sexualized abom-
ination of womanhood in public and, to a certain extent, scholarly engagement with
perpetrators has meant that there has been little space to engage with the female actor
of violence beyond simplistic depictions and sensationalized, sexualized and stereo-
typed tropes. This has resulted in little sustained critical analysis or understanding
as to their role in acts of atrocity or their motivations. There have, however, been
advancements in this area of the field which complicate our understandings of wom-
en’s relationship to violence by considering the issues involved with greater nuance
- most notably the work carried out by Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry who directly
confront the issue of how continuing narratives of motherhood, mental instability
and sexuality are used to deny the agency of women within the contexts of political
violence.20 This move towards more nuanced and critical engagement is a move which
JPR is keen to see developed further in the future.

19 O On this, see Miranda Alison, ‘Wartime Sexual Violence: Women’s Human Rights and Questions of Masculinity’,
Review of International Studies, 33 (2007), 75–90; Aliraza Javaid, ‘Feminism, masculinity, and male rape: Bring
male rape “out of the closet”.’ Journal of Gender Studies, 12 (2014), 1–11. See also the classic Klaus Theweleit, Male
Fantasies Volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History, trans. by Stephen Conway, Erica Carter, and Chris Turner
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), and Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies Volume 2: Male Bodies:
Psychoanalyzing the White Terror, trans. by Erica Carter, Chris Turner, and Stephen Conway (Minneapolis: Uni-
versity of Minnesota Press, 1989).
20 LLaura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry, Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics (New York: Zed
Books, 2007); see also Sandra McEvoy, ‘Loyalist Women Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland: Beginning a Feminist
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 9

Democratic Perpetrators

The word ‘perpetrator’ is at its core a legal and/or moral term containing an element
of legal and/or moral judgement, in the sense that the ‘perpetrators’ are defined as
such because they carry out deeds that are deemed ‘evil’ or criminal by others.21 Two
main consequences stem from this fact. The first is that the definition of ‘perpetrator’
is ascribed to certain people by others who do not deem their actions to be either eth-
ically or legally justified; the flipside of this is that the unreconstructed ‘perpetrators’
often resort to a wide variety of justifications and rationalizations for their deeds —
an area of clear interest to JPR and something addressed directly by Scott Straus in his
contribution to our first issue. From this point of view, then, the field of Perpetrator
Studies shares similar semantic and perhaps conceptual tensions with cognate fields
such as Genocide Studies and Terrorism Studies; the question of who is a perpetrator
is not necessarily more self-evident than that of what constitutes genocide or ter-
rorism.22 The second related consequence is that, beyond the more straightforwardly
egregious acts of political violence around which there is widespread consensus, an
unselfconscious notion of ‘perpetrator’ could lead to relative silence surrounding oth-
er cases otherwise worthy of inclusion. Acts of political violence can be discussed in
terms of perpetration in JPR even when they are not recognized as such in the cultural
context of the societies that produced them.
To make the above point more explicit: by ‘democratic perpetrators’ we are refer-
ring in particular to countries that see liberalism, tolerance, and respect of human

Conversation about Conflict Resolution’, Security Studies, 18 (2009), 262–86; Sara E. Brown, ‘Female Perpetrators
of the Rwandan Genocide’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 16 (2014), 448–69; Lisa Sharlach, ‘Gender
and genocide in Rwanda: Women as agents and objects of Genocide’, Journal of Genocide Research, 1 (1999),
387–99; Alette Smeulers, ‘Female Perpetrators: Ordinary and Extra-Ordinary Women’, International Criminal
Law Review, 15 (2015), 1–26; Miranda Alison, Women and Political Violence: Female Combatants in Ethno-National
Conflict (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009); Georgina Holmes, Women and War in Rwanda: Gender, Media and the Rep-
resentation of Genocide (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013); Carrie Hamilton, ‘The Gender Politics of Political Violence:
Women Armed Activists in ETA’, Feminist Review, 86 (2007), 132–48; Megan H. Mackenzie, Female Soldiers in
Sierra Leone: Sex, Security and Post-Conflict Development (New York: New York University Press, 2015); Nancy
Berns, ‘Degendering the Problem and Gendering the Blame: Political Discourse on Women and Violence’, Gender
and Society, 15 (2001), 262–81; Rachel Century, Female Administrators of the Third Reich (London: Palgrave Mac-
millan, 2017); Elizabeth Harvey, Women and the Nazi East: Agents and Witnesses of Germanization (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2003).
21 For an excellent attempt at devising a typology of perpetrators from a criminological point of view, see Alette
Smeulers, ‘Perpetrators of International Crimes: Towards a Typology’, in Supranational Criminology: Towards a
Criminology of International Crimes, ed. by Alette Smeulers and Roelof Haveman (Antwerp: Intersentia, 2008), pp.
22 AA clear indicator of this complexity is that large number of general works on genocide or terrorism feel obliged
to start off by presenting their own definition of genocide or terrorism. Very succinct and informative introduc-
tions to these debates can be found in, for example, Paul R. Bartrop, Genocide: The Basics (London: Routledge,
2015), pp. 1–6, and Sue Mahan, and Pamala L. Griset, Terrorism in Perspective, 3rd edn (Los Angeles: Sage, 2013),
pp. 1–6.
10 Editors’ Introduction

rights as cornerstones of their self-identity but that nonetheless carry out acts of per-
petration. A good case in point is that of the mass violence linked to the rise and fall of
the British, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian, and French Empires, as well as the
establishment and consolidation of countries built on a foundation of settler violence
such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. There is excellent scholarly work
on the latter topic, in particular in the field of Genocide Studies, with relevant work
also being produced on the forms and structures of late imperial violence.23 This bur-
geoning body of research is valuable. However, it is painfully apparent that in many of
these instances ‘post-imperial melancholia’, means that the themes and issues raised
by this work have yet to become part of broader culture.24 Much of popular Brit-
ish discourse, for example, is more inclined towards being selective over what to re-
member of the Empire, simply glorifying it wholesale along with the violent means
with which it was built and maintained, perpetrators included.25 This is even more
significant considering the systematic efforts made by the British state to destroy as
much evidence as possible pertaining to imperial and late-imperial violence.26 JPR
has a specific interest in exploring how ‘democratic perpetrators’ are encountered
and represented in public memory, popular culture and how they and their actions
are framed within education and welcomes submissions that address these issues and
associated topics.

23 For some recent important works on the topic of settler genocide, see Genocide on Settler Frontiers: When
Hunter-Gatherers and Commercial Stock Farmers Clash, ed. by Mohamed Adhikari (New York: Berghahn Books,
2015); Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–
1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America, ed. by Andrew
Woolford, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Colin Tatz,
Australia’s Unthinkable Genocide (Gordon, NSW: XLibris, 2017); Tom Lawson, The Last Man: A British Genocide
in Tasmania (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014). For work on later imperial violence see the solid overview by Andrew
Mumford, The Counter-Insurgency Myth: The British Experience of Irregular Warfare (London: Routledge, 2012)
and the comparative study by Fabian Klose, Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence: The Wars of
Independence in Kenya and Algeria, trans. by Dona Geyer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
On the notorious case of anti-Kikuyu violence in Kenya, see also the excellent book by David Anderson, Histories
of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London: Phoenix, 2006). See also Colonial
Counterinsurgency and Mass Violence: The Dutch Empire in Indonesia, ed. by Bart Luttikhuis and A. Dirk Moses
(London: Routledge, 2014); Memories of Post-imperial Nations: The Aftermath of Decolonization 1945–2013, ed. by
Dietmar Rothermund (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy:
Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and David Olusoga and Casper W.
Erichsen, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide (London: Faber, 2011)
24 FFor the notion of ‘postimperial melancholia’, see Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture?,
(London: Routledge, 2004), p. 98.
25 An obvious case in point is Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2003).
26 FFor an interesting journalistic take, see Ian Cobain, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture (London: Porto-
bello, 2013), pp. 76–109.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 11

The Dynamic Process of Perpetration

Having briefly sketched out the rationale for our focus on perpetrators, it must imme-
diately be added that in the past two decades research on mass political violence has
shifted its perspective from the study of merely perpetrators to the acts of perpetration.
Whereas the former term refers to the agency of the individuals who have perpetrated
forms of mass violence against civilians, the latter concept refers to the process of
collective commission of mass violence. Perpetration of mass violence is an inherently
complex process. The advantage of taking a processual view is that it enables us to
illuminate the complexity of the process of perpetration through the exploration of
different layers of authority, different motives of involvement, different rules of en-
gagement, and most importantly, the changes in these factors over time.
Perpetration can be approached from at least three analytical perspectives: macro
(top-level architects), meso (mid-level organizers), and micro (low-level killers). The
macro level refers to the context of high political office: the structures and the context
of the political helm that wields supreme authority inside a state and is responsible
for the decision-making processes that launch mass killing. The meso level consists
of those developments right below the highest level: mid-level political and adminis-
trative elites, the internal agencies that assume the tasks to divide labour and organ-
ize the machinery of killing, the (para-)military bosses who press buttons, and the
mechanisms of mass mobilization for the destruction of the victim group. The micro
level, then, is about the lowest socio-ecological level: the individuals who become
involved in the violent process, either as direct or indirect perpetrators. Viewed in its
coherence, these three contextual layers are not simply piled on top of each other, but
the largest contexts are often preconditions for the smallest ones. Without the macro
context of the radicalization of the political elites, the violent measures against the
victims would not have been conceived by mid-management, and ultimately count-
less individual perpetrators would not have murdered innumerable individual vic-
tims in micro situations of killing. By the same token, as shown in countless exam-
ples of settler violence, radicalization at the micro and meso levels can result in a
sanctioning at the macro level of extreme violence that was not always necessarily
planned or contemplated.27 In other words, let alone the complexity of each level in
itself, we must bear in mind the relevant connections between the three levels, in-
cluding how these may oscillate over time. JPR welcomes submissions that address

27 OOn this, see Andrew Woolford, ‘Discipline, Territory, and the Colonial Mesh: Indigenous Boarding Schools in
the United States and Canada’, in Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America, ed. by Andrew Woolford, Jeff
Benvenuto and Alexander Laban Hinton (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), pp. 29–48; and Benjamin
Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873 (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2016).
12 Editors’ Introduction

any of these three levels of perpetration or the dynamic and changing relationship
between the three across time and space.
Alongside such analytical perspectives JPR is also keen to consider how these pro-
cesses of perpetration begin, develop, and end. Mass violence of the scale that unfolds
in genocides, for example, generally develops through three fairly distinct phases: the
pre-violent phase, the phase of mass political violence, and the post-violence phase.
The pre-violent phase is often rooted in a broader economic, political, and cultur-
al crisis that vexes the country internally and aggravates its external relations with
neighbouring states. Such a crisis between political groups and social movements can
polarize into non-violent confrontations such as mass protests, boycotts, or strikes.
At the local level, it can be characterized by fragile, even hostile, but still non-violent
coexistence between political or ethnic groups. Occasionally, however, a local po-
grom or a political assassination can occur, and often the state can gradually become
engaged in a low-intensity conflict. The main precondition for extreme violence such
as massacres or genocide is (civil) war. During wars, violence is exercised on a large
scale, first exclusively between armies in legally sanctioned military hostilities, but
later potentially also in illegal paramilitary operations against civilians.28
These transitions from crisis to mass violence are often turning points, where
serious moral and political transgressions occur in a rapid process of violent polari-
zation. Comparative research on mass political violence demonstrates that once un-
leashed, such violence can develop its own dynamic and become all but unstoppable
by internal means — reaching ‘relative autonomy’.29 This dynamic consists of a rou-
tinization of the killing and a collective moral shift in society due to mass impunity.
Two other key variables are the political elite’s decision-making and the organiza-
tion of violence. The first is often conducted in secret sessions, develops in periodic
eruptions, and becomes visible only retroactively, when the victims are killed. Indeed,
violent conflict exposes the criminology of violent political elites, who often begin
operating as an organized crime group with growing mutual complicity developing
among them. Secondly, the organization of the violence is another major analytical
category to be examined. The violence is often carried out according to clear and
logical divisions of labour: between the civil and military wing of the state, but also
crucially between the military and paramilitary groups. The killing process has the
dual function of at once annihilating the victim group and constructing the perpe-
trator group.30

28 AAn authoritative study of the dynamic of violence in civil war is: Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil
War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
29 OOn the relative autonomy of violent persecution developing into genocide see: Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and
the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity, 1989), in particular the discussion on pp. 101–07.
30 SSee e.g.: Max Bergholz, Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 13

The transition to a post-violent phase often overlaps with the collapse of the vi-
olent regime itself. The main perpetrator groups within the regime will attempt to
deny their crimes, while traumatized survivor communities will mourn and seek
justice or revenge. In this phase, these groups often struggle to propagate their own
memory of the conflict by attempting to straitjacket the complexity of the conflict
into a single, self-serving view. The term ‘transitional justice’ often proves to be an
elusive concept: sometimes a fragile democracy develops, and sometimes a different
authoritarian regime takes over. In either case, impunity has proven to be the rule
and punishment the exception in post-violence societies. This is a genuine dilemma
because often an enormous number of people are involved in crimes, and there are
often no clear, premeditated, written, and circulated orders of particular massacres.
The direct victims and often even their offspring can continue to suffer for years, even
decades. Historians and other scholars often struggle with sketching a detailed pic-
ture of the course of the violence, and forms of denial by successor governments who
inherit the perpetrator state is often the rule.31
Together, the above approach generates a dynamic model that has three analytical
dimensions and three temporal dimensions. It is primarily a political, historical, and
sociological model: its focus is centred on the power relationships between offices,
agencies, and individuals. Finally, whereas the dividing social boundaries between
perpetrators and victims are crystal clear during the mass killings, these lines can be-
come more ambiguous and ambivalent before and after. The ethnic Germans (Volks-
deutsche) in the Soviet Union are a good example of these dynamics: before World War
II they were persecuted and deported by the Stalinist authorities; during the war, they
significantly enlisted in the Nazi apparatus and participated in mass violence against
civilians; after the war, they were targeted for punishment and expelled from their
ancestral lands. Perpetrators can become victims; victims can become perpetrators;
and ‘bystanders’ or ‘third parties’ can become either. The breadth of the category of
‘perpetrator’ ultimately depends on the definition of the scholar, but a responsible use
of the term ‘perpetration’ offers a more flexible and effective tool for understanding
the participation of non-killers (such as professionals, officials, and civilians) in the
A close look at most work on mass violence clearly identifies patterns of interac-
tion between the three levels, e.g. in the recruitment of perpetrators, the coordination
of murderous efforts, civil society initiatives toward assisting the murderous state
apparatus, and the manufacturing of broad-based indifference towards the plight of

31 D Donald Bloxham and Devin Pendas, ‘Punishment as Prevention? The Politics of Prosecuting Génocidaires’, in
The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, ed. by Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2010), pp. 617–37.
14 Editors’ Introduction

the victims.32 On the other hand, an over-focus on the macro level may also blind us
to the autonomy and agency of these mid-level bureaucracies. Perpetration of mass
violence is co-produced by a vast network of collaborating ministry officials, military
officers, government functionaries, gatekeepers and caretakers, committees, civil
servants, police commissars, career diplomats, party bosses, provincial judges, urban
regulators, militia bosses, and many others. In principle, these are not yet the men
who get their hands dirty.33 The macro-level overseers are well aware they need these
people to manage the many necessary tasks. Before the killings, the civil-bureaucrat-
ic and military takeover deeply polarizes and purifies this level of officials. Some stay
in their positions if they can reconcile themselves with the vague (but unmistakably
murderous) designs of the new regime, others are either purged or leave on their own
volition. This partly self-regulating and self-reinforcing process paves the way for the
macro-level organizers to push through their plans, and also bolsters the political
When we turn to the micro level, we are concerned with the extraordinary things
that occur to rank-and-file executioners on the ground.34 Alexander Hinton’s book ti-
tle nicely captures the overarching research question in this field: Why did they kill?35
At this level, the study of perpetration thrives. The study of low-level perpetrators has
moved way beyond the cliché of faceless, banal, or sadistic killers, undifferentiated
and unexplained, who murder people for no apparent reason other than hatred and
malice. Biographical investigation and sociological contextualization has challenged
and debunked these essentialist ideas for years now. Comparative research on the kill-
ers is gradually reflecting common ground, increasing sophistication, and a nuanced
and complex picture of dispositional and situational factors.36 Journalistic research
on perpetrators has also often been insightful. In They Would Never Hurt a Fly, for
example, Slavenka Drakulić uses ICTY court transcripts and contextual interviews
to paint a moving picture of Dražen Erdemović, a Bosnian Serb who passed through
various trials and tribulations, and ended up shooting Bosniak men in the Srebrenica
massacre of 13–22 July 1995.37 But despite such contributions the study of perpetration

32 An excellent recent example is: Alexander Vatlin, Agents of Terror: Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in
Stalin’s Secret Police (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016).
33 But there are examples of relatively high-ranking Nazis performing executions, like Theodor Eicke who
executed Ernst Röhm.
34 SSee the website of the Perpetrator Studies Network for a bibliography on micro-level perpetrators:
35 Alexander Laban Hinton, Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (Los Angeles: University of
California Press, 2004).
36 Ordinary People as Mass Murderers: Perpetrators in Comparative Perspectives, ed. by Olaf Jensen and Claus-
Christian W. Szejnmann (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
37 Slavenka Drakulić, They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in The Hague (New York: Viking, 2004),
pp. 106–20.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 15

suffers from a certain imbalance, or lopsided growth: whereas many studies have
contributed to the micro level, the macro and meso levels have not enjoyed the same
attention particularly when looking beyond the field of Holocaust studies.
Once the violence begins, the micro-level perpetrators conduct countless kill-
ings of unarmed civilians or defenceless prisoners. When we speak of ‘perpetration’,
this is generally what we mean: the violent phase at micro level. This reductionist
perspective can be expanded by imagining perpetration as an explicitly multi-level
process with distinct phases. One more problem in the scholarship is the confusion
between mass violence and organized violence, i.e. the over-focus on (mass) individu-
al motives, instead of small-scale sociological organizational dynamics.38 Micro-level
perpetrator studies invariably include models and explanatory diagrams, but these
are often too static, and do not reflect sufficiently the dynamic interactions over time
as a process. Juxtaposition of motives, regardless how convincing, does not capture
the changing ‘life moments’ of the perpetrators’ inner world: motives change over
time, they are unanticipated beforehand, and produce unwanted consequences. The
micro-­sociology of studies conducted by Lee-Ann Fujii (on Rwanda), Ton Robben (on
Argentina), Aziz Nakkash (on Syria), Kjell Anderson (comparative), and Abram de
Swaan (comparative) are insightful and promising steps toward greater engagement
with this particular area which JPR anticipates developing further.39


A recent, fruitful line of research on perpetrators in civil wars and genocides has fo-
cused on paramilitarism. Perpetration of mass violence against civilians is often car-
ried out by well-equipped, specialized, irregular paramilitary forces. Paramilitarism
refers to clandestine, irregular armed organizations that carry out acts of violence
against clearly defined civilian individuals or groups. It has immense importance for
understanding the processes of violence that are played out during ethnic conflicts,
which often see the formation of paramilitary units that conduct counter-insurgency
operations, scorched earth campaigns, and violence against civilians, including geno-
cide. Many studies of mass violence have convincingly demonstrated the central role

38 See e.g.: Guenter Lewy, Perpetrators: The World of the Holocaust Killers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017);
Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (New York: Back Bay
Books, 1996).
39 Lee Ann Fujii, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009); Antonius
Robben, Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Aziz
Nakkash, ‘The Alawite Dilemma in Homs: Survival, Solidarity and the Making of a Community’ (Berlin: Friedrich-
Ebert-Stiftung, 2013); Abram de Swaan, The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2015); Kjell Anderson, A Criminology of Genocide: Killing Without Consequence (London:
Routledge, 2017).
16 Editors’ Introduction

of paramilitaries in the perpetration of the killings.40 Whether in democratic or au-

thoritarian states, throughout the twentieth century paramilitaries have been respon-
sible for widespread violations of human rights against civilians. States orchestrat-
ing mass violence spawn paramilitary units as a covert augmentation of state power
for special purposes such as mass murder. The set of questions to ask here is: How
and why were paramilitary forces organized and deployed? Why did they emerge,
and which relationships can we detect between paramilitaries and other meso-level
perpetrator clusters? The perpetration of paramilitary groups has been studied ex-
tensively for some of the major cases of mass violence.41 The SA and SS, for example,
have extensive, stand-alone historiographies. There are good studies of the Rwandan
Interahamwe, Serb paramilitary groups, the Janjaweed in Sudan, or the Hindu-extremist
militias in Gujarat.42 A comparative reading of these studies offers unique insights into
the ‘nuts and bolts’ of perpetration, and it is both hoped and anticipated that future
studies will focus on these types of paramilitary groups.

Motives and Motivations

There also seems to be a widespread confusion about motives versus motivations. Both
terms basically mean incentive or drive, but motive is used to mean the specific reasons
for performing a specific action, an incentive, a particular goal or objective. It also
often implies ulterior motives, and therefore the term is often used in judicial proceed-
ings to explain the actions of criminals — a suspect’s possible ‘motives’ for committing
a crime. Motivation is generally what drives a person, at a deeper level, to pursue
certain broader goals of self-actualization in life. For example, someone can decide to
become a doctor to help relieve human suffering; the motivation is to relieve human
suffering. Therefore, ‘motive’ has a more negative and short-term connotation than
‘motivation’.43 We need to apply fine-grained distinctions here: a perpetrator may
hold general motivations in life, which during a conflict, war, or genocide may give
him/her specific motives to kill. This approach is related to explanations founded on

40 FFor one overview, see: Alex Alvarez, ‘Militias and Genocide’, War Crimes, Genocide, & Crimes against Humanity, 2
(2006), 1–33.
41 Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability, ed. by Bruce Campbell and Arthur Brenner (New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
42 See: André Guichaoua, From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda, 1990–1994 (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 2015), ch. 4; Kate Ferguson, Architectures of Violence: The Command Structures of Modern
Mass Atrocities, from Yugoslavia to Syria (London: Hurst, 2018); Julie Flint, Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the
Militias of Darfur (Geneva: GIIS, 2009); Ward Berenschot, Riot Politics: Hindu-Muslim Violence and the Indian State
(London: Hurst, 2012).
43 The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation, ed. by Richard Ryan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), parts two
and three.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 17

collective emotions. Studies of ethnic violence have identified three major emotional
responses triggering ethnic violence in the twentieth century: fear, hatred, and resent-
ment. For the micro level of perpetrator research, this is a useful point of departure.
According to emotion-based theories, political elites construct identity narratives
based on group experiences of structural changes. Shifting socio-economic conditions
and patterns of social mobility alter power and status relations among groups, as they
overturn time-honoured hierarchies in ranked ethnic systems. These changes can tap
into motivations and affective dispositions of to-be perpetrators and manufacture
acute collective emotions such as hatred, fear, and resentment.44
The transition to killing has been elaborately studied in perpetrator studies; this
phase of micro-level perpetration, too, is a process with at least three distinct stages
of development. First, the killers are subjected to a moment of initiation or induction:
they are confronted with the tasks of mass killing, pressured by vertical and horizon-
tal forms of coercion, painstakingly described by Christopher Browning in Ordinary
Men. The group then bonds through these collective transgressions and gradually de-
velops into a routinization process, in which killings become more and more stand-
ardized and the perpetrator gets used to the perpetration. Finally, the adaptation
process produces a unique moral shift, in which the killings are so normalized that
it becomes increasingly difficult for the perpetrators to realize the full extent of their
crimes and imagine the destruction from the meso or micro levels. Once the murder-
ous tasks are completed, micro-level perpetrators enter the post-perpetration phase
and their identities change again. How do they process, discuss, and explain their
perpetration in hindsight? How do they view the (absence of the) victim community?
To what extent can we speak of guilt, or a ‘perpetrator trauma’?45

Teaching about Perpetrators

When it comes to teaching, perpetrators certainly present a limit case. On the one
hand, in recent years we can observe a growing consensus among educators that, in
order to learn about past atrocities and the aftermath of atrocity, it is important to
consider the perpetrators as well as the victims — and other subject positions such
as bystanders, rescuers, and profiteers. Furthermore, most educators agree that pre-
senting the perpetrators as somehow apart from society or even as monsters or psy-
chopaths obscures the social, political, historical, and cultural mechanisms that have

44 Roger D. Petersen, Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Europe
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
45 Saira Mohamed, ‘Of Monsters and Men: Perpetrator Trauma and Mass Atrocity’, Columbia Law Review, 1157 (2015),
18 Editors’ Introduction

enabled their crimes and inhibits an understanding of the continued relevance of

studying and remembering past atrocities for today.
Notwithstanding this, Holocaust and genocide pedagogy has so far been some-
what reluctant to tackle the question of how to teach about perpetrators. One of the
greatest concerns is that we and our students may find them too fascinating. Anoth-
er is that understanding the perpetrators might in some way lead to a justification
of their actions or to a consideration of them as victims of the times, the system or
the prevailing ideology; in short: circumstances beyond their control. The pervasive
unease concerning the place of perpetrators in the classroom is compounded by the
prevalence of affective modes of education being employed to teach about these com-
plex and emotive issues. The dominant strategies for making past atrocities relevant
to young people have sought to promote identification and empathy with the victims
and to elicit shock at the scale and brutality of the crimes. This is often done through
the use of photographs or film, or by visiting sites of atrocity themselves, or through
immersive experiences designed to allow students and visitors to feel (at least some
approximation of) what it was like to be a victim of these atrocities.46 Such approach-
es become infinitely more complex and problematic if we shift our focus from the
victims to the perpetrators. What is the educational value of prompting students and
visitors to museums and other sites to imagine what it felt like to be a perpetrator?
Clearly, the moral and ethical pitfalls here are enormous. Nevertheless, or indeed
precisely for that reason, it is important to ask what the role of affect is in teaching
about atrocities more generally. And here the question of the perpetrator provides an
More generally, perpetrator studies can offer new perspectives on the important
role education plays in understanding and coming to terms with genocide and other
forms of mass violence and preventing them from occurring in the future. An im-
portant precursor here is Theodor W. Adorno’s 1966 influential essay ‘Education after
Auschwitz’. The essay has become something of a manifesto of Holocaust education,
but very often only the famous first sentence — ‘[t]he premier demand upon educa-
tion is that Auschwitz not happen again’ — is quoted.47 Looking more closely at Ador-
no’s essay we can see that talking about education after Auschwitz also means talking
about education before Auschwitz and, moreover, that this essay is itself a foundation-
al text in perpetrator studies. Adorno is quite emphatic on the point that there is little

46 Cf. Wolf Kaiser, ‘Nazi Perpetrators in Holocaust Education’, Teaching History, 141 (2010), 34–39; Jana Jelitzki &
Mirko Wetzel, Über Täter und Täterinnen sprechen. Nationalsozialistische Täterschaft in der pädagogischen Arbeit
von KZ-Gedenkstätten (Berlin: Metropol, 2010); Samuel Totten, Teaching about Genocide: Issues, Approaches, and
Resources (Greenwich: IAP, 2004); Rebecca Jinks, Representing Genocide: The Holocaust as Paradigm? (London:
Bloomsbury, 2016); and Waitman Wade Beorn, ‘Perpetrators, Presidents, and Profiteers: Teaching Genocide
Prevention and Response through Classroom Simulation’, Politics and Governance, 3.4 (2015), 72–83.
47 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Education after Auschwitz’, in: Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, transl. by
Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 191–204 (p. 191).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 19

we can learn from studying the victims that can help us to ensure that ‘Auschwitz
not happen again’, and that it is imperative that we study the perpetrators. What was
their education like? What was the system that gave rise to these individuals? From
his vantage point in the 1960s, Adorno takes pains to insist that the underlying social
structures have not changed all that much since before the war. In many respects the
same can be said for today’s society, as the current political climate in Europe, the
United States and elsewhere attests.
While understanding the social and systemic conditions under which acts of mass
violence become possible is a vital component of teaching about perpetrators, it is no
less important to focus on the aftermath and how societies have dealt with perpe-
trators and the legacy of their crimes. The extent to which they were prosecuted and
otherwise held to account serves as an important index of the ways in which those
societies have dealt with issues of guilt, responsibility, complicity, collaboration and,
by extension, in how far the underlying conditions and victim–perpetrator dynam-
ics in a given society remain in place. A crucial medium for thinking through these
and related issues are cultural representations, i.e. literature, film, art, and theatre.
Such representations have the advantage from a pedagogical standpoint of provid-
ing a ‘buffer’ between the students and the events in question that potentially allows
for a greater degree of critical engagement and self-reflexivity.48 Whether the per-
petrators and acts represented are fictional or based in fact, it is always important
to consider not just what is being represented but how it is being represented, and
furthermore how self-reflexive the text or work itself is or appears to be concerning
the representational strategies and aesthetic choices employed. This speaks to a more
general issue within perpetrator studies, namely that of representation as such.

Representing Perpetrators

The question of the perpetrator cannot be dissociated from the question of how per-
petrators and their acts are represented. There are many modes of representation, in-
cluding self-representation (in social media, auto-documents, interviews, testimonies),
representation in the news and the media, fictional representation (in literature, film,
and the arts), legal representation (either contemporary or historically), representa-
tion in the accounts and testimonies of victims and survivors, and representation in
academic scholarship of various disciplines. Given the breadth of the term, it can be
useful to distinguish between representation as depiction or description on the one

48 See for example Froma I. Zeitlin, ‘Teaching about Perpetrators’, in Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust,
ed. by Marianne Hirsch & Irene Kacandes (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2004), pp.
68–85; Ernst van Alphen, ‘Playing the Holocaust’, in Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, ed. by Norman L.
Kleeblatt (New York: The Jewish Museum; New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), pp. 65–83.
20 Editors’ Introduction

hand, and representation in a political or legal sense on the other, i.e. as a form of
speaking on behalf of, or standing in for someone else.49 While it is useful to keep these
two meanings of the word distinct, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that
they frequently overlap or clash in complex ways. One unavoidable task of perpetrator
studies is to identify and account for these convergences and divergences of the two. If,
for instance, we take one iconic moment in Holocaust studies like the Eichmann trial,
we very quickly become aware of the multiple layers of representation at work. First,
within the courtroom setting, Eichmann was represented by his defence team, but also
represented himself, both juridically and metaphorically, by presenting a particular
version of himself and his acts. The proceedings in the courtroom were simultaneously
translated, filmed and transmitted via closed-circuit television to journalists outside
the courtroom, while the tapes were flown to the United States to be broadcast there
the following day.50 The media coverage of the trial was extensive, including, of course,
Hannah Arendt’s report on the ‘banality of evil’, which adds yet another layer of rep-
resentation and interpretation to the event. As noted above, Arendt’s representation
of Eichmann is thus a meta-representation that reflects on the performative character
of the trial as a whole and of Eichmann’s self-representation. Faced with such an irre-
ducibly complex web of representations, translations, and (re-)mediation, one might
feel the urge to strip them away in order to arrive at some deeper or more immediate
truth concerning Eichmann. While it is legitimate and important to ask ontological
questions concerning the nature of evil and responsibility, it is reductive and poten-
tially misleading to regard the layers of representation in such a case merely as an ob-
stacle to overcome rather than as an intrinsic characteristic of the object of study. In
order to understand a figure like Eichmann or an event like the Eichmann trial, it may
therefore be more productive to engage in what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz
called ‘thick description’51: the significance of the Eichmann trial is inextricable from
the multiple ways it has been represented and interpreted.52
Matters become even more complicated in the context of artistic representations
of perpetrators and perpetration, not least when it concerns fictional representations.
Such representations invariably entail a more or less subtle and intricate interplay of
self-reference and external reference. In other words, even purely fictional perpetra-
tors refer in one way or another to actual historical examples. Otherwise they would

49 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak elaborates on this dual meaning of representation in her famous essay ‘Can the
Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson (Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 1988), pp. 271–313 (pp. 275–80).
50 David Cesarani, Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a ’Desk Murderer’ (Cambridge, MA:
Da Capo, 2006).
51 Clifford Geertz, ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, in The Interpretation of Cultures:
Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), pp. 3–30.
52 Bettina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, trans. by Ruth Martin
(New York: Knopf, 2014).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 21

not be recognizable as perpetrators. Depending on the genre and ambition of the

work, it may play self-reflexively with these associations by means of meta-fictional
devices such as mise-en-abyme (e.g. the ‘film-within-the-film’) or alienation effects (e.g.
‘breaking the fourth wall’) and so on. A characteristic of these devices is a troubling
of the boundaries between fact and fiction, the real world and the world of the art-
work. The more self-reflexive the work, the more it comments not only on its own
status as fiction and artifice, but also on the role of representation (fictional or not) in
the real world. It is no accident that some of the most prominent and most-discussed
representations in perpetrator studies in recent years are also the most self-reflexive.53
Many of the artworks on display at the much-debated 2002 exhibition Mirroring Evil
at the Jewish Museum in New York, for example, centred on ironic juxtapositions of
Nazi art and popular culture, commenting on the fascination with and commodifica-
tion of images of the Holocaust.54 Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2006) can be read
as a critical intervention into the ongoing debate surrounding the representation
and representability of the Holocaust.55 Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012)
involves an elaborate meta-cinematic frame in which the Indonesian perpetrators
re-enact their crimes in the form of their favourite movie genres (gangster movie,
musical, Western), while in the central documentary layer of the film they speak can-
didly about their actions and motivations, revealing, among other things, that even at
the time of the mass killings they were inspired in part by Hollywood movies.56 Thus,
in Oppenheimer’s film, art imitates life imitating art imitating life. As representa-
tions, all of these works are not only about perpetrators, but also in an important
sense about their representation, and, moreover, about how such representations are
produced, disseminated, and received in the media and in popular culture. That is to
say, their engagement with the question of the perpetrator is not only thematic but
also theoretical. The same also applies to perpetrator studies as a field, and hence, re-
search on perpetrators must involve a robust theory of representation.

53 Representing Perpetrators in Holocaust Literature and Film, ed. by Jenni Adams and Sue Vice (London: Vallentine
Mitchell, 2013).
54 Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, ed. by Norman L. Kleeblatt (New York: The Jewish Museum; New
Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001).
55 JJonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Harper, 2009). Among the myriad schol-
arly responses to the novel, see for instance Susan Rubin Suleiman, ‘When the perpetrator becomes a reliable
witness of the Holocaust: On Jonathan Littell’s Les bienveillantes’, New German Critique, 36.1 (2009), 1–19; Klaus
Theweleit, ‘On the German Reaction to Jonathan Littell’s Les bienveillantes’, New German Critique, 36.1 (2009),
21–34; Jenni Adams, ‘Reading (as) Violence in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones’, in Representing Perpetrators,
ed. by Adams and Vice, pp. 25–46; Debarati Sanyal, ‘Reading Nazi Memory in Jonathan Littell’s Les bienveillantes’,
L’Esprit Créateur, 50.4 (2010), 47–66; and Erin McGlothlin, ‘Empathic Identification and the Mind of the Holocaust
Perpetrator in Fiction: A Proposed Taxonomy of Response’, Narrative, 24.3 (2016), 251–76
56 JJoshua Oppenheimer (dir.) The Act of Killing (Dogwoof Pictures, 2012). For critical engagements with the film see
for example the special issue of Film Quarterly 67.2 (2013), edited by B. Ruby Rich.
22 Editors’ Introduction

The question of representation for the field as a whole also pertains to the issue
of the over-representation of certain genocides and groups of perpetrators and, con-
versely, the under-representation of others. Thus, in addition to the thematic concerns
that we have outlined above, we would also like to call for more work on precisely
these under-examined and under-represented cases as this burgeoning field contin-
ues to evolve. As noted, the roots of the field lie in the study of the Holocaust, and it is
thus not surprising that studies of and conferences on Nazi perpetrators continue to
generate attention and attract more funding and a broad global audience. By now, the
Rwandan genocide, the former Yugoslavia, Armenia, and Indonesia, as well as the So-
viet context, are beginning to receive more scholarly attention, whereas fundamental
research still remains to be done on a whole range of other perpetrators, e.g. in Su-
dan and Cambodia. Compared to the mass global interest in ISIS, we still know next
to nothing about Saddam Hussein’s perpetrators. Perpetrator research must bear in
mind cultural and political biases, the level of development of the society in question,
availability of sources, and continuity of perpetrator regimes. Comparative research
on perpetrators cannot disproportionately rely on well-documented and thorough-
ly-studied cases only. This is a task for the next generation of perpetrator scholars.

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Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)

Critchell, Knittel, Perra, Üngör 27

Kara Critchell is a visiting lecturer in History at the University of Chester, UK. Email:

Susanne C. Knittel is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Utrecht Uni-

versity, Netherlands. Email:

Emiliano Perra is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of

Winchester, UK. Email:

Uğur Ümit Üngör is Associate Professor of History at Utrecht University, Nether-

lands. Email:
Studying Perpetrators: A Reflection
Scott Straus

Abstract: Based on more than a decade of research on perpetrators, in particular in Rwanda, this
critical reflection underlines the value of studying perpetrators for examining the empirical dynamics
of genocide and mass violence. At the same time, the essay also points to three potential limitations of
perpetrator-centred research: 1. Can social scientists really understand acts of killing and mutilation?
2. Does the application of ‘perpetrator’ unwittingly foster a selective notion of history and encourage
Manichean hierarchies in the interpretation of the past? 3. Analysing perpetrators, especially mid- and
lower level ones, may not be insightful for thinking about the origins of genocide.

Keywords: perpetrators; genocide; mass violence; Rwanda

I. Introduction

n this essay, I reflect in a critical fashion on Perpetrator Studies. The goal is to
provide a self-reflective analysis, one that speaks to interdisciplinary research on
perpetrators but one that is also informed by my own research. This implies two
specific biases. One is disciplinary, in that the social scientific, positivist tradition
shapes my engagement with this topic. The other is area-specific, in that my deepest
engagement comes from the study of perpetrators in the Rwandan genocide. None-
theless, I hope that my self-reflection will be useful for scholars from other research
traditions and for those who study other cases.
More specifically, I seek to address the following questions: what does the study
of perpetrators contribute to the fields of Political Violence and Genocide Studies?
What does the study of those who carry out the violence tell scholars of violence
and genocide that such scholars could not learn elsewhere? Are there unique insights
from studying perpetrators? My primary emphasis in this piece will be to consider
the difficulties associated with studying perpetrators. In particular, I want to draw
attention to three problems that, as I look back over my career to date, have come to
trouble me.
Firstly, given the methods that we currently employ to study perpetrators, what is
actually knowable about the drives and motivations that lead them to commit atroc-
ities? In relation to my own experiences, what bothers me here is that something

A version of this essay was originally presented as a keynote address at the 2nd International Perpetrator Studies
Conference at Utrecht University in September 2016. The author would like to thank Uğur Ümit Üngör and the other
editors of the journal for comments on earlier drafts.

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017), 28–38

doi: 10.21039/jpr.v1i1.52 © 2017 by the Author
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
To view a copy of this license, visit
S. Straus 29

ultimately does not add up about what perpetrators tell me, or others like me, about
their involvement in these horrible acts. Perpetrators ‘self-fashion’ in interviews and
in court. As researchers, we know about social desirability bias and retrospective bias.
We also know that genocides are crimes, and that perpetrators thus have an incentive
to present themselves in the best possible light. And yet, even with those biases in
mind, there remains something profoundly unsettling about their stories, about the
fact that they killed other human beings, about the fact that they often committed
these acts on multiple days and often in horrifying ways. Do we really understand
— can we really understand — the processes that lead other people to murder other
people? I think I understand the conditions that trigger the initial participation, or at
least I understand some of them, but when I wake up at night or in the morning and
I really think about what these individuals say, there is something that just does not
add up – something that I feel we are missing. Or, if there is not, then the implications
really are incredibly disturbing. In short, as much as I have thought about and spent
time thinking about perpetrators, there is something that remains a mystery to me,
something that I feel I cannot understand about the act of violence, the act of repeated
violence, and, sometimes, the act of mutilation.
Secondly, I want to probe some of the unintended but negative consequences of
applying the category ‘perpetrators’. In some cases, using the label ‘perpetrator’ can be
a sharp and deliberate move; in effect, to label a case that we do not think about as one
in which someone did something bad, as doing something bad. For instance: think
about the move to call members of Indonesian paramilitaries from 1965 ‘perpetrators’,
or what it might mean to call American settlers in the United States West ‘perpetra-
tors’, or Allied pilots bombing Hiroshima ‘perpetrators’. Calling people ‘perpetrators’,
particularly if they are not typically recognized as such, is inherently normative. In
making that move, observers are classifying individuals in a particular way; they are
suggesting that such individuals did something wrong. Many scholars wrestle with
the false stability of the term. Perpetrators are perpetrators when they commit an
act of violence, but the act of violence is only one action in a broader repertoire of
actions that individuals who commit violence actually carry out. During the period
resulting in which we label them ‘perpetrators’, these individuals are also functionar-
ies, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and friends, as well as rescuers, helpers, hiders,
and sometimes even victims. In a period of genocide or mass violence, individuals
conduct themselves in a variety of ways. Using the label ‘perpetrator’ can blind us to
that range of action, leading the analysis to focus only on the act of violence. In short,
it can oversimplify.
However, I am interested in a different blind spot. It is one I know from the case of
Rwanda, but I think that the point applies to other examples as well. In Rwanda, we
apply the category ‘perpetrator’ selectively, to those persons who participated in the
violence against Tutsis or others during the genocide of 1994. But the 1994 genocide
30 Studying Perpetrators

in Rwanda was not the only mass violence to take place during that period. Violence
was committed by members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front during their advance,
and during their later consolidation of power; there were revenge killings of Hutus
by Tutsi civilians; there was also massive violence initiated in the Democratic Repub-
lic of the Congo against Hutu refugees, committed by RPF or RPF-affiliated forces
between 1996–2004. Yet ‘perpetrator’ only refers, as far as I have heard it, to Hutu
killers or other participants in the genocide. The application of the term ‘perpetrator’,
therefore, unwittingly contributes to a bifurcated, ultimately false representation of
the history of violence in that region. Used in this way, it helps to obscure, rather than
to clarify, the full picture of violence. It contributes to a certain silence about violence.
That problem is similar when considering who counts as a ‘victim’. As that category
has expanded, however, scholars have come to recognize multiple types of victims.
Third, I turn to the micro level — to perpetrators themselves — because of dissat-
isfaction with the evidence at the macro level. I will return to this in a moment, but
essentially if you want to understand questions of mobilization, questions of moti-
vation, and to develop an actual understanding of the micro dynamics of violence
— the way that individuals came to be involved, what they did, why, and how — you
have to look at perpetrators, their units, their immediate contexts, and so forth. His-
tory and ideology do not tell us, generally, how violence takes place and why people
take part in it. Yet this in itself poses another, increasingly significant, question. Does
the study of perpetrators allow us to answer some of the big questions about why
genocide occurred in one country, but not in another? Does a study of perpetrators
help gain insight into why elite decision-makers choose to steer a country down a
path of extreme violence? My answer, increasingly, is no — we need to examine the
conditions and factors that shape elite decision-making in order to understand why
leaders choose a path of genocide, or whether they choose a path of non-genocide. We
can certainly call these actors ‘perpetrators,’ for they are, but we also have to recog-
nize a certain disjuncture between elite decision-making and decision-making on
the ground. Those lower-level actors respond to and enact, rather than make, policy
directives themselves. In sum, we have to be aware of the limits of what perpetrator
research can tell us about the origins of genocide and other forms of mass atrocity.
Broadly speaking, these are the main points I wish to cover: a discussion of what
perpetrator research gives us that other kinds of research do not, but also a discus-
sion that draws attention to three weaknesses, even blind-spots, in the field that we as
scholars need to maintain a keen awareness of.

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)

S. Straus 31

II. Rwanda

I started working in Rwanda some twenty years ago at the start of the first war in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo, a massive state that lies to the west of Rwanda,
then known as Zaire. At that time, Zaire was home to the former genocidal regime
and some 1.2–1.3 million Hutu refugees; they all had fled Rwanda after the genocide
and after losing the civil war. The Rwandan exiles included a large portion of the so-
called ex-FAR, the Rwandan army that had been defeated during the civil war and
genocide, as well as the famous paramilitary and youth-wing groups, such as the In-
terahamwe. In essence, the old forces associated with the Second Republic and the gen-
ocide were looking to reorganize themselves in Congo and ultimately attack Rwanda
to reconquer power — that, at least, seemed to be their ambition, and while there has
not been a lot of detailed study, that is indeed a fair interpretation in my view.
It turns out that some of the rearming and training was happening in, and adja-
cent to, the UN-administered refugee camps, which were illegally located too close
to the Rwandan border. The post-genocidal state, with the Rwandan Patriotic Front
(RPF) and Paul Kagame as the effective power-holders, warned the UN and other
international actors that the status quo was unacceptable. However, nothing changed,
and at the end of October 1996, the Rwandan armed forces invaded Congo under the
rather shrewd umbrella of a rebel Congolese organization.
At the time, I was a journalist, and I flew from Somalia back through to Nairobi
before moving on to Kigali, and then to the border region between Rwanda and Zaire,
where I eventually hid out and stayed on the Zairian side. The first order of business
for the Rwandan government forces was to break up the camps and to fracture the
potential for an invasion of Rwanda. Indeed, within a couple of weeks, they succeed-
ed in breaking up the camps, and that was when things got especially interesting. At
that time, there was a split movement among the Rwandan refugees. A large number
streamed out of Zaire and back into Rwanda, whilst another large number moved
west, deeper into Zaire, where many were forced to live in terrible conditions and
where many were eventually massacred.
As a reporter, I went against the massive human tide moving east toward Rwanda,
instead looking to enter the camps from which they came. When I, and some others,
got to the other end of this human tide, what we found were a group of very agitated
young men. They did not want to see me; indeed they were quite hostile, which left me
feeling extremely uncomfortable, so I turned around and left. Later that day, after re-
ceiving protection from a passing vehicle, I returned to the camp, at which point the
hostile young men were gone. Those of us who entered the camp encountered a mass
grave; to this day, who perpetrated the violence remains unclear to me. The victims
in the grave were primarily women and children. In addition, there was a great deal
of debris left by the ex-army soldiers and officers. Some colleagues even found doc-
32 Studying Perpetrators

umentation of secret arms deals, in which Rwandans were receiving weapons while
in the camps in Zaire. With the indelible memories of that day, in particular the mass
grave, imprinted on my mind, I would begin a long scholarly engagement with Rwan-
da and the authors of its violence.
In all likelihood, that was my first encounter with perpetrators. I shall not dwell
on the remainder of the time I spent as a journalist in that region. It is sufficient to
say that it is my belief that we, the journalist class, missed one of the big stories that
was happening before our very eyes in that period: the systematic massacre of Hutu
refugees who had fled westward, rather than returning to Rwanda. It was, as we later
learned, a campaign to hunt down refugees — a campaign spearheaded by the RPF
state, and a campaign that probably led to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.
I shall return to this point later, but in effect we have no studies of those ‘perpetra-
tors’. Indeed, we do not even refer to those who committed these crimes as ‘perpe-
trators’, as far as I am aware. Rather, as a journalist class, we were focused on whom
we thought were the real ‘perpetrators’ — those in the camps who had taken up arms
against Tutsi civilians during the 1994 genocide.
In any case, I now had Rwanda under my skin, and when I eventually returned
to the States to start a PhD in Political Science, I decided to make the Rwandan gen-
ocide — at that time not a well-known episode — the focus of my research. The way
in which I came to the study of perpetrators was fairly straightforward. At that time,
the majority of work on Rwanda operated at a very macro level — it was a political
history of the country, a history of ethnicity and the construction of ethnicity in that
country, and a great deal of human rights documentation of the violence. From a
theoretical point of view, there was a huge amount of speculation and hypotheses —
Rwandans committed the violence because of ethnic hatred, because of deep poverty,
because they needed land, because they were obedient as a people, because of the
influence of radio propaganda, and so forth. There was, however, basically very little
data — very little systematically collected evidence — that sought to evaluate these
hypotheses; that sought to say, if these hypotheses were true, what evidence would
there be to support them? And how can we collect evidence to assess and develop
arguments about the nature of violence in Rwanda? This was a classic ‘ecological in-
ference’ problem, in which there was a lot of macro-level, historical information from
which people were making inferences about individual-level behaviour. Those his-
torical drivers may well have operated at the local level, but we simply did not know.
Of course, this disconnect between theory and evidence was a huge problem for
the study of this particular case, in which there were upwards of 100,000 civilian
perpetrators of the violence, perhaps many more, and where the state’s deliberate
mobilization of the civilian population was a critical part of the genocide campaign.
In order to begin addressing these issues, I designed a research program that would
allow me to collect micro-level evidence in order to develop and test micro-level hy-
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Straus 33

potheses about the drivers of the violence. Part of that research program involved re-
constructing the dynamics of mobilization and violence initiation in different com-
munities, what I termed a ‘micro-comparative design of different communes’. The
most significant part of the program, however, was a survey of perpetrators in all
Rwandan prisons.
My first pilot interviews as a first-year doctoral student, before I finalized my
survey instrument, were, in hindsight, rather comical — a point that will perhaps be
of particular interest to those who intend to conduct research in this area. In the early
stages of my research I requested, and obtained, permission from a prison warden to
interview a confessed killer, and as I sat there, incredibly nervous, all I could think
about was — repetitively — this man killed someone else. I eventually blurted out,
‘So why did you kill someone?’ That interview, of course, went nowhere. Despite this
rather inauspicious start, however, over time I learned how to approach these men (I
interviewed only men) and how to ask questions that were indirect and that yielded
answers that were useful. I also developed a sampling strategy that allowed for some
randomization. I sampled from a population of those who had confessed and finished
their legal hearings but, of that population, I drew random numbers to determine
with whom specifically I would speak.
I learned an incredible amount in the six months that I spent in the Rwandan pris-
ons. In fact, my research with perpetrators changed the way I understood the dynam-
ics and drivers of genocide in Rwanda. I know this may seem strange, but I really did
expect the men I interviewed to be monsters; I really did expect them to have a racist
understanding of their history; I really did expect them to think about Hamites and
invasions from Ethiopia; I really did expect them to have been handed out machetes a
couple of weeks or a month before the genocide. What I did not expect was for them
to be ordinary in every demographic sense of the term — in terms of age, marital sta-
tus, paternity rates, education, and so forth. I also came to understand their decision
making in a new way, heavily influenced by mundane conditions, by the reality of
war and the acute uncertainty in war, by peer-to-peer pressure and superior-to-infe-
rior face-to-face mobilization, and by a sense of being relatively powerless peasants
in a state with exceptional reach and potency at the local level.
There is an expression in Rwanda, in which people talk about violence like the
wind, and indeed, when you reconstruct what happened step by step, you can see how
the violence spread and how, in turn, it spread quickly. For me, this has had long-
term implications for thinking about the conditions in which genocide occurs. I place
particular emphasis on the importance of war and on the decision-making that takes
place in the context of acute uncertainty, fear, and threat. I also place particular im-
portance on the existence of an organizing principle that coalesces violence around
an idea or social category — in this case the simple, but incredibly dangerous, idea
that the leaders spread that ‘The Tutsi is the Enemy’. I also found that an effective state,
34 Studying Perpetrators

or some other form of institution, that can gather together and organize violence, is
And finally, the evidence from the Rwandan perpetrators, alongside other evi-
dence that I collected, contributed significantly to my rethinking of the roles played
by intentionality, planning, and the dynamics of violence. I came to think about how
this kind of violence may happen through a process of escalation, which may be un-
foreseen even to those who set it in motion, rather than something that is all set up,
planned in advance, and then implemented. In sum, studying perpetrators allowed
me to think about and reconstruct the micro dynamics of violence. Indeed, to under-
stand the dynamics of violence, the actual processes that lead people to take part in
atrocity, we need to study perpetrators. Those micro-dynamics may indeed be quite
different from the macro-dynamics that set leaders down a path of genocide, that
shape why leaders choose a path of genocide. Indeed, the micro-dynamics often point
us back to issues of micro-calculations of survival, of self-preservation, of fear, of
pressure, of situational considerations in the context of an intense, major upheaval.
This research fundamentally altered my understanding of the Rwandan case and this
type of violence more generally. It also dispelled many myths and, in turn, made the
violence much more concrete and understandable.
Before closing this section, it is important to recognize that one can raise ques-
tions about my methods. For instance, I did not interview non-perpetrators as a con-
trol group, instead using census data to compare perpetrators to the overall popula-
tion. In my case, restrictions placed by my university’s Institutional Review Board
limited whom I could interview for this research. That body was concerned with the
possible negative consequences of research on human subjects, and as a result I was
not permitted to do systematic research on non-perpetrators. Moreover, at the time
I was doing my work, it was hard to know if people outside of prisons really were
non-perpetrators. It was possible that they were perpetrators but that the evidence
against them had not yet been collected. In any case, I do not have systematic data that
allows me to say why one person became a perpetrator versus another person. What I
have are sets of data that allow us to say that, among the perpetrators I sampled, here
were the leading causes behind committing these acts.
There are other questions too. Are my results biased by sampling from a particular
population of prisoners? Presumably some of the worst perpetrators did not return
to Rwanda after the invasion in the Congo, did not confess to their crimes, or were
killed in revenge killings. Some of the perpetrators I interviewed did commit mul-
tiple murders on multiple days, but on average my sample is probably biased toward
the less violent among the entire perpetrator population. Also, I did not interview
women. At the time of my research, there were few women who had confessed and
1 These arguments are developed at greater length in Scott Straus, The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War
in Rwanda (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Straus 35

been convicted, but certainly gender was not a focus of my research. I likewise did
not focus on sexual violence. I was more interested in the dynamics of mobilization
and in the process of murder, and again, whom I sampled limited how much I could
focus on sexual violence. All of these represent biases in my data. And, of course, do
perpetrators ever tell the truth? Even if they are not lying directly, they may not be
able to understand or live with the horror of their mentality at the time of the vio-
lence. These are all real concerns, and there are surely others.
But the bottom line is that studying perpetrators and studying micro-dynamics
can tell us a huge amount about what actually happened, about how it happened, and
about why it happened. That in turn can shape our understanding of the event and, in
my case at least, it can dispel some myths about the violence itself. If scholars wish to
understand the dynamics of mobilization and the drivers of individual level partici-
pation, and to think about what mobilization and motivation tell us about the event
as a whole, it seems to me that we have to study perpetrators — even while being
self-conscious of the limits and biases inherent to that exercise.

III. Concerns

So what, then, are the concerns with conducting research into the perpetrators of
mass violence and genocide? As I have indicated, there is something that troubles me
about what we do and do not know. My findings in Rwanda were not unique. Other
researchers who have gone into Rwanda to interview and conduct research on per-
petrators returned with similar conclusions. Moreover, if one looks at other cases,
one finds similar kinds of findings about micro-level considerations of incentives for
career advancement or job protection, of revenge-seeking, of fear, of peer pressure, of
family mobilization, and even of coercion — of the fear of the consequences of diso-
bedience. I certainly do not not believe that these factors are real. They are persuasive,
and one of the things that is disturbing here is that we can understand how people
who have no burning hatred in their hearts can make those decisions. It is a cliché to
say that you or I could do it, but there is truth in that cliché. I certainly emerged from
my research in Rwanda incredibly thankful that I did not have to make the choices
that those men made.
But my concern is the following: these people did kill. They murdered other peo-
ple. And in many cases they did it on multiple occasions, or at least they took part
in groups that committed murder on multiple occasions. Murder is hard work. It is
bloody. It is awful. It has to shock people, perpetrators included. They killed babies.
They killed little boys and girls, old people, pregnant women. And that is the part that,
to me, just does not add up. We have answers. Abram de Swaan refers us to the idea of
compartmentalization, and indeed I suspect that individuals can rationalize murder-
36 Studying Perpetrators

ous violence to themselves in some fashion.2 Perhaps that is how prejudice and hatred
work: perpetrators did not see those they killed as fully human, and therefore the
kinds of issues of moral conscience and fellow feeling that might apply did not. But
that way of understanding perpetrator behavior does not totally correspond with my
findings. It was not really dehumanization. They said they had seen Tutsis as family
members, neighbours, community members, and sometimes mentors.
When I pushed my interviewees on these points, they kept coming back to me
with two different sets of answers. One was: the Tutsi was the enemy, that was the
law, those were our instructions, that is what we had to do. The commonality of this
response prompted me to call my book The Order of Genocide. The other response
was: I lost my mind, I became ‘seized by the devil’, or I stopped thinking, or my heart
stopped. What does that all mean? Do I as a political scientist have the tools to under-
stand those processes? We almost never have observational data of the actual killing.
We do not have real-time interviews. We are not going to do an experimental study
on people who come to kill. Can we, therefore, understand what happened in those
moments when people were engaged in killing others? What tools do we need to un-
derstand what happened in that moment? Do we even know what we are looking for?
Given the difficulty of understanding and observing moments when others kill, how
we can as scholars avoid simply resorting to tropes?
I myself am not convinced that people can always know what they are doing. I
have come to believe that there is something about the act of killing in genocide and
mass violence that we do not understand and may not be able to understand, and
I think that it is important to recognize that. Again, I would like to reiterate that I
speak from the position of political science, and that perhaps other disciplines do a
better job of wrestling with these questions.
The second problem to which I want to draw our attention is the way in which the
application of the category ‘perpetrator’ can serve, or has served, to occlude certain
kinds of violence. In this way, the term ‘perpetrator’ skews history, renders certain
kinds of violence invisible, or contributes to a Manichean notion of the history of
violence, in which some kinds of violence are horrific, and other kinds of violence are
understandable, even legitimate, or ignorable and unnoticed.
What, then, is a perpetrator? In my definition, I think of perpetrators as those who
had a hand, directly or indirectly, in the physical destruction of individuals. Perpe-
trators take part in violence against non-combatants. If they are direct, they kill; they
maim; they torture; they incite violence; they order violence; they distribute weap-
onry. If they are indirect, they contribute to an institution or organization that itself
participates in violence; they make meals for people that go out and kill; they reveal
the location of would-be targets; they steal or take advantage of victims.
2 Abram de Swaan, The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder (New Haven: Yale University Press,
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Straus 37

This, of course, is not the only way to think about perpetrators. Some do not like
the ‘direct’ versus ‘indirect’ distinction. In addition, there are many types of vio-
lence besides murder, such as sexual violence, torture, and the like, that need to be
considered. But, accepting my definition for the moment, if we were rigorous in our
application of that term, we probably would have a more expansive range of exam-
ples of perpetrators than we currently do. We would not only be discussing Turkish
and Kurdish perpetrators against Armenians, German and collaborator perpetrators
against Jews and Roma & Sinti, Serbian perpetrators against Muslims, Hutu perpe-
trators against Tutsis, Sudanese Arab perpetrators against non-Arabs, Cambodian
Khmer Rouge against other Cambodians, and ISIS perpetrators against Yazidis. We
would, in fact, have a very large range of cases, any number in which we might that
suspect genocide, mass atrocity, mass violence, and crimes against humanity have
taken place. But we do not, or most of us do not. We tend to attach the term ‘perpe-
trator’ to known and already validated cases of genocide. Again, I am not sure that
we do the same thing with ‘victims,’ where I think by and large scholars are more
comfortable recognizing a wider range of experiences.
From a theoretical, scholarly point of view, then, it seems to me that, if we employ
the term ‘perpetrator’, we need a more rigorous application of the idea of ‘perpetra-
tors of violence’ or ‘perpetrators of mass violence’.
What has particularly bothered me the most, as I reflect on the Rwandan case, is
that by only recognizing one category of ‘perpetrator,’ we have in effect blotted out the
actual range of violence that took place. Genocide took place. The state orchestrated,
implored and condoned, and mobilized for the destruction of the Tutsi population
of Rwanda between April and July of 1994. The state also ordered the destruction of
political opponents of the ruling party and those who opposed the genocide. Those
who ordered and carried out that violence are the ones that I and other scholars call
‘perpetrators’. But there were other kinds of violence in that period and in the broader
period. We know that as the RPF moved to take territory from the genocidal forces,
they killed Hutu civilians. We know that some Tutsi civilians took revenge on their
Hutu neighbors. We may not know exactly how many were killed, but those numbers
are in the tens of thousands. We also know that in the war in Congo, RPF forces killed
tens, if not hundreds, of thousands, as they pursued the rear of the genocidal forces
and overthrew the Congolese leadership. Yet when we talk about Rwandan ‘perpetra-
tors’, none of those crimes are taken into consideration.
These are very controversial issues in Rwanda, and I want to make it perfectly
clear that I am not denying the genocide and that I am not making a moral equiv-
alence between these kinds of violence. But I am saying that if we want to account
for the violence that took place in this region, then we have to take into account this
broader array of violence. From a normative point of view, I think that accounting for
this broader picture of violence is essential for the future history of Rwanda and for
38 Studying Perpetrators

the possibility of a durable peace in that country. Moreover, recognizing the full pic-
ture of violence is important for scholarship on Rwanda and the Great Lakes region
of Africa more generally. Otherwise, we are unwittingly contributing to a selective,
uneven sense of history. There is nothing necessarily wrong with focusing on one
type of violence to the exclusion of another; narrow studies contribute to scholar-
ship and understanding. But we should not forget, and we should encourage, studies
of the broader range of violence. Most specifically, we should not reserve the term
‘perpetrator’ only for one type of violence. For those not necessarily interested in the
specifics of Rwanda, the point to consider is this: in using the term ‘perpetrator,’ are
we inherently recognizing and privileging one type of violence over another? In so
doing, are we contributing to a tendentious, selective notion of history?
As a final point, I think that it is imperative that we recognize the limits of what
a perpetrator-centred research agenda can tell us about the origins of genocide and
other forms of mass violence. In most cases, perpetrators, at least mid- and low-level
ones, are making decisions about whether to participate in violence downstream of
elite level decisions about political objectives and how to respond to particular situa-
tions. Actors at a lower level do not design policy and nor they do not put a country on
a path towards a particular type of violence. Studying them allows us to understand
the process of violence, to understand how it happens; they are an essential part of the
story, as I argue above. They offer clues to the macro terrain. But, likewise, we cannot
neglect the macro terrain if we are to ask the questions of: what are the origins of
genocide? Why did genocide happen here and not there? Or, what is the strategic or
ideological objective in choosing genocide as the type of violence?3 Examining the
micro level does not get at those questions very well. Moreover, to understand the
context in which the decisions are made, we need to look at the macro level.
In sum, to examine and try to understand the origins and dynamics of genocide
and related forms of violence, we cannot look at just the micro or just the macro. We
need both.

Scott Straus is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the Univer-
sity of Wisconsin, Madison, USA. Email:

3 These are the questions that I examine in my most recent book: Scott Straus, Making and Unmaking Nations:
War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
‘Who Was I to Stop the Killing?’: Moral Neutralization among
Rwandan Genocide Perpetrators

Kjell Anderson

Abstract: Genocide represents an extreme form of violence on both the individual and collective level.
As such, individuals seek to reframe their participation in violence, drawing from certain ‘techniques of
neutralization’. These techniques may function both as ‘vocabularies of motive’ to ease the violation of
moral norms, and as post facto rationalizations for violence. This paper draws from Gresham Sykes and
David Matza’s moral neutralization theory to examine moral neutralization among perpetrators of the
Rwandan Genocide. It presents an expanded list of ten genocidal techniques of neutralization, which
are particularly relevant for the crime of genocide. Each technique is supported by excerpts from the
author’s interviews with sixty-eight Rwandan Genocide perpetrators. The article argues that perpetra-
tors use moral neutralization to conform with contemporaneous normative expectations, as well as to
maintain their self-image as ‘good people’.

Keywords: genocide; perpetrators; moral neutralization; neutralization-drift theory; Rwanda

Introduction: Reconciling with the Moral Context

enocide, the extermination of human beings en masse according to imputed
group identity, requires the revision of moral rules. Victims must be exclud-
ed from the moral community, and perpetrator acts must be reframed as
acceptable or even essential. Propaganda, ideology, and state structures are
essential for the revision of the moral context. Through words and deeds, the genocid-
al state communicates ideal behaviour to citizens, who may then become perpetrators.
Perpetrators draw from ideology and propaganda for comprehension of the current
situation, action frameworks, and justifications for their acts. Genocide does not re-
quire true believers; acquiescence and rationalization of wrongful acts are enough.
This process is facilitated by the individual’s need to frame their action in such a
way that it remains consistent with their notions of moral selfhood. Through tech-
niques of neutralization, perpetrators are able to reconcile their acts in an altered
moral context with past notions of right and wrong. This article will draw from the
author’s interviews with Rwandan genocide perpetrators to argue that perpetrators
utilize moral neutralization as both a post facto rationalization for criminal acts and
as criminogenic vocabularies of motive.

This article is adapted from my forthcoming book Perpetrating Genocide: A Criminological Account (Routledge, 2018).

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017), 39–63

doi: 10.21039/jpr.v1i1.49 © 2017 by the Author
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
To view a copy of this license, visit
40 Moral Neutralization


This article is based on sixty-eight interviews conducted in Rwanda in 2009. My

broader research project also involved sixty interviews in Burundi, Uganda, Bosnia,
Cambodia, and Bangladesh, but I have chosen here to focus on the case of Rwanda.
The interviews with perpetrators in Rwanda covered a broad cross-section of so-
ciety (see Figure 1). Of these perpetrator interviewees, fifty-nine were male and nine
were female. I strove to achieve diversity in my sample by randomly selecting inter-
view subjects, as well as by conducting interviews in a variety of locations. Interviews
in Rwanda were conducted throughout the country in both prisons and prison camps
(Travaux d’Intérêt Générale or TIG) (see Figure 2). My interviews in Rwanda required
the permission of local authorities.1 I arrived at the prisons and prison camps without
appointment and requested that prison officials provide me with a list of prisoners
convicted of genocide so that I could undertake a random selection. Interviews were
semi-open, anonymized, and audio recorded.
The use of interviews produces valuable new data, illuminating individual per-
spectives that are often left out of other research methodologies (such as archival
research), which tend to privilege accounts from elite actors. Sensitive, micro-level
narrative research, such as that of Lee Ann Fujii, Erin Jessee, and Jennie Burnet in
Rwanda, and Tim Williams and Alexander Hinton in Cambodia, illustrate the com-
plexity of individual participation in ways that macro-level conceptual or historical
accounts fail to capture.
While interviews are a rich source of information and insight, they also present
significant methodological challenges. The subjects may distort facts and omit de-
tails.2 Moreover, their retelling of their stories may fulfil some inner psychological
need.3 Interviewees may feel pressure to relate what they think the interviewer wants
to hear, or to align themselves with broader social expectations. Many distortions
are not intentional deceptions; our experience is mediated by our understanding of
the world.4 The search for positivist truth can be useful, in looking at the criminal
acts that constitute genocide, but there are no positivist truths to be had about the
perpetrator mindset. As Lee Ann Fujii notes, stories may be ‘emotionally true’ even if
they are ‘factually false’, and this emotional accuracy is in some ways more important
when assessing perpetrator motivation and rationalization.5 In a sense, then, inter-

1 The Ministry of Internal Security (MINITER) in the case of prisons and the Executive Secretariat of National
Committee of Community Services as an Alternative to Imprisonment for the TIG prison camps.
2 Kristen Renwick Monroe, The Hand of Compassion: Portraits of Moral Choice During the Holocaust (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 283.
3 Ibid., p. 284.
4 Ibid., p. 203.
5 Lee–Ann Fujii, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda (New York: Cornell, 2009), p. 152.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 41

views may involve a combination of objective and subjective truths (subjectivities

and inter-subjective truths), as well as the constitution of individual identity and re-
lationships.6 My interview analysis incorporates each of these perspectives in order
to seek a critical understanding of both the content and function of narratives, and
what these narratives tell us about the perpetration of genocide.

Figure 1: Rwanda Interview Sample — Occupation in 1994 (n=68; perpetrators only)7

Occupation Number % of Total

Government official 9 13.2%
Other professional (lawyer, doctor) 6 8.8%
Business 4 5.8%
Farmer 41 60.2%
Other manual/low-income labourer 8 11.7%
Unemployed 2 2.9%

Figure 2: Location of Rwandan Perpetrator Interviews

Location Number
Kigali Central Prison 11
Remera Prison 2
Gisenyi Prison 2
Ruhengeri Prison 4
Gitarama Prison 8
Tumba TIG Camp 4
Rugerero TIG Camp 5
Butare (with working TIG prisoners) 4
Rwaza TIG Camp 5
Nyarusenge TIG Camp 4
Mont Kigali TIG Camp 7
Hindiro TIG Camp 6
Nyamata TIG Camp 4

6 Lois Presser and Sveinung Sandberg, ‘Introduction: What Is the Story?’, in Narrative Criminology, ed. by Lois
Presser and Sveinung Sandberg (New York: New York University Press, 2015), p. 4.
7 Twelve interviews with victims in Rwanda were also undertaken in order to compare victim and perpetrator
perspectives. These interviews focused on the Nyamata region, where several perpetrator interviews were also
42 Moral Neutralization

The Rwandan Genocide

In order to understand the perpetrator narratives in this article, it is useful to first

consider the context of the Rwandan genocide. The genocide occurred during a peri-
od of intense political competition and conflict. The 1993 Arusha Accords had forced
the government into power-sharing arrangements and multi-party democracy. The
Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) crossed into Rwanda from Uganda in 1994,
triggering a civil war with the Hutu-led government of Juvenal Habyrimana. Addi-
tionally, a series of economic shocks had significantly reduced the economic opportu-
nities available for young Hutu men. Extremist ‘Hutu power’ factions gained signifi-
cant influence within several of the largest political parties, including the MRND and
CDR. These same parties formed youth wings (the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi),
which were trained and armed as part of a broader militarization of Rwandan soci-
ety. The rise of extremist politics was also accompanied by the emergence of virulent
hate-media that singled out Tutsis and Hutu moderates as being traitors to Rwanda.8
In this environment of profound insecurity, many drew upon pre-existing eth-
nic stereotypes and prejudices. Propaganda narratives emphasized that Tutsis were
foreigners who were determined to dominate Rwanda and the African Great Lakes
region. All Tutsis were deemed to be Inkotanyi (RPF fighters) who had infiltrated
Rwanda and could not be trusted:

At RTLM [Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, a radio station known for its hate
propaganda], we have decided to remain vigilant. I urge you, people of Biryogo, who
are listening to us, to remain vigilant. Be advised that a weevil has crept into your
midst. Be advised that you have been infiltrated, that you must be extra vigilant in
order to defend and protect yourself.9

The Tutsi were therefore presented as being inhuman, and it was the duty of all Hutus
to defend against this ubiquitous threat.
With the crash of Habyarimana’s plane on 6 April 1994, the killings began. Violence
was enacted through a mix of pre-existing structures (including a strong state exer-
cising a high degree of local control) and improvised perpetrator coalitions.10 Kill-
ing was endorsed by the interim government (the state) and implemented by around

8 See, for example, Andre Guichaoua, From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda, 1990–1994 (London: Uni-
versity of Wisconsin Press, 2015) and The Media and the Rwandan Genocide, ed. by Allan Thompson (London:
Pluto Press, 2007).
9 ‘RTLM 0340 — extract, 14 March 1994’, in RwandaFile ed. by Jake Freyer <
rtlm0340x.pdf> [accessed 15 February 2015].
10 A Augustine Brannigan, Beyond the Banality of Evil: Criminology and Genocide (London: Oxford University Press,
2013), p. 94–95.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 43

175,000–200,000 direct perpetrators with the complicity of many more individuals.11

Most perpetrators were civilians without any direct experience perpetrating acts of
violence. State authorities demanded mass participation in the genocidal enterprise.
This norm was communicated through both state propaganda and the presence of
authority figures at killing sites. Those who did not participate were sometimes fined
or threatened with violence.

Moral Neutralization: Killing without Consequence?

Societies impose a general prohibition on killing, with extraordinary exceptions such

as self-defence. Therefore, as a general principle, genocide is deviant, a malum in se
(‘bad in itself’) act. However, unlike other crimes, genocide is positively normative
in the societies in which it occurs. This is because genocide is a crime driven by the
state or state-like structures. Normally, crime represents a break from the social order.
The normative nature of genocide derives from both cultural discourse and messages
issued by the state and other perpetrators. These forces drive a reversal of morality
through the coercive authority and perceived legitimacy of state power. Neutraliza-
tion provides justifications for individuals to objectify themselves as servants of the
group, institution, or state.
Yet if genocide is normative within its society, it remains universally (externally)
deviant. For example, an individual on trial for killing mentally ill persons in Frank-
furt during the Second World War claimed that ‘this directive [the ‘Hitler Directive’]
had partially suspended the general prohibition on killing’.12 Such a prohibition ex-
isted in Rwanda before the genocide, where customary law dictates ‘kwicha kirazira’
(‘killing is taboo’) and an abominable (‘ishyano’) act. This taboo maintains that ‘blood
spilled in violence or “bad death” can inflict extreme mental or physical illness upon
the perpetrator and anyone else who comes in contact with it’.13 For example, one of
anthropologist Erin Jessee’s interview subjects argued that he ‘will never have peace
because he has touched blood’.14 The authorization of genocidal killing requires the
redefinition of victims as threats and the reconstitution of murder as self-defence.
This occurs largely through the social production of fear.
The criminological theories of Gresham Sykes and David Matza provide further
answers. Sykes and Matza’s neutralization-drift theory posits that certain discursive

11 S Scott Straus ‘How Many Perpetrators Were There in the Rwandan Genocide? An Estimate’, Journal of Genocide
Research, 6 (2004), p. 85–98.
12 D Dick De Mildt, In the Name of the People: Perpetrators of Genocide in the Reflection of their Post-War Prosecution
in West Germany (The Hague: Martinus Nijhof, 1996), p. 122.
13 E Erin Jessee, Negotiating Genocide in Rwanda: The Politics of History (London: Palgrave, 2017), p. 169.
14 I Ibid., p. 169.
44 Moral Neutralization

rationalizations operate both as post facto justifications for deviant conduct and as
vocabularies of motive (pre-perpetration authorization). The theory was originally
developed in 1957 to explain why juvenile delinquents appear to drift in and out of
delinquency. The theory has since been adapted to numerous contexts, including gen-
ocide; I present here a modified version of neutralization-drift theory adapted to spe-
cifically address the context of genocidal perpetration.15 Sykes and Matza argue that
techniques of neutralization create a state of drift in which people can move easily
between delinquency and the mainstream. Deviancy occurs when the bond between
action and legal norms is neutralized.16 However, genocidal behaviour might not be
deviant within the genocidal state. Consequently, neutralization entails a break from
previously held (universal) moral values; the state of deviancy encompasses the entire
genocidal state.
Neutralization techniques can only be effective if they invoke and amplify pre-ex-
isting beliefs among the population. They are a means for perpetrators to maintain
consonance and coherence with the society in which they live. This is true both dur-
ing genocide (when the techniques may constitute a vocabulary of motive) and after
genocide (when the techniques may rationalize acts that are now deemed deviant
within the altered moral context). In mass crimes, the motives of individual perpetra-
tors are culturally situated and impossible to separate from social structures. If per-
petrators commit deviant acts without neutralization, then they may develop a per-
sistent ‘deviant identity’ with concomitant feelings of self-rejection; neutralization is
therefore essential.17 Both state and horizontal propaganda drive neutralization, but
it may also occur in a very subtle fashion, when authority figures condone violence
with statements such as ‘it was understandable’.18
Moral neutralization theory is closely related to several other psychological and
criminological theories. Neutralization drift theory first developed because of dissat-
isfaction with subcultural theory, which posited that all criminals reject conventional
values when joining criminal groups.19 Thus, the application of moral neutralization
theory to genocide is appropriate in acknowledgement that not all génocidaires have
rejected conventional values. Rather, many perpetrators seem to exhibit a conflict
between their pre-existing values and the perpetration of genocide.

15 S See also: Shadd Maruna and Heith Copes, ‘What Have We Learned from Five Decades of Neutralization Re-
search?’ Crime and Justice, 32 (2005), 221–320 and Alexander Alvarez, ‘Adjusting to Genocide: The Techniques of
Neutralization and the Holocaust’, Social Science History, 21 (Summer 1997), 139–178.
16 D David Matza, Delinquency and Drift (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2009), p. 101.
17 H Howard B. Kaplan, ‘Deviant Identity and Self Attitudes’, in Encyclopedia of Criminology and Deviant Behavior, ed.
by Clifton D. Bryant (Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge, 2001), p. 111.
18 T This was the statement made by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in response to the 2002 pogrom against
Muslims in Gujarat.
19 C Copes and Maruna, p. 228.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 45

Albert Bandura argues that the selective activation and disengagement of internal
controls permits different types of conduct based on the same moral standards. He
writes, ‘self-sanctions can be disengaged by reconstituting the conduct, obscuring
personal causal agency, misrepresenting or disregarding the injurious consequences
of one’s actions, and vilifying the recipients of maltreatment by blaming and deval-
uing them’.20
Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance similarly deals with reconciling
competing cognitions. Festinger calls the incompatibility of these cognitions a state
of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and argues that ‘one way to reduce dissonance is to change
one’s opinions and evaluations in order to bring them closer in line with one’s actual
behavior’.21 Increasingly, dissonance theory focuses on ego defence rather than solely
on cognitive consistency.22
Liau, Barriga, and Gibbs emphasize individuals’ ‘self-serving distortions’. Pri-
mary distortions are self-centered attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs, while secondary
distortions serve the primary distortions: they are ‘pre or post transgression ration-
alizations that serve to “neutralize” conscience or guilt’.23 These include ‘assuming
the worst’, which is defined as ‘gratuitously attributing hostile intentions to others,
considering a worst-case scenario for a social situation as if it were inevitable, and as-
suming that improvement is impossible in one’s own or others’ behavior’.24 In Rwan-
da in the 1990s, rumours circulated that Tutsis were poisoning the drinks of Hutus
and that ‘the RPF would vivisect us’.25
Moral neutralization theory has been adapted to address many different offenses,
including property crimes and white-collar crimes. I have developed a modified and
expanded version of Sykes and Matza’s techniques of neutralization that is particu-
larly relevant to the crime of genocide (see Figure 3). The first three techniques rep-
resent the reversal of morality, while the latter seven are primarily concerned with
the reduction of moral cost. In other words, the former authorize and inspire action,
while the latter mitigate individual moral responsibility. The techniques of reducing
moral cost are more likely to be used as post facto mechanisms, although they also re-
flect the institutional frameworks of perpetration. Ideology and notions of duty can

20 AAlbert Bandura, ‘Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities,’ Personality and Social Psychology
Review, 3 (August 1999), p. 364.
21 L Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), p. 98.
22 AAnthony G. Greenwald and David L. Ronis, ‘Twenty Years of Cognitive Dissonance: Case Study of the Evolution of
a Theory’, Psychological Review, 85 (January 1978), 53–57.
23 AAlbert K. Liau, Alvaro Q. Barriga, and John C. Gibbs, ‘Relations Between Self-Serving Cognitive Distortions and
Overt vs. Covert Antisocial Behavior in Adolescents’, Aggressive Behavior, 24 (1998), p. 301.
24 AAssuming the worst bears a close resemblance to cognitive psychologist Aaron Beck’s hostile framing theory.
See Aaron T. Beck, Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence (New York: Harper,
2000); See also: Liau et al., p. 302.
25 IInterview R04 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison, July 2009.
46 Moral Neutralization

Figure 3: The Genocidal Techniques of Neutralization

1. Appeal to Higher Loyalties ⎫ Reversal of Morality

2. Denial of the Victim ⎬ (justifications)
3. Denial of Humanity ⎭
4. Denial of Responsibility ⎫
5. Denial of Injury ⎪
6. Claim of Normality ⎪
7. Claim of Inevitability ⎬ Reduction of Moral Cost
8. Claim of Relative Acceptability (excuses) ⎪
9. Claim of Inner Opposition ⎪
10. Denial of Autonomy ⎭

contribute to the reversal of morality, as can the projection of negative characteristics

onto the victims. The fundamental importance of the techniques of neutralization is
that they help to reconcile self-concept with action. Perpetrators can maintain their
view of themselves as good people if their actions are considered morally correct and
The techniques of neutralization may also allow the separation and coexistence
(without dissonance) of the normal self and the perpetrator self, per Lifton’s theory of
doubling.26 In other words, the same person commits the acts of both the normal self
and the perpetrator self, but the perpetrator self does not reflect the true (normal) self,
because the perpetrator self is only acting for the reasons supplied by the techniques
of neutralization. ‘I am not doing these bad things out of choice — this is not who I
am’. This prevents the development of a deviant self-image.
The distinction between perpetrator self and normal self is not sealed or cast in
stone, but wavers and fluctuates. Even as they kill, most perpetrators maintain some
consciousness of wrong-doing. Perpetrators are often aware of the negative implica-
tions of their behaviour.27 In my findings, this sense of moral transgression seems to
have oscillated among many perpetrators, one of whom reported that ‘one day we felt
we were doing something wrong and the next day we didn’t’.28 However, the disso-
ciation of self from act witnessed in interviews may be less related to separate selves
and more to the desire to present an appropriate public self.29 The fulfillment of social
norms applies, after all, to both the process of perpetration and the interview setting.

26 RRobert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
27 DDiana Scully and Joseph Marolla, ‘Convicted Rapists’ Vocabularies of Motive: Excuses and Justifications’, Social
Problems, 31 (June 1984), p. 530.
28 IInterview R37 (Rwanda), Rwaza TIG Camp, August 2009.
29 SSee Ervin Goffman, ‘On Face-work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction’, Psychiatry: Interpersonal
and Biological Processes, 18 (1955), 213–231.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 47

However, during genocide many perpetrators do lose sight of the wrongfulness

of their behaviour. For example, three Rwandan perpetrators argue, ‘For me, my acts
were not wrong at that time’, ‘I thought that what I was doing was good and that it
would make me famous’, and ‘If I’d known I was doing something wrong I wouldn’t
have gotten involved’.30 These statements, of course, may also be reflective of post facto
regret. Yet, in the presence of the universal prohibition on killing, such sentiments
are only possible with the restructuring of morality that neutralization encourages.
About half of Rwandan perpetrator respondents reported that they felt at that time
that their actions were wrong, with one recounting, ‘One day I told my friend I was
doing something terrible. I felt like it was the end of the world!’ and another saying,
‘some believed they were committing a sin’.31 These results represent the complexity of
perpetrator motivation and the drift from universal moral values that neutralization
facilitates, even when drifting perpetrators do not usually completely sever their ties
to pre-existing value systems.
Neutralization originates from three sources: the state (propaganda messages,
the emulation of state agents, and the externalization of responsibility), peers (so-
cial pressures and emulation), and perpetrators themselves (internal justifications to
fulfil the common tendency to minimize guilt for wrongful acts). Propaganda may
directly provide perpetrators with messages of inspiration and authorization, yet
perpetrators may also arrive at some of these techniques independently in order to
reduce their sense of guilt and maintain a positive self-image. For example, perpetra-
tors who feel shame after participating in killing may revise their own history and
come to believe that they had no choice other than to participate. Neutralization may
also prevent these shameful feelings from arising in the first place. Moreover, social
structures such as hierarchical organizations and group settings may ease processes
of neutralization. For instance, perpetrators acting in a group may feel as though
they are less responsible than if they were acting alone. Let us examine each of these
neutralization techniques in turn.

1. A ppeal to Higher Loyalties

‘I did it to protect the Hutus’.32

Perpetrators may frame their participation in atrocities as a form of altruism, be-

lieving that their deeds were done in the service of others, such as their family, ethnic

30 IInterview R73 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison, October 2009; Interview R55 (Rwanda), Rugerero TIG Camp, Sep-
tember 2009; and Interview R58 (Rwanda), Rugerero TIG Camp, September 2009.
31 I Interview R78 (Rwanda), Nyamata TIG Camp, October 2009; Interview R29 (Rwanda), Rugerero TIG Camp, August
32 IInterview R28, Rugerero TIG Camp, August 2009.
48 Moral Neutralization

group, country, or ideology. The appeal to higher loyalties is often a utilitarian argu-
ment placing one moral principle or virtue over others (that is, group survival and sol-
idarity over the sanctity of human life). When coupled with extreme dehumanization,
perpetrators may come to believe that their intended victims are not fully human.
Genocide requires that many individuals act in coordination to accomplish an overar-
ching ideological goal, so it is unsurprising that many perpetrators feel their violence
was committed for a higher purpose. About half the perpetrators interviewed felt their
actions were beneficial to their ethnic group, while more than a third felt they were
protecting their country. Propaganda often appeals to such sentiments, sometimes
using guilt and threats to isolate and intimidate non-participants. In Rwanda, the
state’s mobilization of genocide may itself have indicated to perpetrators that their
participation served a higher purpose.

2. Denial of the Victim

‘Because of our understanding, we thought that

they were bad people, they were dangerous’.33

Denial of the victim justifies perpetration by depicting the victim as a threat. Often,
this is closely related to a survival discourse in whichthe victim is seen as a perpetra-
tor and a threat to the survival of the perpetrator group. One perpetrator in Rwanda
described how Hassan Ngeze’s propaganda in Kangura demanded that ‘we should
hate the Tutsis and kill them before they killed us’, while an RTLM on-air personality
recounted her own foreboding rhetoric that, ‘there are Tutsis outside who want to
come back to kill us. There are Tutsis inside helping them. They have already sent their
sons’.34 Perpetrators see themselves as victimised. In this context, all perpetrator ac-
tions are interpreted as self-defence, and hence as morally legitimate. In the words of
one Rwandan perpetrator, ‘I felt they were enemies of Rwanda and myself’, and thus,
according to another, ‘there was no problem’ killing them.35 This reversal of victimiza-
tion is frequently invoked in genocidal propaganda. Denial of the victim may also take
the form of alleging that the victim had the power to escape his or her suffering but
chose not to do so, because of a stubborn character, greed, or passivity.
A final variation of the denial of victims is the ‘just world hypothesis’, which posits
that because we live in a just world the victims must have done something to de-

33 IInterview R62 (Rwanda), Mont Kigali TIG Camp, October 2009.

34 IInterview R39 (Rwanda), Nyarusenge TIG Camp, August 2009; Interview R73 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison,
October 2009.
35 IInterview R73 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison, October 2009; and Interview R29 (Rwanda), Rugerero TIG Camp,
August 2009.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 49

serve their suffering.36 ‘We asked ourselves what must they have done to deserve to be
killed’?37 The just-world hypothesis is based on both belief in the goodness of human
nature and moral myopia — an inability to consider the suffering of others. There
are strong overtones of obedience to authority as well. Genocide usually involves the
participation of legitimate authority figures, and this strengthens just-world assump-
tions about the victim. Just-world thinking effectively reverses the burden of proof.
Those accused by the state are guilty unless proven innocent, but demonstrating in-
nocence is hardly possible.

3. Denial of Humanity

‘I heard [on the radio] that the Tutsis were killers and
also that they had long tails and long ears’.38

The denial of humanity (dehumanization) justifies violence on the grounds of victims’

allegedly inhuman characteristics. Once the moral context has changed, victims are
excluded from the moral community and are not eligible for the norm of reciprocity.
Génocidaires in Rwanda recounted, ‘they told us they [the Tutsis] were animals’ and
‘[propaganda said] cockroaches have come. Wake up so you can fight these people
[…]even if you go to your plantation to dig, go with a gun […] kill Tutsis wherever
you find them’.39 Victims also recall being called ‘snakes’ and ‘cockroaches’ before the
genocide.40 The denial of humanity allows perpetrators to deviate from norms without
directly assaulting the norms themselves, which are depicted as simply inapplicable in
the ‘emergency’ circumstances. By denying humanity, perpetrators seek to create so-
cial distance, not only through propaganda but through discriminatory legal regimes,
such as land ownership laws and citizenship requirements.
Dehumanization fundamentally seeks to separate individuals from their inborn
markers of humanity, thus driving a wedge into social relationships that transcend
group membership. Language, as an ontological system, is crucial in this process. One
way that dehumanization occurs is through technicalization — a discursive strategy
of power involving the use of technical language and euphemisms to describe the
treatment of the victims. Such technicalization facilitates the perpetration of gen-
ocide by rendering genocide as purely functional, insulating perpetrators from the
moral implications of their actions. Another way to denigrate the victim group as a

36 MMelvin J. Lerner and Carolyn Simmons, ‘Observer’s Reaction to the “Innocent Victim”: Compassion or Rejection?’,
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4 (August 1966), 203–210.
37 IInterview R35 (Rwanda), Rwaza TIG Camp, August 2009.
38 IInterview R4 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison, July 2009.
39 IInterview R36 (Rwanda), Rwaza TIG Camp, August 2009; Interview R15 (Rwanda), Gitarama Prison, July 2009.
40 IInterview R48 (Rwanda), Nyamata, September 2009.
50 Moral Neutralization

lesser form of life is by associating them with social unpalatability. For example, vic-
tims may be linked to disgust, death, dirtiness, perversion, or degeneracy. Psycholo-
gist Jamie Arndt conducted an experiment in which one group of test subjects simply
read an essay about foreigners, while the other group read the same essay after the
word ‘death’ was subliminally flashed on a screen in front of them. After this min-
imal symbolic association, the second group was much more hostile to foreigners.41
Ethnic groups are themselves cognitions (mental images), and by associating two
cognitions — for example, ‘Tutsi’ and ‘greedy’ — behaviour towards individual mem-
bers of the stigmatized group may be modified. Memories of past behaviour and be-
liefs also contribute to hostile framing, leading us to interpret all events in light of
immutable, negative characteristics.42 If we believe the other group has knowingly
violated a rule, this may also generate anger and other negative emotions.43
In general, there are two forms of dehumanization: first, objectification (the ren-
dering of individuals as passive objects without human characteristics or merit), and
second animalization (comparing individuals to ‘lesser’, animal forms of life). In an-
imalization, individuals may also be abused in the same manner as animals, as was
the case with the ‘Gypsy hunts’ of the sixteenth to the nineteenth century in Europe.
The Khmer Rouge also made the ‘new people’ perform tasks normally reserved for
animals, such as pulling a plough. The use of euphemisms is crucial in dehumaniza-
tion. It is well-known that Tutsis were called inyenzi (cockroaches) during the Rwan-
dan genocide, but ‘prusak’ (‘Prussian’) is a synonym for ‘cockroach’ in Polish, just
as ‘Russe’ (‘Russian’) is the German equivalent.44 Markers of difference may even be
inscribed on the body, as was the case with prisoner tattoos in Auschwitz and Tuol
Sleng prison in Cambodia.45 Dehumanization may also be imposed through customs
and clothing (e.g. prison uniforms).
Dehumanization is often a self-fulfilling prophesy, as perpetrators consign the
victims to situations in which they will manifest the desired characteristics — for
example, filthy and emaciated concentration camp inmates. Marginal groups and
classes often perform roles in society related to death or other unclean tasks.46 Thus,
victims conform to, and thereby validate, perpetrators’ image of them.47

41 D David Berreby, Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind (New York: Little, Brown, 2005), p. 232.
42 BBeck, p. 94.
43 IIbid., p. 93.
44 JJames Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (New York: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 2002), p. 247.
45 AAlexander Laban Hinton, Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (Berkeley: University of Califor-
nia Press, 2005), p. 224.
46 BBerreby, p. 233.
47 DDaniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Vintage,
1997), p. 172.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 51

With action comes the transformation of hatred from a cognitive construct to a

physical reality. Action also creates the need for justification: the perpetrator must
come to believe that the victim deserved mistreatment. The dehumanization of vic-
tims transforms them into valueless objects that may then be acted upon by perpetra-
tors, often in a manner that allows perpetrators to deny their free volition.

4. Denial of R esponsibility

‘We had to join the others in the group so that we would not be killed ourselves.’48
‘We were supported by the government so I didn’t think about the victims.’49
‘We didn’t feel pity because we were told to kill them.’50
‘For those of us who can’t read or write we support the leaders.’51
‘If I had tried to stop the killings I would have been killed too.’52
‘The one who did something really wrong was the person who told us to kill the Tutsi.’53
‘I never went because I wanted to — I was forced.’ 54

The denial of responsibility is a denial of individual volition that underlies many other
techniques of neutralization. This includes circumstances in which the perpetrator
acts within a system of control or absent personal volition. It includes justifications
such as intoxication (I was too drunk to consider the morality of my actions), superior
orders (I was only following orders), and coercion/duress (I was forced to do what I
did). Most moral and legal responsibility involves intentionality, and to deny responsi-
bility is to deny such criminal intent. Rather than thinking about ‘the horrible things I
am doing (or have done)’ the perpetrator thinks about ‘the horrible things I had to do’.55
Perpetrators of genocide also frequently invoke duress and obedience to author-
ity. Among my Rwandan interview subjects, 61.3% reported that the genocide was
caused by obedience to authority, while 71.9% of perpetrators believed that they had
no choice but to kill: ‘the authorities obliged us to kill the Tutsi or else we would
become killed’.56 Whether or not Rwanda is a culture of obedience, as is sometimes
argued, there is no doubt that there were strong situational pressures brought to

48 IInterview R60 (Rwanda), Mont Kigali TIG Camp, October 2009.

49 IInterview R55 (Rwanda), Rugerero TIG Camp, September 2009.
50 IInterview R67 (Rwanda), Hindiro TIG Camp, October 2009.
51 I Interview R11 (Rwanda), Gitarama Prison, July 2009.
52 IInterview R17 (Rwanda), Gitarama Prison, July 2009.
53 IInterview R26 (Rwanda), Gisenyi Prison, August 2009.
54 IInterview R79 (Rwanda), Nyamata TIG Camp, October 2009.
55 JJacques Semelin, Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide (New York: Columbia Univer-
sity Press, 2007), p. 255.
56 IInterview R67 (Rwanda), Hindiro TIG Camp, October 2009.
52 Moral Neutralization

bear by the interim regime, and these pressures, coupled with the penetration of the
Rwandan state at the local level, undoubtedly had an impact on many perpetrators.
Intoxication and duress are viable criminal defences in certain circumstances, but
superior orders do not apply to genocide, as all orders to commit genocide or crimes
against humanity are considered to be manifestly unlawful (the perpetrator knows
that they are wrongful, and the harm caused by perpetration is graver than the harm
avoided). Intoxication may also be used as an excuse, removing individual agency.
The effects of obviating direct responsibility are clear. In Rwanda, one perpetra-
tor who used a bulldozer to crush as many as two thousand people taking shelter in
a church, reasoned, ‘I did not leave my house voluntarily to kill people. I was taken
there and told to do it. So I don’t feel so bad about it’.57

5. Denial of Injury

The denial of injury technique of neutralization revolves around claims that the sup-
posed victim was not actually hurt, that it was not the perpetrator’s intention to hurt
the victim, or that the perpetrator did not cause the victim’s injury or death. Denial
of injury may also assert that violence was a rightful, even lawful, form of retaliation
or punishment.58 In deploying such denial techniques, the perpetrator may use euphe-
misms (e.g. ‘work’ rather than ‘killing’ in Rwanda). Historian Raul Hilberg examined
thousands of Nazi documents and determined that the only time the word ‘kill’ was
used was in an order concerning dogs.59 This illustrates well the ubiquitous use of eu-
phemistic language in genocide. Laboratory studies, meanwhile, have demonstrated
the disinhibitory power of euphemistic language.60
Compartmentalization, the functional division of labour, also supports the denial
of injury. It is quite possible to fulfil one’s task within an organization, such as passing
on messages, and not feel responsible for the entirety of the atrocity. One interviewee
in Rwanda reported shooting someone fleeing from a mob in the leg with a bow and
arrow, causing the injured person to be killed by the mob, yet he remained adamant
that he was not responsible for the victim’s death.61 Distancing — that is, increasing
the physical or emotional distance between perpetrator and victim — also eases de-
nial of injury.
Killers also frequently express a sense of derealization in which they feel they
are playing a game, acting in a movie, or living in a dream. One Rwandan génocidaire
recounts that killing, ‘was like watching a movie — I didn’t have much in my head’,
57 RRwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance (London: African Rights, 1995), p. 405.
58 SSykes and Matza, p. 668.
59 WWaller, p. 189.
60 BBandura, p. 365.
61 I Interview R79 (Rwanda), Nyamata TIG Camp, October 2009.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 53

while another claims that ‘It was like a game and nobody thought about the conse-
quences’.62 Derealization may also be accomplished through alcohol or ‘doubling’ —
the creation of a somewhat separate perpetrator self that insulates the perpetrator
from the reality and consequences of perpetration. Denial of injury is often facilitat-
ed by entire systems of denial — institutionalized structures, practices, and cultures
that provide perpetrators with the tools for denial. Even though killing was often
quite public in Rwanda, the use of euphemistic language for killing was nonetheless
ubiquitous. The denial of injury may be accomplished through direct justifications,
or, more indirectly, as a cognitive space that allows perpetrators to deny the conse-
quences of their acts.

6. Claim of Normality

‘Killing Tutsis was not only normal, it was fashionable.’63

By claiming normality, perpetrators redefine their actions as no longer transgressive

because they have become normalized through many other perpetrators performing
the same actions.64 Moreover, they are doing so without negative sanctions and often
receive positive reinforcement. There is a strong tendency for individuals to conform,
and this plays a role in perpetrator justifications. The co-action effect may also op-
erate, wherein people work faster when they see others also working. During geno-
cide, killing may very well be normal behaviour, while avoiding killing may be seen
as shirking duty. Killing, in fact, is regularized and institutionalized — governed by
explicit or implicit norms. In Rwanda, killing involved the mass participation of nu-
merous perpetrators, accomplices, and bystanders.
Another version of the claim of normality is to assert that the existence of univer-
sal, ubiquitous evil renders individual responsibility a negligible factor. This may take
the form of one of two arguments: first, a metaphysical argument (the world is full
of evil, so what I’m doing is not that bad or is even normal) and second, condemna-
tion of the condemners: ‘you (my potential accuser) have done worse things yourself
than what I am now doing’.65 When evil is no longer extraordinary, it loses its deviant

62 IInterview R78 (Rwanda), Nyamata TIG Camp, October 2009; and Interview R22 (Rwanda), Tumba TIG Camp, Au-
gust 2009.
63 IInterview R4 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison, July 2009.
64 FFor more on the claim of normality see James W. Coleman, The Criminal Elite: The Sociology of White-Collar
Crime, 5th edn (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002).
65 SSykes and Matza, p. 668.
54 Moral Neutralization

7. Claim of Inevitability

‘Who was I to stop the killing?’66

‘The time for Tutsis was over.’67
‘The people were supposed to die. I heard about people killing on the radio.’68
‘One person could not stop this.’69
‘My participation didn’t mean much — those people would have been
killed even if I had done nothing.’70
‘I had no power to prevent the genocide.’71

This common technique of neutralization is grounded in perceived impotence: ‘the

crime was going to occur whether or not I participated, so my contribution to the
criminal endeavour made no difference whatsoever’. The perpetrator also believes
that the consequences of their decision to participate are reduced because they lacked
the power to stop the genocide from occurring. In Rwanda, 88.7% of the perpetrators
interviewed for this study reported that they believed, at the time, that the victims
would be killed whether or not they participated. Such beliefs further erode perpetra-
tor agency and reduce the perceived magnitude of harmful acts (even though genocide
is ultimately the product of many individual acts). As a state crime, driven by state
power, genocide ensures that the alienation of individuals from a sense of agency is
both profound and ubiquitous. In Rwanda, genocide was accomplished through mass
participation and public acts of violence. These acts were in consonance with the ob-
jectives of the interim regime, even while the regime was at times unable to maintain
complete control over the militias. The claim of inevitability is driven by asymmetries
of power, particularly that of the state and the resulting power differential between
perpetrators and victims.

8. Claim of R elative Acceptability

The claim of relative acceptability re-frames the perpetrator’s actions as being less
deviant because they are less harmful than the alternatives. The claim includes two
different sub-techniques: the lesser harm — my violence was less extreme than that
of others, so I am less morally culpable and less evil and killing as compassion (mercy
killing) — I am killing the victims to save them from future suffering. For example, a

66 IInterview R01 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison, July 2009.

67 IInterview R02 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison, July 2009.
68 IInterview R18 (Rwanda), Ruhengeri Prison, August 2009.
69 IInterview R39 (Rwanda), Nyarusenge TIG Camp.
70 IInterview R62 (Rwanda), Mont Kigali TIG Camp, October 2009.
71 I Interview R76 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison, October 2009.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 55

Rwandan perpetrator argued that his killing was more compassionate than that of his
colleagues, because he used a gun rather than the hammers and knives other perpe-
trators were using.72 By means of this exonerating comparison, to use Bandura’s term,
killing is presented as an act of mercy, albeit through an additional gendered lens.
Killing as compassion transforms the acts of the perpetrator from cruel to kind.
For instance, at the Józefów massacre, one man who shot only children argued, ‘I rea-
soned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer.
It was…soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their
mothers’.73 Similarly, in Rwanda, when mother of six children Juliana Mukankwaya
bludgeoned other children to death, ‘she was doing the children a favour, because they
were orphans who faced a hard life’.74 Numerous examples of mercy killing are also
found in the testimonies of Nazi doctors who participated in the Holocaust.75
It seems the claim of relative acceptability is almost universal. Fully 96.6% of
the perpetrators I interviewed in Rwanda maintained that other people committed
worse crimes than they had. This finding is also consistent with my comparative in-
terviews outside Rwanda. Mercy killing occurs regularly but more rarely. In Rwanda,
around a quarter of my respondents reported that it was better for them to kill vic-
tims quickly to prevent them from being tortured by someone else, with one perpe-
trator reporting, ‘we thought that if we didn’t kill these people they would be more
cruelly killed by the Interahamwe’.76

9. Claim of Inner Opposition

The claim of inner opposition acknowledges that an individual participated in vio-

lence, but did so in a state of inner opposition. While one still bears responsibility, this
is reduced, along with its moral cost, because one did not participate eagerly. In other
words, one may perform a criminal act with a criminal mind, but supposedly with-
out a criminal heart. In fact, such criminal conduct, some perpetrators assert, may be
merely a ruse intended to dupe the real criminals. An upper mid-level perpetrator in
Rwanda argued that, ‘I had to show them I was together with them but I didn’t nec-
essarily support them’.77 The claim of inner opposition is also especially prevalent as
a rationalization after the fact. Compliance in spite of inner opposition is embedded

72 IInterview R4 (Rwanda), Kigali Central Prison, July 2009.

73 CChristopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York:
Harper, 1998), p. 73.
74 R Roy F. Baumeister, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (New York: Freeman, 1997), p. 308.
75 SSee, for example, Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York:
Basic Books, 2000).
76 IInterview R37 (Rwanda), Rwaza TIG Camp, August 2009.
77 I Interview R17 (Rwanda), Gitarama Prison, July 2009.
56 Moral Neutralization

in hierarchical institutional structures; indeed, low-level perpetrators are sometimes

explicitly absolved of responsibility for their actions.

10. Denial of Autonomy

‘I did not kill anybody. […] The group I was in killed those six victims.’78

The final technique of neutralization is perhaps the most extreme. In denying auton-
omy, the perpetrator completely denies his or her role in the violence, and instead
claims: ‘I did not kill — the group killed.’ The individual perpetrator self-objectifies in
order to remove their agency and moral culpability. For example, a Rwandan perpe-
trator denied having killed but, when pressed, responded, ‘they were killed by us. It’s
not the same’.79 The term ‘igitero’ (meaning a group of people assembled to launch an
attack) was often used by Rwandan perpetrators to describe their collective attacks,
with violence often being attributed to the group, rather than the individual: ‘That ig-
itero cut his wife on different parts of her body, and she died after three days’.80 Group
attacks in Rwanda also reduced the risk of spiritual contamination posed by touching
the blood of the victim.81
The denial of autonomy is consistent with Sigmund Freud and Gustave Le Bon’s
views on crowd psychology, wherein the individual ceases to exist and cedes all ra-
tionality to the crowd. This perspective is probably overly-simplistic — the individual
still feels autonomous and rational — but the larger the crowd, the easier it is for an
individual to deny their own agency.82 Much of the violence in the Rwandan genocide
was perpetrated by crowds. Based on information gathered in the course of my in-
terviews, it would seem that, generally speaking, the spatial position of perpetrators
in the crowd roughly correlates with their level of motivation. The most extreme and
eager perpetrators were at the forefront and bore the brunt of moral responsibili-
ty. Drifters, on the other hand, who lingered around the fringes of crowds, felt less
morally responsible. According to one perpetrator, ‘when I was in the group the last
person did not use to kill the victims, but the first people, the ones who were in the

78 IInterview R70 (Rwanda), Hindiro TIG Camp, October 2009.

79 IInterview R30 (Rwanda), Butare, August 2009.
80 CCharles Mironko, ‘Igitero: Means and Motive in the Rwandan Genocide’, Journal of Genocide Research, 6 (2004),
47–60 (pp. 51, 54).
81 J Jessee, p. 169.
82 LLatane and Darley, for example, conclude that individuals are much less likely to feel responsible as independ-
ent agents when in a group. See Bibb Latane and John Darley, The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?
(New York: Appleton, 1970). Stephen Reicher also provides a good overview of theories of crowd dynamics in
‘The Psychology of Crown Dynamics’, in The Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Group Processes, ed. by
Michael A. Hogg and R. Scott Tindale (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2001).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 57

front, were the ones who killed the victims’.83 Groups diffuse responsibility and con-
tribute to de-individuation, the reduction of individuality in favour of the group. The
wearing of uniforms or hoods also greatly increases the de-individuation effect.

Assessing the Techniques of Neutralization

It is difficult to determine whether the techniques of neutralization are merely post

facto rationalizations. When conducting interviews after the fact, it can be difficult to
determine whether perpetrator neutralization derives from alignment with contem-
porary social expectations, general tendencies to minimize moral guilt, or processes
originating during the genocide itself. Excuse-making may also allow perpetrators
to indicate to their audience that they remain aligned with the universal social or-
der, even though they may have violated it.84 There is a possibility that the interview
subjects in Rwanda developed a kind of master-narrative through their close inter-
action in prison, and their participation in indoctrination programs such as Ingando.85
Their reproduction of these narratives may have been a result of internalization or a
self-interested desire to produce socially-acceptable discourses. Indeed, the narratives
of perpetrators about their past transgressions are shaped by the society that they
presently inhabit. Therefore, such narratives must be examined critically, and, where
possible, corroborated. Some theorists also posit that rationalizations indicate that
perpetrators feel their victims are owed an explanation.86 This need would not exist
without universal prohibitions on killing.
Yet such theorizing minimizes the possible pre-perpetration effects of neutrali-
zation. There is considerable empirical support for the effects of neutralization prior
to perpetration, including longitudinal studies (which examine the same individuals
through time).87 Based on the evidence at hand, it seems that techniques of neutraliza-
tion can contribute to the production of social distance and to the perpetrator’s quest
for consistency and coherence during periods of moral rupture. Perhaps neutraliza-
tion reflects a tendency to minimize moral guilt and to avoid guilt-inducing actions.
But the specific forms such neutralization takes are often dictated by ideology and
social structures.88
83 IInterview R60 (Rwanda), Mont Kigali TIG Camp, October 2009.
84 MMaruna and Copes, p. 252.
85 MMironko, p. 50.
86 MMaruna and Copes, p. 253.
87 AAlvarez, p. 139–178.
88 TThis tendency to minimize moral and legal guilt has been shown in numerous studies, including one that
demonstrated, through anonymous personal histories, that child molesters grossly underreported their crimes
even after conviction. See Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing
Assault on Humanity (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), p. 171.
58 Moral Neutralization

A particularly strong correlation exists between the techniques of neutralization

and propaganda narratives. Propaganda often communicates that the enemy is inhu-
man, hidden, foreign, barbaric, and implacable. These discourses facilitate the denial
of humanity and denial of the victim. Propaganda also often communicates the need
for perpetrators to band to together, while also impressing upon perpetrators that vi-
olence is normal, inevitable, and committed by the group rather than individuals. The
reduction of moral costs also flows partly from propaganda narratives, but is addi-
tionally located in institutional structures that facilitate moral disengagement and an
externalization of personal responsibility. These structures also limit the perceived
range of available alternatives. However, we can also hypothesize that direct invoca-
tion of ideological justifications (‘I killed the Tutsis because they were evil’) would be
the narratives most intimately linked to the moral context at the time of perpetration,
and are therefore the likeliest to disappear after perpetration.
The question is whether transgression would occur without neutralization. Al-
though no linear causality can be shown, the findings indicate that transgression is
eased or even erased by the enabling moral environment provided by state ideology
(messages of inspiration and authorization). This ideology of motive, when combined
with a genocidal infrastructure, can be difficult to resist. It is also important to note
that neutralization is, to some degree, normal. As Maruna and Copes note, ‘taking
full responsibility for every personal failing does not make a person “normal”, it
makes them extraordinary (and possibly at risk of depression)’.89 This statement may
be truer for techniques that reduce moral costs than for those that reverse morality —
the complete denial of the victim, or of their humanity, is not ‘normal’.
A feedback loop is evident in moral neutralization. The criminal act is legitimized
by propaganda (vocabularies of motive), but perpetration also creates the need for
propaganda (rationalization). Eric Hoffer correctly notes that, ‘we cannot pity those
we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent towards them. We must hate and perse-
cute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt’.90 This tendency is a function
of our egoistic perspective of the world. Such self-justification may contribute to a
restructuring of morality. The more a goal becomes part of one’s self-definition, the
more it is transformed into a psychological need.91 For a technique of neutralization
to be effective, it must have plausibility, and perpetrators must have a strong will to

89 MMaruna and Copes, p. 227.

90 EEric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), p.
91 E Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 1989), p. 15.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 59

believe.92 Thus, neutralization ‘enables crime but it does not require it’ — the will of
the perpetrator remains important.93
Neutralization serves an important function in allowing perpetrators to remain
‘committed to the dominant normative system’ while conforming with ‘imperatives
that violations are acceptable if not right’.94 This maintenance of ties to the dominant
normative system is a crucial factor in the perpetration of genocide. The techniques
emphasized vary case by case, in relation to public discourses; moreover, individuals
will draw upon narratives which most resonate with their own experience and per-
spective. The techniques not only resolve moral conflicts, but also conventionalize
killing and render it comprehensible.
Post facto systems of denial flow directly from deniability during perpetration.
These systems of denial are characterized by deceptive planning and implementation,
including the use of euphemisms and coded commands, the concealment of human
remains, and the destruction of incriminating orders.95 Such denials draw on ‘shared
cultural vocabularies’ — collusion between people (often within organizations) to
back up each other’s denials.96 The facts are not completely ignored, but their mean-
ing is altered. These systems of denial function best when we are not even aware of
them. Perpetrators effectively hide from the implications of their actions: present and
future, personal and societal.
The law ‘contains the seeds of its own neutralization’ — in the form of justifi-
cations and excuses.97 Certain techniques of neutralization do conform roughly to
criminal defence strategies, such as the claim of universal evil with tu quoque, denial
of responsibility with duress or intoxication, and denial of the victim with subjective

Subcultural Narratives in Genocide

It is important to note that the discourses used by perpetrators to describe their acts
are highly dependent on the context in which they are speaking. They relate partly to
the overall post-genocide context — who is held responsible for the acts of atrocity?
What is the collective memory narrative? In violent subcultures, perpetrators may
neutralize being good rather than being bad. These perpetrators have already rejected

92 BBaumeister, p. 307.
93 WW. William Minor, ‘Techniques of Neutralization: A Reconceptualization and Empirical Examination’, Journal of
Research in Crime and Delinquency, 18 (July 1981), 295–318.
94 SSykes and Matza, p. 667.
95 SStanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), p. 14.
96 IIbid., p. 64.
97 MMatza, p. 61.
60 Moral Neutralization

conventional values (at least to some degree); thus, the incentives are greater to cele-
brate behaviour that is conventionally viewed as wrong (like killing) and to neutralize
conventionally good behaviour (such as showing empathy towards others).
Discourses that may be subcultural at one point, such as those espoused by the
Nazi Party in Germany before they assumed power, may eventually become conven-
tional as they are mainstreamed and normalized through state power and propagan-
da. We cannot assume that all perpetrators will feel the pull of conventional values.
In other words, not all perpetrators will experience a state of cognitive dissonance
requiring neutralization. Some perpetrators reject conventional values by killing,
and indeed some have rejected conventional values even before they kill. This may
be especially true for killers in transgressive communities, groups unified by shared
transgression, such as the Interahamwe. Such groups often recruit from criminal
ranks (though this does not seem to be the case in Rwanda).
The moral context of genocidal states is not always completely coherent, much less
universally understood or adhered to. Even as the state attempts to reduce individu-
al variance through consistent messaging and institutional structures, moral norms
unique to specific subcultural groups still remain. In armed forces, restraint could
reflect standards of professionalism, but such organizations could conversely use
violence in ways proscribed for civilians. Moreover, individuals in contexts where
violence is mainstreamed may not see themselves as active perpetrators of violence,
while individuals in deviant subcultures may celebrate their acts of violence.98 The
layering of violence in society — from transgressive communities to soldiers to ci-
vilian perpetrators to supportive bystanders — mirrors the layering of moral norms.
Although there are often overarching principles (e.g. those communicated through
state propaganda), norms are not understood uniformly across society. There are pro-
cesses of individual translation present, and groups often establish their own norms
and interpretations of overarching norms.

Conclusion: Tools of Adaptation

The techniques of neutralization are a crucial link between ideology and action. As
tools of adaptation, they have allowed Rwandan perpetrators to adjust to an evolved
moral context, thereby maintaining their adherence to state authority and ties to the
political community, both during and after genocide. Paradoxically, perpetration
involves contravening fundamental values (such as the prohibition of killing) which
contribute to self-image. Yet this occurs, in part, to maintain ties to the group, which
98 KKatherine Blee’s work on the Ku Klux Klan is informative here. See Kathleen M. Blee, ‘Questions of Methods
and Ethics in the Study of U.S. White Supremacists’, Paper for Approaching Perpetrators Workshop, May 14–16,
University of British Columbia, p. 6.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
K. Anderson 61

is another fundamental facet of self-image (the mirror self). Moreover, the groups in-
volved in genocide (racial, ethnic, national, and religious) tend to be ascribed at birth
and relatively fixed, with the possible exception of religious groups. Isolation from
one’s own group, particularly in the highly polarized context of genocide, is not only
tremendously stressful but potentially lethal.99
Consider also that, by means of propaganda and techniques of neutralization, the
in-group seeks to persuade its members that previously held moral rules are no longer
applicable. Ultimately, it becomes easier to neutralize or ignore old moral norms than
to isolate oneself from the group. When confronted by overwhelming social pressures,
and sometimes intimidation by the state, most perpetrators will seek rationalizations
to ensure they maintain a consistent sense of self in the face of profound upheaval.
Moral neutralization, therefore, facilitates perpetrator alignment with the dominant
moral system both during and after genocide. During genocide, this alignment may
involve committing, justifying, and excusing violent acts, while after genocide, when
perpetrators lose power, alignment requires distancing oneself from an act through
the mitigation of moral costs.

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bodia in the Shadow of Genocide (Berkeley: Uni- search, 6 (2004), 47–60
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millan, 2017) (New York: New York University Press, 2015)
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Appleton, 1970) rican Rights, 1995)

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)

K. Anderson 63

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Kjell Anderson is an Affiliated Research Fellow at the Centre for International Crim-
inal Justice, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Email:
Looking for Post-Traumatic Growth in Perpetrators of the
1994 Genocide in Rwanda: A Discussion of Theoretical and
Ethical Issues
Laura E. R. Blackie, Nicki Hitchcott, and Stephen Joseph

Abstract: The theory of post-traumatic growth claims that, in the struggle to overcome difficult ex-
periences, individuals may identify positive ways in which the experience has changed them. There
is extensive evidence of survivors of extreme adversities reporting the phenomenon across different
cultures. Although reconciliation involves facilitating positive changes in the identities of perpetrators,
post-traumatic growth has not yet been studied in relation to perpetrators of political violence. In this
theoretical review article, we draw upon existing research to evaluate the applicability of the concept of
post-traumatic growth in the context of perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda
and discuss the unaddressed theoretical and ethical issues that need to be considered in this context.
We conclude that it is feasible for post-traumatic growth to manifest in this population. However, we
suggest that the current definition of this concept needs considerable revision including a focus on
measuring behavioural change. We further conclude that researchers need to navigate this topic very
carefully, given the ethical issues surrounding misrepresentation and inappropriate dissemination.

Keywords: Post-traumatic growth, perpetrators, violence, genocide, Rwanda

he belief that we can learn from our misfortunes and grow stronger from
our sufferings has great intuitive appeal, and is central to many religious
and philosophical traditions.1 Indeed, this notion has been investigated ex-
tensively in the past twenty years in the psychological literature and is most
commonly known as post-traumatic growth,2 a concept that refers to the positive
psychological changes an individual can experience when coming to terms with a
challenging and often traumatic life experience. While the memory of a traumatic
experience may remain distressing, the theory of post-traumatic growth posits that
some individuals may find that the struggle to overcome adversity encourages them
to make meaningful and enduring changes to their identity, relationships with others,

This publication was made possible through the support of a grant AH/M004155/2 from the Arts and Humanities
Research Council.

1 Joanna Collicutt McGrath, ‘Post-Traumatic Growth and the Origins of Early Christianity’, Mental Health, Religion
& Culture, 9.3 (2006), 291–306.
2 Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun, ‘Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical
Evidence’, Psychological Inquiry, 15.1 (2004), 1–18.

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017), 64–84

doi: 10.21039/jpr.v1i1.39 © 2017 by the Authors
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
To view a copy of this license, visit
L. E. R. Blackie, N. Hitchcott, S. Joseph 65

and spiritual worldviews.3 The precise nature of these psychological changes varies
according to the specific model of post-traumatic growth consulted; for example, the
dominant model in the field has proposed that it manifests in five domains: as greater
appreciation of life; exploration of new possibilities; increased spirituality; more inti-
mate relationships; and enhanced personal strength.4 Alternatively, other theoretical
accounts of post-traumatic growth have viewed it more broadly as a process of mean-
ing-making through the re-telling of an individual’s life story in an attempt to connect
their past and present identities,5 or in terms of increases in other well-researched
constructs such as psychological well-being.6 However, in spite of these differences,
most theoretical accounts have argued that post-traumatic growth is more than the
total sum of positive changes: it is a transformative experience that alters the identity
of a person and leaves them profoundly different, improved compared to their past

Genocide and Reconciliation in Rwanda

Post-traumatic growth has not been investigated in relation to perpetrators of politi-

cal violence; instead researchers have focused almost entirely on victims of tragic cir-
cumstances. However, the question of whether post-traumatic growth is possible or
even likely in this context is worth considering given that reconciliation in post-con-
flict zones is more likely to occur when both survivors and perpetrators have come
to terms with past trauma and denounced derogatory views of one another.7 The aim
of this article is to evaluate the extent to which the existing theory of post-traumatic
growth is relevant for the study of perpetrators of genocide, and discuss the theoret-
ical and ethical issues that need to be carefully considered by researchers in this field.
This is important because we are considering the study of not only individuals who
witnessed or directly experienced trauma, but also those who actively participated
in creating it. While many of our arguments could be applied to violent perpetra-
tion in other contexts, we will focus on the relevance and appropriateness of studying
post-traumatic growth among perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in
3 P. Alex Linley and Stephen Joseph, ‘Positive Change Following Trauma and Adversity: A Review’, Journal of
Traumatic Stress, 17.1 (2004), 11–21.
4 Tedeschi and Calhoun.
5 Jennifer L. Pals and Dan P. McAdams, ‘The Transformed Self: A Narrative Understanding of Posttraumatic
Growth’, Psychological Inquiry, 15.1 (2004), 65–69.
6 Stephen Joseph et al., ‘The Psychological Well-Being—Post-Traumatic Changes Questionnaire (PWB-PTCQ): Re-
liability and Validity’, Psychological Trauma, 4.4 (2012), 420–28.
7 Ervin Staub, ‘Building a Peaceful Society: Origins, Prevention, and Reconciliation after Genocide and Other
Group Violence’, American Psychologist, 68.7 (2013), 576–89.
66 Post-Traumatic Growth

Between April and July 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million individuals were
brutally killed during the genocide. The causes of the genocide have a long history
rooted in colonial rule, as the Germans and Belgians had elevated the Tutsi minority
into positions of social and political power, enabling Rwanda to be led by an elite
Tutsi aristocracy. However, in the years preceding independence in 1962, Belgium
switched allegiance to support the Hutu majority whose political movement had
steadily grown since the 1950s. In the years that followed the election, there were
several episodes of mass violence as the Hutu-led party became more authoritari-
an and sought to consolidate their power-base. Thousands of Tutsi were killed and
thousands more fled. In October 1990, the Tutsi-formed political and military party,
the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded from Uganda. The UN was unable to
broker a lasting peace accord between the government and the RPF, and eventually
international troops were withdrawn. The massacres of the 1994 genocide began after
the President’s plane was shot down on 6 April 1994, but the planning and training of
Hutu militias had started long before this event. The genocide ended when the RPF
captured Kigali in July 1994.8 Since 1994, the Genocide against the Tutsi has received
significant scholarly attention. Scholars emphasize the number of individuals killed
in a short time period, the mass involvement of ordinary civilians, and the brutal
nature in which individuals were killed by neighbours, friends and family members,
mostly with machetes and other agricultural tools.9
The military victory of the RPF ended the genocide, but the newly established gov-
ernment was left with the challenge of returning political stability and social unity
to a divided Rwanda. National unity and reconciliation have therefore been central
to RPF government policy, and their approach has focused on both promoting the
healing of survivors and the rehabilitation of perpetrators. For example, in 2005, the
government introduced the gacaca community court system as a ‘grass-roots’ par-
ticipatory justice system, in which respected and locally elected judges would pass
sentence on suspects accused of genocide crimes in their area. Although this was
initially a solution to an over-burdened judicial system, it became seen by govern-
ment officials as a means to foster group-to-group reconciliation between survivors
and perpetrators through public apology. Through gacaca, it was hoped that dialogue
would be enabled between groups, and that a commitment to work towards common
goals of justice would help to restore unity within local communities.10

8 Scott Straus, The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
9 Alette Smeulers and Lotte Hoex, ‘Studying the Microdynamics of the Rwandan Genocide’, British Journal of
Criminology, 50.3 (2010), 435–54.
10P Phil Clark, The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 2010), pp. 308–41.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
L. E. R. Blackie, N. Hitchcott, S. Joseph 67

Reconciliation involves positive changes in the way former adversaries think, feel
and act towards each another,11 The theory of post-traumatic growth, which posits
that trauma can be a catalyst for positive and enduring identity change, is therefore
particularly relevant in this context. In the following section, we outline the limited
research that has examined post-traumatic growth among perpetrators of harm, and
we use this research to evaluate when post-traumatic growth might manifest among
genocide perpetrators in Rwanda. We end our article with a discussion of the theo-
retical and ethical implications of applying post-traumatic growth in this context.

Research into Post-Traumatic Growth and the Perpetration of Harm

There is extensive literature that demonstrates the reporting of post-traumatic

growth cross-culturally, even by survivors of extreme violence. Examples include in-
dividuals affected by war or civil war,12 survivors of the Holocaust,13 and survivors
of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.14 It is important to note however, that all of these
studies measure individuals’ beliefs or perceptions about the extent to which they have
shown post-traumatic growth, as is common in this area of study. Empirical studies
have rarely measured actual change over time from pre- to post-trauma. Thus, unless
explicitly stated otherwise, all of the empirical studies we discuss in this article have
measured individuals’ own perceptions of post-traumatic growth. These studies do
nonetheless assuage concerns that the belief in post-traumatic growth is a Western
concept,15 because the evidence points to a universal meaning-making process that
manifests across diverse cultures and different types of adversity. However, this is

11 H Herbert C. Kelman, ‘Reconciliation From a Social-Psychological Perspective’, in The Social Psychology of Inter-
group Reconciliation, ed. by Arie Nadler, Thomas Malloy, and Jeffrey D. Fisher (New York: Oxford Univer sity
Press, 2008), pp. 15–32.
12 A Adrienn Kroo and Henriett Nagy, ‘Posttraumatic Growth Among Traumatized Somali Refugees in Hungary’, Jour-
nal of Loss and Trauma, 16.5 (2011), 440–58; Adriana Feder and others, ‘Posttraumatic Growth in Former Vietnam
Prisoners of War’, Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 71.4 (2008), 359–70; Steve Powell and oth-
ers, ‘Posttraumatic Growth after War: A Study with Former Refugees and Displaced People in Sarajevo’, Journal
of Clinical Psychology, 59.1 (2003), 71–83.
13 J Janine Karen Lurie-Beck, Poppy Liossis and Kathryn Gow, ‘Relationships between Psychopathological and De-
mographic Variables and Posttraumatic Growth among Holocaust Survivors’, Traumatology, 14.3 (2008), 28–39;
Rachel Lev-Wiesel and Marianne Amir, ‘Posttraumatic Growth Among Holocaust Child Survivors’, Journal of Loss
and Trauma, 8.4 (2003), 229–37.
14 C Caroline Williamson, ‘Towards a Theory of Collective Posttraumatic Growth in Rwanda: The Pursuit of Agency
and Communion.’, Traumatology: An International Journal, 20.2 (2014), 91–102; Jobb Arnold, ‘A Psychological In-
vestigation of Individual and Social Transformations in Post-Genocide Rwanda’, in Confronting Genocide, ed. by
Rene Provost and Payam Akhavan (Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer Netherlands, 2011), pp.
15 K Katie Splevins et al., ‘Theories of Posttraumatic Growth: Cross-Cultural Perspectives’, Journal of Loss and Trau-
ma, 15.3 (2010), 259–77.
68 Post-Traumatic Growth

not to say that the specific positive changes reported by individuals do not differ
across cultures;16 qualitative research in particular has identified new domains among
non-Western populations.17
With a few notable exceptions, however, existing research has focused almost ex-
clusively on individuals who are victims of tragic and unforeseen circumstances, and
not on those who have inflicted harm on others. The question of whether post-trau-
matic growth applies in the context of perpetration of harm or indeed whether this
should even be studied is certainly a sensitive one. One context in which post-trau-
matic growth has been investigated in relation to perpetration is in motor vehicle ac-
cidents.18 Here, authors argue that this population has not been studied with respect
to post-traumatic growth, as both researchers and clinicians have a tendency to em-
pathize with victims. However, they found that perpetrators of serious motor vehi-
cle accidents in which at least one other person was injured did report experiencing
post-traumatic growth. Participants reported higher levels of post-traumatic growth
when they were higher on the personality trait of conscientiousness and experienced
a greater number of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms as a result of the ac-
cident they had caused. This study is unique in its exclusive focus on perpetrators.
Other studies of post-traumatic growth among similar accidental injury populations
rarely restrict their analysis to individuals whose behaviour has resulted in direct
harm to others.19
However, while the drivers in these studies were responsible for injuring other
people, it is unlikely that most of them intended to cause harm. The context is signif-
icantly different in the case of perpetrators of political violence, such as those who
have participated in war and genocide. There is now a growing literature starting to
explore this topic among combat veterans,20 and former political prisoners of war.21
A recent study demonstrated that at least one third of their sample of American vet-
erans reported a moderate level of post-traumatic growth with the most commonly

16 P Powell et al.
17 W Williamson; Dilwar Hussain and Braj Bhushan, ‘Posttraumatic Growth Experiences among Tibetan Refugees: A
Qualitative Investigation’, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 10.2 (2013), 204–16.
18 D Dorota Merecz, Malgorzata Waszkowska and Agata Wezyk, ‘Psychological Consequences of Trauma in MVA
Perpetrators — Relationship between Post-Traumatic Growth, PTSD Symptoms and Individual Characteristics’,
Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 15.5 (2012), 565–74.
19 Y Yanbo Wang et al., ‘Prevalence and Predictors of Posttraumatic Growth in Accidentally Injured Patients’, Journal
of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 20.1 (2012), 3–12.
20 RRichard G. Tedeschi and Richard J. McNally, ‘Can We Facilitate Posttraumatic Growth in Combat Veterans?’,
American Psychologist, 66.1 (2011), 19–24.
21 J Jari Salo et al., ‘Individual and Group Treatment and Self and Other Representations Predicting Posttraumatic
Recovery Among Former Political Prisoners’, Traumatology, 14.2 (2008), 45–61; Jari A. Salo, Samir Qouta and Rai-
ja-Leena Punamäki, ‘Adult Attachment, Posttraumatic Growth and Negative Emotions among Former Political
Prisoners’, Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 18.4 (2005), 361–78.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
L. E. R. Blackie, N. Hitchcott, S. Joseph 69

endorsed item being an increased appreciation of life.22 In addition, greater cognitive

flexibility, greater sense of wrongdoing (a sub-scale of trauma-related guilt), and be-
ing an ethnic minority were associated with higher reports of post-traumatic growth
in this population. This study adds to a growing body of research that has demon-
strated that soldiers will report post-traumatic growth under certain conditions such
as a perception of unit cohesion, experience of greater post-traumatic stress symp-
toms, and a feeling of being socially supported.23 However, these studies have yet to
identify why some veterans report post-traumatic growth while others do not.
A recent longitudinal study that examined soldiers from the 1973 Yom Kippur War
is perhaps able to offer some insight into this question. The authors of this study found
that feelings of guilt and the distress that arose from such guilt were associated with
an increase in post-traumatic growth over time.24 Thus, reports of post-traumatic
growth may be dependent at least in part, on the experience of guilt and wrong-doing.
We return to the centrality of guilt in more depth when we evaluate the applicability
of this concept among perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide.
Furthermore, there is research that demonstrates that post-traumatic growth is
reported by some prisoners who have inflicted serious harm against others25 and even
controversially by imprisoned sex offenders who were receiving therapy.26 Some re-
searchers have claimed that it is the challenges and solitude of imprisonment that
encouraged some offenders to question their past behaviours. As a result some indi-
viduals reported that they had come to greatly value the social and emotional support
of their visiting loved ones, to appreciate the small things in life, and to make plans
to improve their future.27

22 AAlaa M. Hijazi, Jessica A. Keith and Carol O’Brien, ‘Predictors of Posttraumatic Growth in a Multiwar Sample of
U.S. Combat Veterans’, Peace and Conflict, 21.3 (2015), 395–408.
23 MMary M. Mitchell et al., ‘Combat Exposure, Unit Cohesion, and Demographic Characteristics of Soldiers Reporting
Posttraumatic Growth’, Journal of Loss and Trauma, 18 (2013), 383–95; Robert H. Pietrzak et al., ‘Posttraumatic
Growth in Veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom’, Journal of Affective Disorders, 126.1
(2010), 230–35; Christopher R. Erbes and others, ‘Posttraumatic Growth among American Former Prisoners of
War’, Traumatology, 11.4 (2005), 285–95.
24 SSharon Dekel et al., ‘Can Guilt Lead to Psychological Growth Following Trauma Exposure?’, Psychiatry Research,
236 (2016), 196–98.
25 EEsther F. J. C. van Ginneken, ‘Making Sense of Imprisonment Narratives of Posttraumatic Growth Among Female
Prisoners’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 60 (2016), 208–27; Ian O’Don-
nell, Prisoners, Solitude, and Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
26 SSiebrecht Vanhooren, Mia Leijssen and Jessie Dezutter, ‘Posttraumatic Growth in Sex Offenders A Pilot Study
With a Mixed-Method Design’, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61 (2015),
27 OO’Donnell.
70 Post-Traumatic Growth

Is Post-Traumatic Growth Applicable to Perpetrators of Genocide in

Against this nascent evidence, what conclusions can researchers draw about the fea-
sibility of post-traumatic growth in perpetrators of genocide? In the 1994 genocide in
Rwanda, perpetrators engaged in politically sanctioned violence that in most cases
involved killing their neighbours, friends, and family members. Given the intimacy of
the genocide in Rwanda, what can researchers learn from the existing literature about
post-traumatic growth? In this section, we are concerned only with the plausibility of
post-traumatic growth in this context; we reserve discussion of the ethical issues asso-
ciated with studying this topic until later in the paper. However, we acknowledge that
asking such a question about genocide perpetrators feels different to asking it about
soldiers, which is likely in part to be a reaction to the horror of the crimes committed.
It is also possible that our view of war and soldiers is interpreted through the lens of
defending and protecting a nation, which might lend a degree of moral credence to the
soldiers’ actions that cannot be attributed to the ideology of genocide. This issue was
raised by Keith Hijazi and colleagues who noted that soldiers in morally controversial
wars (e.g., Vietnam or Iraq) might have greater difficulty in justifying their actions.28
A central question in this debate rests upon whether the concept of trauma is rel-
evant to perpetrators of violence. The theory of post-traumatic growth was origi-
nally based on Ronnie Janoff-Bulman’s theory of shattered assumptions.29 According
to Janoff-Bulman’s model, people rely on a foundational set of assumptions to guide
their understanding of the social world. These assumptions claim that the world is
predictable, meaningful and benevolent, and that the individual has the power to
control the outcomes unfolding in their lives. Traumatic life events have the potential
to shatter all of these assumptions, leaving an individual feeling vulnerable and ex-
posed in a world that is unpredictable, uncontrollable and unjust. Janoff-Bulman was
concerned with providing an explanatory account for why people experience PTSD
following traumatic events. As such, her approach to treatment was to help individu-
als cope with the negative intrusions triggered by the shattering of their assumptions
and to facilitate the rebuilding of a conceptual model of the world that integrated
their experiences of victimization. Post-traumatic growth uses this theory as a start-
ing point, arguing that positive changes to individuals’ goals and outlook only occur

28 HHijazi, Keith, and O’Brien.

29 RRonnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma (New York: Free Press,

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)

L. E. R. Blackie, N. Hitchcott, S. Joseph 71

when they are engaged in an effortful process to rebuild their assumptive world and
search for meaning from their trauma.30
The perspective of trauma employed in these accounts is that of an act that hap-
pens to an individual against their will. The individual is therefore positioned as an
innocent and undeserving recipient. Such a conception of trauma cannot be appli-
cable to someone who has perpetrated harm, which likely explains why post-trau-
matic growth has rarely been studied in this context. However, an alternative view
to this restrictive definition of trauma has been proposed more recently by Rachel
MacNair, who has put forward a new clinically diagnosable disorder called perpetra-
tion-induced traumatic distress.31 This disorder is characterized by the same symp-
toms as PTSD, but the source of the symptoms is the act of killing or perpetrating
violence. MacNair argues that there is no research explicitly disputing the claim that
the perpetration of a trauma can be traumatizing. In fact, empirical evidence now
demonstrates that active participation in killings during military combat is associ-
ated with higher levels of PTSD than is found among soldiers who witness rather
than participate.32 MacNair has claimed that this historical omission in the field is
the result of inattention rather than a dispute over the validity of such a disorder.
Her analysis identifies a social-emotional basis for this omission, for example, she ar-
gues that some supporters of military action have trouble accepting that soldiers can
be traumatized because this suggestion calls into question the morality of warfare.
However, the focus of research into the applicability of trauma among active military
personnel is gradually changing. Emerging research seeks to prevent the deleterious
emotional and physical disorders that can arise if a soldier questions the morality of
his/her actions after combat.33
This corpus of research shows that the perpetration of violence can be traumatiz-
ing. As such, it implies that the boundaries between perpetration and victimhood are
not always as clear-cut as might be expected. So far however, the morally injurious
and traumatic consequences of combat have been investigated only among military
personnel who are contracted to protect and defend the interests of their own na-
tion. When we read the published testimonies of perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in
Rwanda, we find that they often talk about how the Rwandan authorities at the time
made them believe that the Tutsi targets were a threat to the country. For example,
Jean Hatzfeld reported one convicted perpetrator reflecting on his actions:

30 SStephen Joseph and P. Alex Linley, ‘Growth Following Adversity: Theoretical Perspectives and Implications for
Clinical Practice’, Clinical Psychology Review, 26.8 (2006), 1041–53.
31 R Rachel M. MacNair, ‘Causing Trauma as a Form of Trauma’, Peace and Conflict, 21.3 (2015), 313–21.
32 EElizabeth P. Van Winkle and Martin A. Safer, ‘Killing versus Witnessing in Combat Trauma and Reports of PTSD
Symptoms and Domestic Violence’, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 24.1 (2011), 107–10.
33 BBrett T. Litz et al., ‘Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy’,
Clinical Psychology Review, 29.8 (2009), 695–706.
72 Post-Traumatic Growth

The intimidators made the plans and whipped up enthusiasm; the shopkeepers
paid and provided transportation; the farmers prowled and pillaged. For the killings
though, everybody had to show up blade in hand and pitch in for a decent stretch
of work.34

These explanations are not uncommon in perpetrators’ testimonies, and although it is

very difficult to know whether these individuals are manipulating the truth in order
to pass blame for their own actions, it does imply that for some perpetrators the act
of killing might have been seen as a duty to their government. If that is the case, the
research on post-traumatic growth in soldiers is relevant, and implies that post-trau-
matic growth is feasible in this context as well.
Furthermore, published testimonies also demonstrate that some perpetrators feel
remorse for the killings they committed. For example, another convicted perpetrator

You do not forget anything that happened during the killings. The details are truly
there when you want to dip into them. Still, certain colleagues tend to remember
the grim and unfortunate moments, while others recall the good times, like the
comfort and abundance. Me, I don’t rid myself of the serious memories; I regret
misjudging events and I regret the people who were killed. I thought wrong, I went
wrong, I did wrong.35

As Madelaine Hron notes, these testimonies should be interpreted with caution since
they were given to a foreign researcher and then translated and edited by him for
publication.36 However, assuming that this sentiment is true for at least some of the
perpetrators, then we know from the research in soldier populations that feelings of
guilt and wrong-doing can be precursors of post-traumatic growth.37 Experiencing
guilt and shame over one’s actions may also trigger perpetration-induced traumatic
stress disorder38 and prior research has found that symptoms of PTSD are positively
correlated with reports of post-traumatic growth over time.39 PTSD was found to be

34 JJean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, trans. by Linda Coverdale, Reprint edition (New
York: Picador USA, 2006), p.13.
35I Ibid., p.157.
36 MMadelaine Hron, ‘Gukora and Itsembatsemba: The “Ordinary Killers” in Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season’, Re-
search in African Literatures, 42.2 (2011), 125–46.
37 DDekel et al.; Hijazi, Keith and O’Brien.
38 MMacNair.
39 SSharon Dekel, Tsachi Ein-Dor and Zahava Solomon, ‘Posttraumatic Growth and Posttraumatic Distress: A Longi-
tudinal Study’, Psychological Trauma, 4.1 (2012), 94–101; Claire Pollard and Paul Kennedy, ‘A Longitudinal Analysis
of Emotional Impact, Coping Strategies and Post-Traumatic Psychological Growth Following Spinal Cord Injury:
A 10-Year Review’, British Journal of Health Psychology, 12.3 (2007), 347–62; Zahava Solomon and Rachel Dekel,
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
L. E. R. Blackie, N. Hitchcott, S. Joseph 73

clinically prevalent among convicted perpetrators in one Rwandan sample.40

Finally, one reason why it might be particularly useful and important to deter-
mine the feasibility of post-traumatic growth among perpetrators is the potential role
this could have in promoting genuine and lasting reconciliation in Rwanda. There
are different definitions of reconciliation in the peace studies literature, but in this
article we adopt a model that defines reconciliation as involving a positive change to
intergroup relations by addressing the harm to each group’s identity caused by past
conflict.41 This definition requires more than peaceful co-existence between groups,
and strives to create identity change in each individual in a way that will eventual-
ly facilitate an integrated single group and collective identity. It proposes fostering
reconciliation through the apology-forgiveness model, in which perpetrators admit
their crimes and ask for forgiveness. In this model, a survivor regains a sense of pow-
er and agency through their ability to grant or refuse forgiveness. At the same time,
a perpetrator’s moral image can be restored and he or she can be shown empathy (if
forgiveness is granted). Given that this process requires a positive change in how the
perpetrator views himself, other people, and also how others view him in his society,
it seems plausible to assume that a request for forgiveness will be facilitated by the
extent to which the individual perpetrator is able positively to change himself (i.e.
show post-traumatic growth).
These conclusions were supported by a recent empirical study that found that
encouraging members of perpetrator groups to construct a redemptive narrative in
response to a historical transgression increased their feelings of collective guilt and
willingness to make reparations.42 The expression of a redemptive narrative also in-
creased the likelihood that members of the victim group would show a willingness to
reconcile. However, we would advise applying caution to the generalisability of these
particular findings because in this study the participants — both perpetrators and
victims — were asked to recall an event in World War II that they or their immediate
family would have had no role in. Although the psychological processes involved in
redemption may operate similarly in the Rwandan context, it is likely to be far more
difficult to construct a redemptive narrative for those who perpetrated crimes of gen-

‘Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Growth among Israeli Ex-POWs’, Journal of Traumatic Stress,
20.3 (2007), 303–12.
40 SSusanne Schaal et al., ‘Mental Health 15 Years after the Killings in Rwanda: Imprisoned Perpetrators of the
Genocide against the Tutsi versus a Community Sample of Survivors’, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25.4 (2012),
41 A Arie Nadler and Nurit Shnabel, ‘Instrumental and Socioemotional Paths to Intergroup Reconciliation and the
Needs-Based Model of Socioemotional Reconciliation’, in The Social Psychology of Intergroup Reconciliation, ed.
by Arie Nadler, Thomas Malloy, and Jeffrey D Fisher (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 37–56.
42 KKatie N. Rotella, Jennifer A. Richeson and Dan P. McAdams, ‘Groups Search for Meaning: Redemption on the
Path to Intergroup Reconciliation’, Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 18.5 (2015), 696–715.
74 Post-Traumatic Growth

Theoretical Revisions Needed to Study Post-Traumatic Growth in Vio-

lent Perpetrators
In the previous section, we drew upon existing evidence to argue that it is at least
theoretically feasible for some perpetrators to show post-traumatic growth. In this
section, we evaluate some of the problems with existing theories of post-traumatic
growth. Although these concerns apply to the concept of post-traumatic growth more
generally,43 they are exacerbated when we consider the potential application of the
concept to perpetrators of genocide. The first issue that requires careful consideration
is whether the existing definition can be applied to this population. If we take Richard
G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun’s dominant model of post-traumatic growth
as an illustrative example,44 is it reasonable to expect an increase in the domains of
relationships, personal strength, spirituality, appreciation of life and exploration of
new possibilities among this population? These domains were originally developed
through clinical interviews with USA civilians who had suffered spousal loss, physical
disabilities and other such life crises, all of which are markedly different from having
been a perpetrator of violence. It does not hold that all these domains would neces-
sarily transfer, for example, would an imprisoned perpetrator have any opportunity
to explore new possibilities for his life or to report that killing people had made him
better able to handle subsequent challenges? There has also been some debate about
whether the spirituality domain should be seen as an expression of post-traumatic
growth at all because it could be more representative of a coping mechanism.45 For
perpetrators, religion could provide a means of coping with the harm they inflicted on
others, especially among those whose religious beliefs allow for atonement from sin.
If we were to return to the drawing board and create a new inventory for this
population, what would qualify as an expression of post-traumatic growth? Tedeschi
and Calhoun’s definition of post-traumatic growth as positive psychological change
is suitably broad to allow for almost any change insofar as it can be seen as an im-
provement.46 In which case, would expressions of remorse be an appropriate indi-
cator? Although remorse cannot be identified as a positive experience, in the case
of genocide perpetrators it could indicate that they have accepted responsibility for
their behaviour and this in turn could lead to other positive outcomes such as the de-
nouncement of the Hutu-Power ideology, which was the main driver of the genocide

43 CChristian Miller, ‘A Satisfactory Definition of Post-Traumatic Growth Still Remains Elusive’, European Journal of
Personality, 28 (2014), 344–46.
44 TTedeschi and Calhoun.
45 SStephen Joseph, ‘Religiosity and Posttraumatic Growth: A Note Concerning the Problems of Confounding in
Their Measurement and the Inclusion of Religiosity within the Definition of Posttraumatic Growth’, Mental Health,
Religion & Culture, 14.8 (2011), 843–45.
46 TTedeschi and Calhoun.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
L. E. R. Blackie, N. Hitchcott, S. Joseph 75

in Rwanda. Remorse fits the evaluative criteria for post-traumatic growth under the
current definition: it is a positive change and arguably reflective of the adoption of a
more inclusive worldview. The same logic could be applied to asking for forgiveness.
These examples bring to light an important issue in the literature on post-traumatic
growth: the breadth of the concept allows for predictors and outcomes to be conflat-
ed, especially in qualitative research, which may take a more explorative approach
and not require an a priori definition.
Returning to the examples of remorse and apology, research has specified remorse
as a predictor of post-traumatic growth.47 Furthermore, as stated earlier, post-trau-
matic growth is more than the total sum of positive changes; it is a transformative ex-
perience that redefines an individual’s personality. This interpretation of post-trau-
matic growth echoes Stephen Joseph’s person-centred approach, which interprets
it as a process and a move towards authenticity, optimal psychological adjustment,
maturity, and openness to experience.48 Although showing remorse and asking for
forgiveness from the individuals harmed are necessary for the healing process,49 it is
not clear that these acts alone show the worldview of a convicted perpetrator to be
qualitatively different from what it was before the genocide.
Relatedly, the measurement tools used in post-traumatic growth have been crit-
icized for an over-reliance on self-reported change in thoughts and feelings and the
absence of behavioural measures.50 For these authors, post-traumatic growth is es-
sentially positive personality change — a change in an individual’s characteristic and
enduring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. According to this perspec-
tive, it is implausible for significant changes in an individual’s self-concept, relation-
ships and worldviews not to result in parallel changes in their behaviour. This view
is endorsed by other theories focusing specifically on behavioural changes following
adversity, such as an increase in prosocial behaviour,51 or participation in political
resistance movements in the case of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.52 The focus on be-
havioural change is even more important when applying this research to perpetra-
tors of the Rwanda genocide. In an effort to promote unity and reconciliation, the
47 DDekel, Ein-Dor, and Solomon; Hijazi, Keith, and O’Brien.
48 SStephen Joseph, ‘A Person-Centered Perspective on Working with People Who Have Experienced Psychological
Trauma and Helping Them Move Forward to Posttraumatic Growth’, Person-Centered & Experiential Psychother-
apies, 14.3 (2015), 178–90.
49 PPumla Gobodo-Madikizela, ‘Remorse, Forgiveness, and Rehumanization: Stories from South Africa’, Journal of
Humanistic Psychology, 42.1 (2002), 7–32.
50 EEranda Jayawickreme and Laura E. R. Blackie, ‘Post-Traumatic Growth as Positive Personality Change: Ev-
idence, Controversies and Future Directions: Post-Traumatic Growth’, European Journal of Personality, 28.4
(2014), 312–31.
51 E Ervin Staub and Johanna Vollhardt, ‘Altruism Born of Suffering: The Roots of Caring and Helping After Victimi-
zation and Other Trauma’, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78.3 (2008), 267–80.
52 SStevan E. Hobfoll et al., ‘Refining Our Understanding of Traumatic Growth in the Face of Terrorism: Moving from
Meaning Cognitions to Doing What Is Meaningful’, Applied Psychology, 56.3 (2007), 345–66.
76 Post-Traumatic Growth

government issued a Presidential decree in January 2003 releasing more than 10,000
convicted perpetrators who had admitted all their crimes and showed repentance.53
Thus, given that perpetrators could show repentance to seek early release from prison,
it is essential to define the conditions of post-traumatic growth through examples of
how perpetrators are acting on such positive change in their own lives.
This view is echoed in a very comprehensive and diverse set of interviews with
individual Rwandan survivors who reported that reconciliation would only result
from sustained interaction and cooperation between perpetrators and survivors.54
The question that needs to be addressed here is how such personality change would
manifest in perpetrators’ behaviour. It is impossible to answer this question with-
out access to detailed interviews with perpetrators and also with individuals in their
community who have observed their behaviour, but it does seem reasonable to as-
sume that such change could take the form of active participation in memorial ac-
tivities, willingness to offer help to disadvantaged others, and encouraging tolerance
in Rwandan youth. It is likely that these behaviours would be preceded by internal
emotional and cognitive shifts in personality, for example an increase in compassion
and an enhanced sense of responsibility for the welfare of others. In addition, we
propose that, for post-traumatic growth to manifest, the perpetrator must also find
ways to act on these internal changes.
One final theoretical issue that deserves attention is what it means to be a perpe-
trator: how do we categorize an individual into this group? Obviously, an individual
who killed, raped, or grossly harmed another person can be identified as a violent
perpetrator, but a crime such as genocide involves many other types of perpetrator.
Alette Smeulers, for example, has developed a typology of perpetrators outlining the
social-psychological processes that enable ordinary and law-abiding citizens to be-
come violent perpetrators under specific conditions and the differences between how
and why some individuals get involved in collective violence.55 Her research builds
on existing work to posit a typology that is not restricted to perpetrators in a specific
situation, time period or type of perpetration. For example, Smeulers’s typology sep-
arates the criminal mastermind who plans and orchestrates the violence for political
gain from the profiteer who participates for material or economic gain, and the con-
formist who participates in violence as a result of social pressure from others. The
importance of this typology for the current discussion is that it raises the intriguing
question of whether the manifestation of post-traumatic growth is the same across
these different types of perpetration. In Rwanda, there were people who did not di-

53 EEugenia Zorbas, ‘Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda’, African Journal of Legal Studies, 1.1 (2004), 29–52.
54 PPhil Clark, ‘Negotiating Reconciliation in Rwanda: Popular Challenges to the Official Discourse of Post-Genocide
National Unity’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 8.4 (2014), 303–20.
55 AAlette Smeulers, ‘Perpetrators of International Crimes: Towards a Typology (Rochester, NY: Social Science Re-
search Network, 22 January 2014) <> [accessed 16 February 2016].
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
L. E. R. Blackie, N. Hitchcott, S. Joseph 77

rectly participate in the killings, but who revealed others’ hiding places to the killers
or profited by looting abandoned houses.
Post-traumatic growth theory proposes that the experience of trauma may cause
a transformation in an individual’s characteristic and enduring patterns of thoughts,
feelings, and behaviours.56 Here, the focus on changes in enduring patterns implies
that a perpetrator would have had to view the world with an ‘us versus them’ distinc-
tion before their involvement in the genocide. There were certainly ethnic tensions in
the decades preceding the 1994 genocide, but did all perpetrators believe that the Tutsi
were wicked people and that their eradication was necessary? Following Smeulers’s
model of differentiation between types of perpetrator,57 we can suggest that not all
perpetrators in the Rwandan context had the same motivation. In the published tes-
timonies, some perpetrators explain their actions as motivated by what they stood to
gain from taking their neighbours’ property; others justify their participation by say-
ing they were forced or coerced.58 Theoretical accounts of the reasons why ordinary
and usually law-abiding citizens participate in collective violence discredit the no-
tion that all perpetrators are sadistic, inherently cruel or mentally ill.59 Instead these
accounts offer a more complicated approach, thereby calling into question whether a
perpetrator is likely to experience post-traumatic growth if they are able to shift the
blame for their involvement onto situational circumstances.
The distinction between assimilation and accommodation might provide insight
into which perpetrators are likely to experience post-traumatic growth.60 To expe-
rience post-traumatic growth, a perpetrator must be in a supportive social environ-
ment that enables him to accommodate the lessons he has gained by modifying his
prior worldview. However, the perpetrator who passes blame is unlikely to show
post-traumatic growth, as he has found a way to assimilate his involvement without
changing his worldview (e.g. I had no choice but to do as I was told). Drawing upon
some initial evidence from soldier populations, it seems possible that remorse and
guilt-induced distress might be critical predictors in facilitating the accommodation
process and in turn post-traumatic growth.61

56 JJayawickreme and Blackie.

57 AAlette Smeulers.
58 JJean Hatzfeld.
59 JJames E. Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, 2nd edition (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2007).
60 SStephen Joseph and P. Alex Linley, ‘Positive Adjustment to Threatening Events: An Organismic Valuing Theory
of Growth Through Adversity’, Review of General Psychology, 9.3 (2005), 262–80.
61 D Dekel and others; Hijazi, Keith, and O’Brien; MacNair.
78 Post-Traumatic Growth

Ethical Considerations for Studying Post-Traumatic Growth in Violent

If it is uncomfortable to ask whether perpetrators of motor vehicle accidents have
shown any positive development as a result of their experience, is it even reasonable
to ask such a question in the Rwandan context given the severity of the crimes com-
mitted by perpetrators of genocide? Just because it is theoretically possible that some
perpetrators could show signs of post-traumatic growth, it is not necessarily ethically
responsible for researchers to study this question. In this final section, we discuss three
central ethical issues we have identified as requiring careful consideration, and make
a few recommendations as to how these issues could be handled by members of the
research community.
The first is whether post-traumatic growth is the most appropriate concept to
study in this population. Anyone familiar with the literature is aware that this term
implies that overcoming trauma has to some degree made the individual better than
they were before. For example, Tedeschi, Crystal L. Park and Calhoun write, ‘in the
face of these losses and the confusion they cause, some people rebuild a way of life
that they experience as superior to their old one in important ways. For them, the
devastation of loss provides an opportunity to build a new, superior life structure
almost from scratch.’62 It is important to note that these authors were not discussing
post-traumatic growth in relation to violent perpetration, and even in a later publi-
cation when Tedeschi specifically writes about how experiences of violence may lead
to personal and social transformation, he refers only to the survivors of violence.63
Given the negative implications of this theory when applied to a population of per-
petrators, there might be value in using other similar and well-researched constructs
instead, such as redemption and meaning-making.64 Both concepts capture the no-
tion that perpetrators can reform without encountering the same ethical concerns.
However, researchers would also need to consider whether this solution of re-label-
ling would in fact violate the scientific principle of parsimony and create an extra
literature on essentially the same topic, particularly if their arguments could in the
first instance be framed in such a way to address this problem.

62 RRichard G. Tedeschi, Crystal L. Park and Lawrence G. Calhoun, ‘Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Issues’, in
Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis, ed. by Richard G. Tedeschi, Crystal L. Park,
and Lawrence G. Calhoun (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998), p. 3.
63 RRichard G. Tedeschi, ‘Violence Transformed: Posttraumatic Growth in Survivors and Their Societies’, Aggression
and Violent Behavior, 4.3 (1999), 319–341.
64 DDan P. McAdams, ‘The Redemptive Self: Generativity and the Stories Americans Live By’, Research in Human
Development, 3.2–3 (2006), 81–100; Kate C. McLean and Michael W. Pratt, ‘Life’s Little (and Big) Lessons: Identity
Statuses and Meaning-Making in the Turning Point Narratives of Emerging Adults’, Developmental Psychology,
42.4 (2006), 714–22.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
L. E. R. Blackie, N. Hitchcott, S. Joseph 79

A second and related issue is whether investigating post-traumatic growth in

perpetrators would devalue the post-traumatic growth observed in survivors of the
Rwanda genocide, on which there is already a growing literature.65 Many survivors
are still traumatized, and some are the only surviving members of their extended
family. Researchers must consider how their research could impact this population,
and how survivors’ mental health might be adversely affected if they were to believe
that the perpetrators who killed their loved ones had experienced positive change as
a result of their actions. If this is accepted as a significant and likely risk, then the re-
search should not be conducted within the theoretical framework of post-traumatic
growth unless a strong case for therapeutic benefits could be made. For example, the
long-term benefit of identifying specific behavioural changes that facilitate recon-
ciliation might out-weigh the short-term cost of dealing with the controversy of the
subject. However, it would be imperative to assess the likelihood of these potential
long-term benefits ahead of time and develop a plan to mitigate the other short-term
risks. Additionally, as discussed in the previous section, it would be important to hold
to a high standard the bar for what counts as a behavioural indicator of post-trau-
matic growth. For example, the explicit denouncement of genocide ideology might
be used as an indicator in social science research, but this behaviour might not be
reliable as an indicator of change in a rehabilitation programme. Given the ethical
concerns discussed in this paper, we propose that both theory-driven and applied
research need to rely on several different indicators of post-traumatic growth. The
validity of claims of post-traumatic growth is stronger when it can be shown that the
perpetrator’s behaviour has consistently changed across multiple contexts and roles
in his or her life.
Our third and final issue concerns our responsibility as researchers. Even though
a topic might be theoretically relevant and interesting, the ethical guidelines that re-
searchers are bound to honour dictate that care should be taken over how research
is represented and disseminated. Researchers ought to be concerned with who will
see their work and how it could be used. For example, imagine if a research report
on this topic was used to justify the claim that rehabilitation programmes in perpe-
trators’ communities were an unnecessary use of public funds, as positive change in
these individuals was extremely rare. Although this and many other issues arising
from inappropriate dissemination are outside of any researcher’s control, it is within
their control to ensure that the concept, conclusions, and importantly limitations of
the study are clearly defined. This makes it harder for the research to be taken out of
context, and applied beyond the domains for which it was intended.

65 WWilliamson; Arnold.
80 Post-Traumatic Growth


We have evaluated the extent to which the concept of post-traumatic growth applies
in the context of violent perpetrators, specifically perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide
against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Although our discussion has raised several important
theoretical and ethical issues associated with this research question, we nevertheless
believe that it could be a topic worthy of future investigation. First and foremost, re-
search in this area could shed light on relevant psychological processes through which
enduring reconciliation might be achieved. Some models of reconciliation specifically
require this process to involve a positive change to the individual identities of perpe-
trators and survivors.66 As such, this process is essentially akin to that described in
theories of post-traumatic growth. That said, given the ethical issues associated with
studying this question, we would caution researchers to define clearly how they are
using the construct and specify any deviations from the models that apply to survivor
populations. Furthermore, we would advise avoiding the construct altogether if there
is another more suitable framework with which to answer the research question that
would serve to avoid the negative implications that have been discussed in this article.
Finally, our article makes it clear that the current theory of post-traumatic growth
requires several theoretical revisions before an empirical research programme can
be effectively developed and tested among a population of perpetrators of genocide.

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Prevention, and Reconciliation after Genocide Waller, James E., Becoming Evil: How Ordinary
and Other Group Violence’, American Psycholo- People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, 2nd
gist, 68 (2013), 576–89 edition (New York: Oxford University Press,
Staub, Ervin, and Johanna Vollhardt, ‘Altruism 2007)
Born of Suffering: The Roots of Caring and Wang, Yanbo et al., ‘Prevalence and Predictors of
Helping After Victimization and Other Trauma’, Posttraumatic Growth in Accidentally Injured
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78 (2008), Patients’, Journal of Clinical Psychology in Med-
267–80 ical Settings, 20 (2012), 3–12
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and War in Rwanda (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univer- tive Posttraumatic Growth in Rwanda: The Pur-
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84 Post-Traumatic Growth

Laura E. R. Blackie is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Notting-

ham, UK. Email:

Nicki Hitchcott is Professor of French at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, UK.

Stephen Joseph is Professor of Psychology, Health and Social Care at the School of
Education, University of Nottingham, UK. Email:

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)

Perpetrators’ Knowledge: What and How Can We Learn
from Perpetrator Testimony?

Sibylle Schmidt

Abstract: Testimony is not only a ubiquitous source of evidence in everyday life but a natural insti-
tution which plays an important role in jurisdiction, historiography, religion, and cultural tradition. The
current discourse on testimony distinguishes broadly between two types of witnesses: the eyewitness
as an impartial bystander — a figure which is traditionally important in the legal context but also shapes
the paradigmatic figure of the witness in historiography — and the survivor witness, who has experi-
enced a remarkable appreciation in memorial culture, and in the general upgrading of victimhood in
the globalized world. What is missing in this dichotomous typology is the figure of the perpetrator as
witness. This paper aims to fill this gap by exploring the specific hermeneutic and moral problems that
emerge when dealing with perpetrators’ accounts.

Keywords: testimony, perpetrator, witness, epistemology, trust, ethics

I. Introduction: Perpetrator Testimony — A Neglected Concept?

he witness is a key figure in law, religion, history, and culture. This figure has
many faces: the confession of the martyr (from μάρτυς, the ancient Greek
translation for ‘witness’) is probably the most dramatic kind of bearing wit-
ness, giving not only her word but her life to state a conviction. Furthermore,
eyewitness reports are central pieces of evidence in court or historiography — despite
their disputed reliability. Last but not least, we rely on others’ testimonies in a pletho-
ra of ways, whether we listen to today’s news, learn about mundane facts, or ask some-
one the way to the next tram station. While the figure of the witness has been subject
to many cultural changes and appears in diverse configurations, the act of bearing
witness itself seems to be a universal ‘natural institution’1 of human culture: testimony
is a fundamental social practice to convey or to establish common knowledge.
In the twentieth century, the accounts of survivors of genocide and massive polit-
ical violence had provoked a reconsideration of this natural institution, and a reflec-
tion upon its scope and limits. The very notion of testimony has undergone radical

I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the journal editors for their valuable critical comments.

1 Renaud Dulong, Le témoin oculaire. Conditions sociales de l’attestation personelle (Paris: Éditions de l’EHESS,

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017), 85–104

doi: 10.21039/jpr.v1i1.38 © 2017 by the Author
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
To view a copy of this license, visit
86 Perpetrator Testimony

re-examination, reflecting the difficulties and impossibilities of bearing witness to

a traumatic event — I refer here to Shoshana Felman’s and Dori Laub’s well-known
phrase of the Holocaust being ‘an event without witnesses’,2 and to Giorgio Agam-
ben’s declaration that survivor testimonies about the concentration camps entail a
lacuna, indicating a specific impossibility of bearing witness.3 However, or precisely
for this reason, testimony is a key cultural term and booming phenomenon today —
especially the testimony of victims and survivors of political violence. Memorial pro-
jects such as the Fortuno� Video Archive at Yale or the Shoah Foundation have collected
thousands of survivor testimonies from all over the world and made them accessible
online for scientific and pedagogical purposes. The voice of the survivor witness is
present in literature and art, in documentary film projects, and on the theatre stage.
Historiographical works have increasingly included the victims’ testimonies into
their accounts. Last but not least, the role of victim witnesses in criminal procedures
has been significantly strengthened over the last decades.4 Truth commissions which
were established around the world in order to come to terms with political violence
in the past are essentially built on the idea of bearing witness as a social form of estab-
lishing the truth and overcoming the past and are also a device for democratization
and political participation.5
The ambivalence of testimony — it is both a source of evidence and an ethical and
political act — is mirrored in the dual nature of the witness. Giorgio Agamben among
others has suggested distinguishing between two figures of bearing witness.6 On the
one hand, there is the figure of the eyewitness, in Latin testis, who is strongly con-
nected to the legal sphere and called upon to establish factual truth. The eyewitness
is neither victim nor perpetrator, neither acting nor suffering: he or she speaks from

2 Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New
York: Routledge, 1992). For a critical review of this wording see Sarah R. Horowitz, ‘Rethinking Holocaust Testi-
mony: The Making and Unmaking of the Witness’, Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, 4:1 (1992), 45–68.
3 Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (New
York: Zone Books , 2002); a similar distinction is made by Renaud Dulong, ‘Qu’est qu’un témoin historique?’, Vox
Poetica (2009) <> [accessed 11 December 2017].
4 The trial against Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem marked a pivotal moment, opening an ‘era of witnessing’, as
Annette Wieviorka has famously argued. In this judicial process, not only a large number of survivors gave their
testimony in court, but the act of bearing witness itself was set in a new, dramatized light and loaded with
ethical and political implications. See Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press, 2006) and ‘The Witness in History’, Poetics Today, 27.2 (2006), 385–97.
5 Michael Humphrey, ‘From Victim to Victimhood: Truth Commissions and Trials as Rituals of Political Transition
and Individual Healing’, The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 14.2 (2003), 171–87; Ian Patel, ‘The Role of Testi-
mony and Testimonial Analysis in Human Rights Advocacy and Research’, State Crime, 1.2 (2012), 235–65; Joseph
Slaughter, ‘A Question of Narration: The Voice in International Human Rights Law’, Human Rights Quarterly, 19.2
(1997), 406–30.
6 See Agamben; cf. Kirsten Campbell, ‘Testimonial Modes: Witnessing, Evidence and Testimony before the Inter-
national Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia’, in The Future of Testimony. Interdisciplinary Perspectives
on Witnessing, ed. by Jane Kilby, Antony Rowland (New York: Routledge, 2014), 83–109 (pp. 87).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Schmidt 87

the position of a third party (the word testis comes from terstis, Latin the third), and his
or her authority is rooted in impartiality and distance. On the other hand, there is
the victim or survivor witness, Latin superstes, who has lived through a catastrophic
experience. The authority of the survivor witness is rooted in the fact that he or she
has experienced an event first hand and completely. While these accounts are less val-
uable to establish facts, they are, as Avishai Margalit has pointed out, ‘more valuable
at telling it like it felt, that is, telling what it was like to be subjected to [...] evil’.7 Thus,
they articulate an appeal to the community and, ideally, trigger an ethical learning
process. This dichotomous scheme is quite dominant in the current discourse on tes-
timony. What is completely left out in this scheme, however, is the figure of the per-
petrator: the auctor delicti.
Indeed, there seems to be something deeply problematic about the very notion
of ‘perpetrator testimony’ — especially when considering the significance which the
concept of testimony has reached in our contemporary culture. Firstly, the positions
of the witness and of the perpetrator generally seem to be mutually exclusive: in
court, the testimony of an accused person is subject to a different assessment than
that of a third person. Generally, any person who is called for as a witness in court
has an obligation to appear and give his or her testimony and can be compelled to do
so — except the accused person,8 who has a right to remain silent, that is, a right to
refuse to give evidence. The idea behind this is to protect the accused person from
self-incrimination (and after all, this person has a legal representative who can artic-
ulate his or her views and interests in the trial).
In a judicial context, certain constraints are placed on the use of the testimony of
an accused person or even a sentenced perpetrator, but it is not an impossibility as
such — and the same may be said in the case of historiography. In contexts in which
the notion of testimony is equipped with a normative value, the case is different:
bearing witness has become a keyword not only for a social process of truth-finding,
but also for ethical learning and political emancipation.9 Witnesses are endowed with
moral authority. Thus, it seems morally highly problematic and even conceptually
contradictory to attribute the capacity of bearing witness to the perpetrators, regard-
less of whether they were torturers or desktop murderers: the emphatic notion of
testimony is, explicitly or implicitly, reserved for the victims.
Still, perpetrators do bear witness. They write memoirs, give interviews, they
attest in court or truth commissions, and they produce a variety of written or au-

7 Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 163.
8 This right usually also applies to the accused’s spouse.
9 This is especially true for the normatively loaded concept of ‘testimonio’ in the Latin American context, which is
emphatically connected to the position of the oppressed and seems hardly applicable to perpetrators. Regard-
ing the problem of whether this concept can be applied to perpetrators’ account, see Sumner B. Twiss, ‘Can a
Perpetrator write a Testimonio? Lessons from the Dark Side’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 38.1 (2010), 5–42.
88 Perpetrator Testimony

dio-visual material to document, testify, or confess their deeds. Nowadays one can
observe how the act of testifying and confessing has become an essential part of the
perpetration itself, thus perversely mirroring the economy of testimony in the public
discourse.10 Indeed, the sheer amount of perpetrator testimonies which are publicly
accessible has made it increasingly necessary to take a closer look at the hermeneutic
and ethical problems raised by this material: how do we deal with these utterances,
in the contexts of sociological research or teaching, or even generally in the media?
As Anneleen Spiessens has observed, ‘the very possibility of the killer’s testimony is
disquieting. How can a person be capable of telling this kind of story and voicing
the ultimate transgression?’11 So far, there have been very few attempts to approach
this problem systematically. This is surprising, since perpetrators’ testimonies have
been widely used as evidence in jurisdiction and historiography,12 and, for a certain
period of time, they have even been favoured over victims’ accounts for being more
reliable, informative, and accurate. Even for the purposes of pedagogy and the teach-
ing of ethics after the Holocaust, authors have emphasized the value of perpetrators’
accounts over those of the victims. In 1966, Theodor W. Adorno famously pointed out
the importance of investigating the perpetrator mentality: ‘The roots are to be sought
in the perpetrators, not in the victims, who were murdered under the most miserable
pretences.’13 Gitta Sereny follows this path in her introductory remarks to her book
on Franz Stangl, the commander of the Sobibor and Treblinka Death Camps. Sereny

10 E Examples for such an entanglement of perpetration and testimony are the so-called ‘martyrdom videos’, in
which individuals who are about to commit a suicide attack present themselves as martyrs, but also the
video documentation of violent acts which are circulated as forms of eyewitness testimonies. Verena Straub,
whom I thank for helpful indications here, argues that video testaments of suicide bombers actually play a
performative role for the perpetration, since the act of confession makes it nearly impossible to turn back. See
Verena Straub, ‘The Making and Gendering of a Martyr: Images of Female Suicide Bombers in the Middle East’, in
Image operations. Visual media and political conflict, ed. by Jens Eder, Charlotte Klonk (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2016), 137–50. A promising starting point to explain this connection between violence and tes-
timony is to interpret terrorism as a communication phenomenon, as proposed in Bruce Hoffman and Gordon
McCormick, ‘Terrorism, Signaling, and Suicide Attack’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 27 (2004), 243–81.
11 A Anneleen Spiessens, ‘Voicing the Perpetrator’s Perspective: Translation and Mediation in Jean Hatzfeld’s “Une
Saison de machettes”’, The Translator, 16.2 (2010), 315–36.
12 D During the Nuremberg Trial in 1945 and 1946, the prosecution was mainly based on documentary evidence, of-
ficial reports and personal recordings of the accused, since they were held to be more reliable and compelling
than the victims’ testimonies. See Whitney R. Harris, Tyranny on Trial: The Evidence at Nuremberg (Dallas: South
Methodist University Press, 1954). As is generally known, documents and testimonies from the perpetrators
were also favoured sources of evidence in historiography, until historians like Saul Friedländer challenged this
paradigm and argued for an integrated history’, which included the voices of the survivor victims; see Saul
Friedländer, ‘History, Memory, and the Historian: Dilemmas and Responsibilities’, New German Critique, 80 (2000),
3–15, and Den Holocaust beschreiben. Auf dem Weg zu einer integrierten Geschichte (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2007).
13 T Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Education after Auschwitz’, in Never Again! The Holocaust’s Challenge for Educators, ed. by
Helmut Schreier and Matthias Heyl (Hamburg: Krämer, 1997), pp. 11–20 (p. 12).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Schmidt 89

[It is] essential […] to try at least once, as far as possible unemotionally and with an
open mind, to penetrate the personality of a man who had been intimately involved
with the most total evil our age has produced [and] to assess the circumstances
which led up to his involvement, for once not from our point of view, but from his. It
was a chance, I felt, to evaluate, through examining his motivations and reactions
as he described them rather than as we wished or prejudged them to be, whether
evil is created by circumstances or by birth, and to what extent it is determined by
the individual himself or by his environment.14

The newly emerging interest in the figure of the perpetrator and its manifestations
follows in the footsteps of these statements. It goes without saying that in order to
understand the motivations and intentions of people who have engaged in genocide
and massive political violence, the focus is not only on official documents and obser-
vations, but also and especially on the testimonies of the perpetrators themselves. The
point I want to make and develop in what follows is that dealing with perpetrator
testimony requires particular reflections from an epistemological as well as ethical
perspective — something which has not yet been systematically addressed, although
one can find approaches to diverse aspects of this problem in literature.15
In my view, the accounts, statements, and memoirs of perpetrators are valid forms
of testimony, since they are acts of speech addressed to an audience, and the speakers
claim to offer a truth which is rooted in a personal experience. They do not differ
from victims’ accounts in being fallible sources of historical knowledge. Still, dealing
with perpetrator testimony requires specific reflection. As Catherine Coquio points
out, the criminal is neither testis nor superstes — he or she belongs to a third category
of testimony.16 This category has been, until now, almost completely undetermined. It
is this failure to delineate and reflect upon the concept of the testimony of the auctor
delicti that I want to address here. I will concentrate on three aspects that are funda-
mental to testimony as a social epistemic practice, namely trust, truth, and authority,
and argue how these aspects pose specific hermeneutic and moral problems in the
case of perpetrator testimony.

14 G Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (New York: Random House 1974), p. 13.
15 S See, for instance, the reflections in Christopher Browning, ‘Perpetrator Testimony. Another Look on Adolph
Eichmann’, in Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony (Madison: University of Wisconsin
Press 2004); Sereny’s book on Franz Stangl (see note 14); or Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died
That Night: Forgiving Apartheid’s Chief Killer (London: Portobello, 2006). I especially thank Susanne Knittel for
introducing me to the text by Gobodo-Madikizela.
16 ‘ ‘Le bourreau qui témoigne, alors, n’est ni testis ni superstes. Il faudrait un troisième terme pour désigner son té-
moignage — voire deux, dès lors que celui des concepteurs d’un génocide et celui de ses exécutants ne saurait
avoir la même teneur.’ Catherine Coquio, ‘À propos d’un nihilisme contemporain. Négation, deni, témoignage’, in
L’Histoire trouée. Négation et témoignage, ed. by Catherine Coquio (Nantes: L’Atalante 2004), pp. 23–95, (p. 29).
90 Perpetrator Testimony

Let me add three general remarks before starting the discussion. Firstly, thinking
about perpetrator testimony requires one, to a certain extent, to put aside the ‘mo-
rality’ or ethics of testimony as a concept, and to take on the stance that testimony is
not per se ‘good’ or ethically valuable but normatively ambivalent, depending on what
purpose it serves. Secondly, the recording of testimony is, as I will argue, different
from analysing documents and inferring facts from statements. Testimony is a dia-
logue in which the speaker and the listener both play an active role. Therefore, it is
fruitful to examine the nature of testimony as a speech act when working with per-
petrator testimonies, since it brings us to reflect upon how the audience affects what
kind of knowledge is revealed. Thirdly, the following analysis refers to testimony as a
speech act in a very general way, and, as most current philosophical approaches to the
phenomenon, it takes the situation of face-to-face testimonies as a paradigmatic case.
Yet, one could argue, testimonies obviously occur in many different forms. They are
transmitted by different media such as written texts, images, audio-visual recording,
and framed by different genres such as documentary film, oral history, memoir, and
so on. These modes of presentation surely shape the attitudes and expectations of
speaker and audience and thus have a major influence on what is being testified. For
a full analysis of the nature and meaning of a concrete empirical testimonial speech
act, these media and material aspects have to be taken into account. For instance,
it makes a difference whether we are listening to a witness in a face-to-face situa-
tion, where they directly address us and invite us to trust them, or whether we are
watching a recorded interview or reading a written document, which opens up more
possibilities to assess the witness’ words critically. Mediated forms can help to create
a (critical) distance, but they also can create proximity, for instance, when they give a
face to people who are otherwise referred to as anonymous others.17 To describe the
role of different media in the shaping of testimonies and their epistemic and ethical
message is an important task, which I will not be able to do justice to here. However,
it is not my aim to define all elements that shape the epistemic and ethical meaning of
a testimony, but to set out on a more fundamental level some pivotal concepts which
govern the giving and receiving of testimony as a social practice. I then proceed to
show how a perpetrator bearing witness might contrast or undermine this social
practice of telling and trusting. In this context, this article should be regarded as a
preliminary sketch, which sets out the cornerstones but leaves a lot of space for more
nuanced analysis.

17 J Judith Butler, however, has argued that the act of ‘giving a face’ has its ambivalence, too, since ‘personification
sometimes performs its own dehumanization’. As a proof for this, she refers to the media representations of
Osama Bin Laden, Yasser Arafat, and Saddam Hussein, who are often presented as faces of evil and outcasts
of humanity. By producing the face in this manner, media representations actually perform a kind of defacing.
See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso 2004), p. 141.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Schmidt 91

II. Trust

Testimony is a source of knowledge — were it not so, we would hardly ‘know’ any-
thing about the world, its history and places to which we have never been. However,
this knowledge is most fundamentally built on trust: since we are not able to find
out everything on our own, with our senses or logical reasoning, we find ourselves
dependent on others’ narratives in many ways. This epistemic dependence has a social
dimension. By giving and taking testimonies and thus sharing knowledge within a
community, we are not just compensating for our cognitive imperfection; indeed, the
fact that a great part of what and how we learn is based on communication shows
how our epistemic life is deeply interwoven with social and ethical dimensions.18
The fact that trust plays a key role for testimony as an epistemic practice has been a
pivotal point in the contemporary debate on the epistemology of testimony. It would
be too great a task to outline even the main controversies within this broad and in-
creasingly differentiated debate. For the issue at stake here, however, it is illuminat-
ing to pick out one thread of thought which has evolved in recent years and sheds new
light on the nature of testimony: the so-called Assurance View or Second-Person-View on
testimony.19 Contrary to the opinion of most epistemologists, and also contrary to the
concept of testimony as it is classically conceived in historiography,20 law, and other
disciplines, this view emphasizes that testimony is not only some form of evidence,
but a social practice which is based on trust and personal commitment. Testimony is
not a piece of information which we assess independently, but a sort of dialogue with
normative social implications. Philosophers who advocate for this theory argue that
testimony as a source of knowledge ‘works’ fundamentally different to perception or
logical reasoning, since it is based on communication, or to be more precise: on the
interpersonal relation of telling and being told. Richard Moran, for example, points
out that testimony is a speech act and involves a special commitment on the side of
the speaker: ‘[t]elling someone something is not simply giving expression to what’s
18 F For a philosophical analysis of testimony as an epistemic source, see C. A. J. Coady, Testimony: A Philosophical
Study (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992). The idea of a fundamentally social epistemology, where knowledge is based
on communication, is explored in Martin Kusch, Knowledge by Agreement: The Programme of Communitarian
Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
19 A Assurance views and views which highlight the interpersonal character of testimony are elaborated in Angus
Ross, ‘Why Do We Believe What We Are Told?’, Ratio 1 (1986), 69–88; Edward Hinchman, ‘Telling as Inviting to Trust’,
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 70 (2005), 562–87; Richard Moran, ‘Getting Told and Being Believed’,
Philosophers’ Imprint, 5 (2005), 1–29; Paul Faulkner, Knowledge on Trust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011);
Benjamin McMyler, Testimony, Trust and Authority (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Linda Zagzebski, Epis-
temic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
20 OOne could object that this narrow understanding of testimony as merely a form of empirical evidence is long
overcome in historiography, especially since the oral history approach has brought into view the inter-sub-
jective dimension and the value of subjective memories in testimony. Still, historiography ultimately sets the
focus on testimony as a historical source (aiming at knowing and understanding the past) and less on its
inter-subjective and performative dynamics per se.
92 Perpetrator Testimony

on your mind, but is making a statement with the understanding that here it is your
word that is to be relied on’.21 By making himself or herself accountable for the truth
of what is being said, the speaker gives the audience a reason to believe, ‘conferring
a right of complaint on his audience should his claim be false’.22 Testimony entails a
However, Moran does not only highlight the fact that an ethical commitment on
the side of the speaker is crucial for his or her utterance to be a valuable source of
knowledge. He also emphasizes that the hearer plays a constituent part in the lan-
guage-game of testimony: if testimony is to ‘work’ as a successful communication
of knowledge, the hearer also has to engage in a certain way. He or she has to ac-
cept the promise that the speaker offers, thus acknowledging the speaker’s sincerity,
competence and intention to speak the truth: ‘when the hearer believes the speak-
er, he not only believes what is said but does so on the basis of taking the speaker’s
word for it’.23 The Assurance View highlights the fact that testimony has a dialogical
character: testimony is an act ‘addressed to another person’. This dialogue has a nor-
mative dimension: in telling and being told, accepting or refusing someone’s word,
both speaker and hearer engage in a normative relationship of trust.24 He who trusts
also risks disappointment — it is above all in the cases of failure that the normative
and ethical dimension of testimony becomes evident. For instance, upon finding out
that my colleague told me things about the last meeting which were not true, I will
not simply accept this ‘misinformation’ with a shrug. I might be disappointed, even
feel disrespected, and I will probably call him to account. On the other hand, if my
colleague experienced me rejecting his testimony about the last meeting, he would
feel irritated or even angry since my refusal to believe him amounts to a refusal to
acknowledge his competence and authority. The interpersonal relation of telling and
being told is fallible and fragile; nonetheless, it constitutes a great part of the web of
beliefs we hold about the world.
According to this view, knowledge and acknowledgement are deeply interwoven
in the practice of bearing witness. As Miranda Fricker has pointed out in her work
on ‘Testimonial Injustice’, the experience that one’s own capacity to give knowledge

21 M Moran, p. 8.
22 ‘‘When all goes well in testimony, a speaker gives his audience a reason to believe something, but unlike other
ways of influencing the beliefs of others, in this case the reason the audience is provided is seen by both
parties as dependent on the speaker’s making himself accountable, conferring a right of complaint on his
audience should his claim be false’ (Moran, p. 21). For a further development of this thought see McMyler, who
argues that, by accepting testimony, a hearer entitled to ‘pass the justificatory buck’ back to the authority.
23 MMoran, p. 2.
24 ‘‘[I]n testimony in particular the kind of reason for belief that is presented is one that functions in part by
binding speaker and audience together, and altering the normative relationship between them.’ (Moran, p. 20)
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Schmidt 93

is denied ‘can cut deep’.25 According to Fricker, the capacity to give knowledge — to
be a good informant for others — is part of our capacity for reasoning, and thus a
significant part of what it means to be human. The witness’ appeal to be believed can
thus also be understood as an appeal to be acknowledged socially in a certain way. Es-
pecially when it comes to survivor witnesses testifying about atrocities perpetrated
against his or her own body, we are reluctant to reject or even question these reports,
since we are aware that this would deprive the speaker of a sort of social acknowl-
edgement. However, viewing testimony as a social practice does not necessarily im-
ply abandoning the epistemological, critical attitude. To acknowledge the survivor
witnesses in this way does not mean to regard them as living traces and monuments
of the catastrophe whose testimonies are above criticism, but rather it means to take
them seriously as givers of knowledge, and this does not preclude a critical attitude
towards their accounts.
While the view of testimony as a dialogical speech act may make sense inside
the philosophical ivory tower, one might reasonably ask how it applies to the exi-
gencies of working with testimonies in different institutional contexts, such as court
hearings or the critique of written or oral testimonies in historiography? In court
or in history, testimony is (usually) conceived of less as a dialogue carried by mutual
personal acknowledgment, but rather as a piece of evidence which affords critical
questioning and a hermeneutics of suspicion. From the perspective of historians or
jurists, the Second-Person-View might appear as an ideal but unrealistic conception
of testimony, which is hardly applicable to the needs of evaluating testimonies as
pieces of judicial or historical evidence. The critical scrutiny needed in these contexts
stands in contrast to the conception of mutual, basic trust as depicted under the As-
surance View.
As convincing as this objection may be, one can challenge it by pointing out that
acknowledging the interpersonal dimension of testimony does not necessarily result
in adopting an uncritical stance towards it. The Assurance View describes an ele-
mentary linguistic and social practice — that of telling and being told — which is the
foundation of learning about anything beyond the realm of our perceptual senses or
autonomous logical reasoning. Trust in the words of others is a necessary precondi-
tion not only for a great part of our knowledge but also for any critical assessment of
testimony. As Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, doubt is only possible on the grounds of

25 ‘‘The capacity to give knowledge to others is one side of that many-sided capacity so significant in human
beings: namely, the capacity for reason. [...] No wonder, then, that being insulted, undermined, or otherwise
wronged in one’s capacity as a giver of knowledge is something that can cut deep.’ Miranda Fricker, Epistemic
Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 44. Elizabeth Anscombe
already pointed out that ‘It is an insult and it may be an injury not to be believed. At least it is an insult if one
is oneself made aware of the refusal, and it may be an injury if others are’. Elizabeth Anscombe, ‘What Is It to
Believe Someone?’, in Rationality and Religious Belief, ed. by C.F. Delaney (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre
Dame Press, 1979) pp. 141–68.
94 Perpetrator Testimony

certainty and acknowledgment.26 Moreover, being aware of the intersubjective dy-

namics and normative implications of testimony does not preclude critical reflection,
but rather enriches it: a critical hermeneutics of testimony should take into consider-
ation how aspects of recognition and loyalty come into play in the act of telling and
being told.
Let us now turn to the case of perpetrator testimony and to the specific problem
that arises when this type of testimony is examined in light of the Assurance View.
According to the Assurance View, testimonial knowledge is knowledge that is essen-
tially based on an interpersonal relation of trust. As Moran states, the act of giving
and receiving the speaker’s words binds ‘speaker and audience together, [...] altering
the normative relationship between them’.27 In this respect, perpetrator testimony
obviously poses a problem: when listening to a perpetrator’s testimony, the listener
is confronted with a troubling responsibility. If telling is indeed ‘inviting to trust’, as
Edward Hinchman puts it, then the listener faces the dilemma that he or she cannot
receive the utterance as a testimony, whilst at the same time maintaining a neutral,
objective standpoint towards it. Objectivity is, in the words of Thomas Nagel, the
‘view from nowhere’28 — but receiving a testimony implies taking up a position, en-
tering a reciprocal normative relationship with this person and accepting a certain
ethical bond, which is closer than any liaison we have with other random people.
Listening to a perpetrator’s testimony thus opens up a dilemma: if we decide to ac-
cept the invitation to trust and believe the perpetrator-testifier, we risk believing a
false testimony. Testimony, of course, is always fallible, yet the risk that a perpetrator
gives a false statement is even higher since he or she has a direct motivation to make
themselves appear in a more favourable light. Believing in and accepting a perpetra-
tor’s false testimony can result in (unintended) complicity: for instance, if the false
report is accepted as a piece of historical evidence, it contributes to historical mis-
If we decide against accepting the perpetrator-testifier’s invitation of trust, it is
ultimately impossible to learn from his testimony as such, since we are not able to
make sense of the account without investing a minimum of trust in the speaker’s
words. We can analyse it, we can compare it to other sources, but while we do this, we
do not treat the utterance as a speech act, but as a symptom: we draw our conclusions
from it, but we are not able to learn from it.
Christopher Browning’s writings on Adolf Eichmann’s memoirs are a striking
contribution to the issue of dealing with perpetrator testimonies. Browning makes a
case for using Eichmann’s testimonies as historical sources and not disregarding this
potentially insightful material. However, he obviously feels the need to justify this
26 LLudwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979).
27M Moran, p.20.
28 TThomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Schmidt 95

approach and to propose a strict methodology for dealing with such testimonies. He
emphasizes that using Eichmann’s various testimonies as historical sources requires
a special process of justification and verification since they are very probably a ‘con-
glomeration of faulty memories on the one hand and calculated lies for legal defence
and self-justification on the other’.29 The concrete measures proposed are four test
questions which the historian should apply: 1. Is it in the speaker’s interest to tell the
truth? 2. Does the testimony show ‘unusual attention to details of visual memory?’
3. Is the content of the testimony plausible, and are there any other sources that con-
tradict the details? 4. Is it probable, that is to say, are there other sources which sup-
port it?30
Historiography has a tradition of critical hermeneutics when dealing with testi-
mony. Browning’s example shows that, to some extent, the testimony of perpetrators
requires a more uncompromising application of the traditional methodology. This
very cautious approach could not be more different from the emphatic acknowl-
edgement of the speaker’s commitment as described in the Assurance View. From
the latter perspective, one could even state that Browning does not treat Eichmann’s
memoirs as testimony at all, but as evidence which has to be carefully analysed and
interpreted. Browning’s decision not to take Eichmann’s word for it, but to coun-
ter-check his account with any other possible source, has, of course, to do with the
fact that in this case, the testifier is a perpetrator. Browning suggests that we consider
Eichmann’s statements as traces rather than testimonies: they have to be analysed
and deciphered properly. He creates the impression that one can deal with testimony
through independent observation and inference, thus avoiding the problem of plac-
ing trust in the perpetrator. Nevertheless, the dilemma of trust does not completely
disappear when using the historical method, and Browning is very well aware of this.
His detailed justification serves only to highlight his unease at the very fact that, in
order to make use of the testimonies as historical sources, he has to believe Eichmann
to a certain extent.
Testimony is ultimately a social practice, binding speaker and listener together
in a special way. This has two implications. Firstly, testimonial knowledge is essen-
tially second-hand knowledge: to learn something via testimony requires accepting
the speaker’s authority, to rely on it, and to give credit to it. Secondly, the listener
plays a constituent part in the acceptance of testimony as a source of knowledge: it
is only through his or her accreditation and authorization that the act of testifying
is completed. To reflect upon the dialogical nature of testimony is to reflect upon the
fact that both speaker and listener are responsible for the ‘knowledge’ which is trans-
ferred or even newly produced in a situation of testimony.
29 BBrowning, p. 5.
30 BBrowning, pp. 10–12. See also Sue Vice, ‘Claude Lanzmann’s Einsatzgruppen Interviews’, Holocaust Studies: A
Journal of Culture and History, 17.2–3 (2011), 51–74 (p. 52).
96 Perpetrator Testimony

III. Truth

To put it simply, we can gather knowledge and facts about the world through testi-
mony. However, testimony is a discursive practice which is subject to historical and
cultural change and is shaped by different institutional frameworks. Diverse cultural
forms of testimony offer different sorts of truth: this much is clear when we consider
different ‘types’ of testimony such as the religious martyr, the historical witness, or the
survivor witness. Although it is certainly possible to identify a wide variety of testi-
monial types, each corresponding to a certain type of truth, I want to propose here a
very basic, two-fold distinction: the distinction between the external and internal truth
of the testimony. The report of an eyewitness in court, for example, is drawn upon to
reconstruct true facts (the accident happened at four o’clock at the big junction, when
the silver car went through the red light). This kind of truth, which consists of percep-
tual knowledge based on external events only, corresponds to what I call the ‘external
truth’ of a testimony. At this point, it should be mentioned that eyewitness reports
rate as highly fallible sources of factual knowledge — they are usually overwhelmingly
inaccurate and unreliable, even when they are given by honest witnesses to their best
knowledge and belief. Still, eyewitness reports are often indispensable in order to as-
certain factual or external truths.
On the contrary, survivor testimonies, as they are recorded in oral history data-
bases, recordings from therapy sessions, or as acts of commemoration, give expres-
sion to another sort of truth: they do not only articulate the mere external facts of a
historical situation but the internal truth of experience. Avishai Margalit has high-
lighted the function of recounting internal truth as especially morally relevant: ‘a
seismograph does not tell us what it is like to be in an earthquake. For that we need a
moral witness’.31 What survivor testimony speci�cally expresses, Margalit emphasizes,
is an inner, existential experience. In the following, this shall be named the ‘internal
truth’ of a testimony.
I assume that each and every testimony has both aspects — indeed, it seems to be
an essential trait of testimony that it is always a combination of external and internal
truths, connecting an outer event to an inner experience and vice versa. However,
there are of course types of testimony that serve better for the establishing of exter-
nal truths, and others that are more apt to express the internal truth of an experience.
Victims of political persecution and violence are often less able to reconstruct the
precise course of events or depict the details of a crime than persons who were not
directly trapped in the violence. For example, journalists can often move more freely
in an area of conflict and are generally in a better position to gain information about

31 M Margalit, p. 163.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Schmidt 97

certain events and have an ‘overview’. However, their reports are less valuable for
expressing the internal truth of an event. According to Margalit, this is essentially
tied to the perspective of the victim. The interruptions, the silence, and even the flaws
within Holocaust survivor testimonies are symptomatic expressions of the internal
truth of the events to which they are bearing witness. The victims’ voices articulate
the characteristic difficulties and even impossibilities to translate experiences of vio-
lence and trauma into discourse. An extreme example for this are the ‘testimonies’ of
chronically hospitalized Holocaust survivors, who were recorded by Dori Laub in the
first phase of the Holocaust Trauma Research Project conducted at Yale University.32
What kind of truth can a perpetrator’s testimony provide? What kind of truth
are we looking for when dealing with perpetrators’ testimonies? This question, again,
leads to a dilemma, since in both respects perpetrator testimony appears as a specif-
ically problematic source of truth. First, it is a precarious source of ‘external truth’:
it is not only as unreliable as any eyewitness reports, but it is considered to be even
more unreliable insofar as the perpetrator usually has a direct reason to conceal the
factual truth or certain details. In the judicial context, the accused’s right to remain
silent is the right not to incriminate him or herself, but it also denotes how the testi-
mony of an accused person has to be treated differently to the statements of bystand-
ers or victims. Is the testimony of a perpetrator generally less reliable than that of a
bystander or victim? This conclusion seems unjustified — after all, perpetrators very
often dispose of factual knowledge which the victims lack, or to which they are too
traumatized to attest. It is not least because of this fact that perpetrator sources have
been generally preferred to victim testimonies as evidence in court and in histori-
ography. However, there is a special kind of risk involved when taking perpetrator
testimony as a source of factual knowledge, and with reference to Browning’s reflec-
tions, it seems only rational that one should apply an especially diligent historical or
forensic methodology to evaluate it.
Some approaches to perpetrator testimony, among them documentaries, films,
scientific or journalistic interviews, or exhibitions at memorial sites, aim to capture
‘internal truth’. Their focus is not set on the reconstruction of historical facts, but
rather on identifying elements in the statements which provide an insight into the
attitudes, moral values and motives of the perpetrators, whose actions often seem
so motiveless. Moreover, when it comes to capturing ‘internal truth’, testimonies

32 NNadav Davidovitch, Rakefet Zalashik, ‘Recalling the Survivors: Between Memory and Forgetfulness of Hospi-
talized Holocaust Survivors in Israel’, Israeli Studies, 12.2 (2007), 145–63; Dori Laub, ‘From Speechlessness to
Narrative: The Cases of Holocaust Historians and of Psychiatrically Hospitalized Survivors’, Literature and Med-
icine, 24.2 (2005), 253–65. Laub emphasizes that Holocaust testimony is essentially marked by an absence of
narrative. The testimonies of psychotic, hospitalized survivors represent for him ‘the ultimate in the absence
of narrative’ (Laub, p. 257), the ‘”extreme” on the spectrum of speechlessness and silence’ (ibid., p. 259), which
in Laub’s opinion is not just caused by schizophrenia but ‘an extreme case of the speechlessness of trauma that
afflicts victims, witnesses, and those who attempt to be its chroniclers’ (ibid.).
98 Perpetrator Testimony

of perpetrators appear to be especially opaque, particularly with those involved in

violence on a large scale. Catherine Coquio, who argues for applying the emphatic
concept of bearing witness exclusively to those who are bystanders or victims, ve-
hemently denies that perpetrators of genocide can be regarded as witnesses of an in-
ternal experience at all.33 Referring to the testimonies of Adolf Eichmann and Rudolf
Höss, she states that these men ‘testified to no “catastrophe” whatsoever’, but rather
only reported in an impersonal manner on their ‘difficult and demanding job’,34 with-
out ever imagining an internal perspective on the destruction. According to Coquio,
Eichmann and Höss’s reports lack something which is essential for testimony, namely
an authentic first-person perspective on what is going on. For Coquio, this lack of
inner perspective is a characteristic feature of genocide itself, for a person who can
suppress any kind of emotional reaction in the face of genocide is by definition not
capable of living through it herself.
Does perpetrator testimony lack the inner truth of testimony altogether? Taking
into consideration the many examples of critical field research that is being done,
including qualitative interviews with perpetrators, a general rejection does not seem
justifiable. There is some kind of inner truth expressed in these accounts. More pre-
cisely, perpetrators’ accounts may reveal social and psychological truths about them-
selves. How do they imagine and depict themselves? How do they recount their own
personal development? To what kind of moral (or aesthetic) values do they subscribe?
What is their psychological and physical cartography of the world like, how do they
describe their bodily interaction with the outside world? In stating this, however, I
am also suggesting that we must take Coquio’s critique seriously: genocidal crimes
are essentially linked to denial and destruction of witnesses. This structure of denial
and non-witnessing must also affect the subjectivity of the perpetrators and their
relation to what they see and do: their lack of inner perspective and truth is not acci-
dental, but a constitutive element of genocide. Thus, Coquio’s considerations actually
open up a third perspective on the question of truth in perpetrator testimony: the
speci�c truth of these testimonies is neither an external, nor an or internal truth, but
a negative variable — in other words, a specific lack or absence in their reports. While
testimony is always selective, perpetrator testimony specifically requires one to re-
flect upon what is being said in light of what is being silenced.

33 ‘‘Dans le cadre de la théorie d’Agamben, les bourreaux ne peuvent par définition pas “témoigner”,  dès lors
qu’ils ne font l’expérience d’aucun de désubjectivation. De fait, Eichmann et Rudolf Höss, l’un lors de son pro-
cès, l’autre dans ses mémoires, n’ont témoigné d’aucune catastrophe ni d’aucune déshumanisation consciente,
mais de leur “travail” éprouvant effectué par conscience professionnelle’ (Coquio, p. 29).
34 IIbid.; the English translation is qtd. from Anneleen Spiessens, p. 317.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Schmidt 99

IV. Authority

Testimonial knowledge is second-hand knowledge: it is not based on independent

inference from someone’s words but implies acknowledging the speaker’s authority
on the attested matter. Accepting testimony is different from accepting a reason or a
piece of evidence since it means to authorize and to give credit to the witness. To de-
scribe this, Paul Ricœur has proposed to use the notion of accreditation (French: accrédi-
tation),35 which signifies more than mere acknowledgment, since it has a performative,
productive aspect. To give credit is not only a form of assent: it is an act of empower-
ment, allowing the speaker to exercise a form of rational agency.36
In the discourse on survivor testimony, the ethical implications of accreditation
have been widely discussed: listening to the victims’ voices and acknowledging their
authority has been conceived as an act of recognition, which can help heal individual
trauma. As long as we, as audience, are listening to victims of political violence, we
seem to be on the morally right side. But what if it is perpetrators who, by bearing
witness, invite us to believe them and to authorize them? There is something dis-
quieting about the accreditation of perpetrators, about giving them the opportunity
to articulate their version of history and, above all, about accepting their epistemic
authority. In the following, I carve out what exactly is so discomforting here, and
whether there is a moral problem with accepting perpetrator testimony. I argue that
there is indeed a moral problem, and that this is connected with the notion of author-
ity and its ethical implications.
One Latin word for perpetrator is auctor delicti. Indeed, whether the perpetrator is
a Schreibtischtäter (‘desk-murderer’) or a torturer, this person is the author of a violent
transformation of the state of the world, be it through his or her actions or omissions.
The deed carries, so to speak, his or her fingerprint. Perpetration has to do with au-
thorship — even if structural political violence seeks to deny and conceal individual
responsibility. A comparatively subtle example for this claim of authorship and au-
thority is given by Adolf Eichmann, who, in his fifth and final account following his
capture, writes in the style of a historian, citing and quoting documents at length and
claiming scientific authority over history.37 If taking a testimony means to take in
someone’s point of view and accept this person’s authority over a certain matter, then
taking a perpetrator’s testimony is accompanied by the risk of taking in a dehuman-
izing, degrading view of the victims — and thus victimizing them twofold. A striking
35 ‘‘La certification du témoignage n’est alors complète que par la réponse en écho de celui qui reçoit le témoi-
gnage et l’accepte; le témoignage dès lors n’est pas seulement certifié, il est accrédité.’ Paul Ricœur, La Mémoire,
l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris: Seuil, 2000), p. 205.
36 FFor a detailed analysis of epistemic authority, see McMyler. The ethical and political meaning of epistemic
authorization is extensively explored in José Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppres-
sion, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
37 SSee Browing, p.8.
100 Perpetrator Testimony

example of this problematic implication of listening to perpetrators can be found in

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary film The Act of Killing.38 The protagonists, among
them a man called Anwar Congo, are perpetrators of the massacres in Indonesia —
they are the filmmaker’s main interviewees and give lengthy testimonies about the
‘good old times’, while the victims, still frightened of political repression, only appear
ghostlike at the periphery of the film’s scenes. Invited by Oppenheimer to produce
a film about the events in 1965, the perpetrators enthusiastically take on the roles of
leading actors and directors. Recollecting their memories, they re-enact scenes of tor-
ture, murder, and the destruction of a whole village, in order to bear witness to their
historical deeds. In one of these staged film scenes, the audience watches one man
being ‘directed’ to re-enact the role of a tortured victim. Later, this man proves to be
a real victim of the political cleansing: his Chinese stepfather was deported and killed,
the family was displaced, and the man himself was never able to attend school. After
his nightmarish report, he hurries to add that it is just an interesting story that might
be integrated into the documentary. The killers react with a shrug of the shoulders
and state that not everybody’s life story can be represented. The scene becomes un-
bearable when that very man appears in the re-enacted scene as the victim of torture.
Obviously, he suffers a re-traumatization.
As we have seen, the testimonies of mass murderers are often characterized by
a certain lack (or denial) of experience and awareness. What is strikingly absent in
Eichmann’s ‘objective’ account, as well as in Anwar Congo’s boastful stories, is pre-
cisely the recognition of their victims as human beings. The potential moral problem
in accrediting and authorizing perpetrator testimony seems to be this: by giving for-
mer perpetrators the space to recount the story from their perspective, and by giving
credit to their authority, there is a risk that the perpetration and the annihilation of
the victim are repeated on a symbolic level.
I would like to insist that this moral problem, which can (but does not need to)
emerge from listening to perpetrator testimony, should not be ‘outsourced’ or passed
on to moral philosophers. Rather, it is a methodological problem that each researcher
has to be aware of and reflect upon when dealing with perpetrators’ accounts. How
does our listening and believing the perpetrators affect the lives of their former vic-
tims? I do not want to exaggerate the morality of the matter, but I am convinced that,
ultimately, there is no way of applying a completely neutral approach to dealing with
testimonies.39 This leads to the question of how researchers, teachers, and exhibitors

38 TThe Act of Killing, dir. by Joshua Oppenheimer. (Det Danske Filminstitut; Dogwoof Pictures, 2012)
39 IIn their book Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying. The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs (New York:
Knopf, 2012), Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer argue for a non-moral, purely analytical approach to the secretly
recorded statements of German soldiers. For reasons I develop in the first part of this paper, however, dealing
with perpetrators’ testimonies inevitably has an ethical and moral dimension — as does the decision to ignore
this dimension.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
S. Schmidt 101

frame these testimonies, especially when presenting them in public or in the class-
rooms. To what extent does one authorize the perpetrators and adopt their frame of
reference — and to what consequences? Otherwise, how can one connect what they
say to the world we live in — and to what extent does this mean undermining their
authority? Which possibilities are there to actively, audibly and visibly, counteract
their version of events whilst still letting the testimony appear? Even if one decides to
listen to the perpetrators, they should not have the last word.

V. Conclusion

Today, testimony, especially the testimony of victims of political violence, holds im-
portant moral and political relevance. Yet, the discourse on the cultural and social
relevance of testimony and bearing witness has, so far, considerably neglected the
phenomenon of perpetrator testimony. This is a surprising failure since the question
of how we should deal with perpetrators’ accounts, reports, and confessions is more
explosive than ever. Not only has the interest in learning about the perpetrators and
their point of view significantly increased in the last few years, but perpetrators have
ever more possibilities to express their views, attest their stories, and make these at-
testations accessible to a wide audience.
I have argued that, on the one hand, it is reasonable to put aside the moral as-
pect when dealing with testimony and to include perpetrators’ accounts. Testimony
is a dialogue, and looking at perpetrators’ accounts as testimonies brings into light
the role and the responsibility of the audience regarding what kind of ‘perpetrator
knowledge’ is articulated. On the other hand, I have pointed out that perpetrator tes-
timony requires specific hermeneutic and moral considerations, and I have set out
certain dilemmas concerning the issues of trust, truth, and authority. Firstly, I have
argued that testimony as an epistemic social practice essentially implies trust in the
speaker, and I have outlined in what respect trust in a perpetrator raises a problem
which is different from the general problem of testimonial fallacy. When it comes
to using perpetrator’s testimony as a source of historical knowledge, the listener is
confronted with a troubling responsibility. On the one hand, it is most important to
maintain a critical standpoint towards this kind of testimony; testimony is always
fallible, but a perpetrator’s account is regarded to demand special caution since the
speaker has a direct motivation to distort the factual truth. On the other hand, the
giving and receiving of testimony is a social practice: it is not reducible to the criti-
cal examination of evidence or the interpretation of traces. To learn from testimony
requires investing some trust in the speaker’s words. This position of an addressee
of testimony is not easy to bring into accordance with the distanced attitude of an
objective investigator. Still, I have argued that the two perspectives are not mutually
102 Perpetrator Testimony

exclusive. Not only is the critical stance an important antidote40 to the trusting atti-
tude, but reflection upon the social dimension of testimony is an important element
of a critical hermeneutics of testimony. This means that the critical listener should re-
flect on how aspects of recognition and loyalty play a role in the process of giving and
receiving testimony and how the listener is involved in the production of testimony,
in order to subject his or her own behaviour to (self-)critical examination.
Secondly, I distinguished between the external and the internal truth value of
testimony, and argued that perpetrator testimony is problematic as a source of truth
in both respects. When dealing with this kind of testimony, I suggested bringing in a
third point of view: one should consider perpetrator testimony as providing insight
into the psychological or social structure of denial and of a specific absence of truth
and conscious experience.
Thirdly, I have emphasized that learning from testimony presupposes the author-
ization of the witness and that this act of accreditation is a form of recognition and
empowerment. In the case of perpetrator testimony, this brings up a moral problem,
since it runs the risk of re-enacting the authoritarian violence and victimizing the
victims once again. This moral problem is a methodological problem, and it shows
how when dealing with perpetrator testimony, it is particularly necessary to look
between the lines for what is covered up, blocked out, obscured, and denied.
These reflections are but a first attempt to sketch some questions about the rela-
tionship between perpetratorship and testimony. While both concepts have been in-
tensively discussed, historically framed and systematically contested, their interplay
is rather unexplored. This is surprising, considering the fact that perpetrators often
bear witness, their testimonies are often used as a source of evidence, and that, in
certain respects, these testimonies can indeed be more ‘telling’ than victims’ reports.
The specific epistemological and ethical risks of perpetrator testimony need to be
analysed further in an interdisciplinary dialogue. This seems urgent more than ever,
since the ‘era of the witness’ has entered the digital age, and expressive violence often
goes hand in hand with testimonial acts.

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Oxford University Press 1989) Martyr: Images of Female Suicide Bombers in
Neitzel, Sönke and Harald Welzer, Soldaten: On the Middle East’, in Image Operations. Visual
Fighting, Killing and Dying. The Secret WWII Media and Political Conflict, ed. by Jens Eder
Transcripts of German POWs, trans. by Jeffer- and Charlotte Klonk (Manchester: Manchester
son Chase (New York: Knopf, 2012) University Press, 2016), 137–50
Patel, Ian, ‘The Role of Testimony and Testimonial Twiss, Sumner B., ‘Can a Perpetrator Write a Testi-
Analysis in Human Rights Advocacy and Re- monio? Lessons from the Dark Side’, Journal of
search’, State Crime, 1.2 (2012), 235–65 Religious Ethics, 38.1 (2010), 5–42
Ricœur, Paul, La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris: Vice, Sue, ‘Claude Lanzmann’s Einsatzgruppen In-
Seuil, 2000) terviews’, Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Cul-
Ross, Angus, ‘Why Do We Believe What We Are ture and History, 17.2–3 (2011), 51–74
Told?’, Ratio, 1 (1986), 69–88 Wieviorka, Annette, ‘The Witness in History’, Poet-
Sereny, Gitta, Into That Darkness. An Examination ics Today, 27.2 (2006), 385–97
of Conscience (New York: Random House 1974) Wieviorka, Annette, The Era of the Witness (Ithaca,
Slaughter, Joseph, ‘A Question of Narration: The NY: Cornell University Press, 2006)
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York: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Sibylle Schmidt is Lecturer and Research Associate at the Institute of Philosophy,

Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. Email:

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)

Harming Others: The Dynamics of Everyday Aggression
and Genocide
Michelle Gordon

Review of: Israel W. Charny, The Genocide Contagion: How We Commit and Confront
Holocaust and Genocide (Lanham, NH: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). 252 pp. £24.95
(hb). ISBN: 978-1-4422-5435-0.

ince the publication of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police
Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992), genocide scholars and his-
torians of the Holocaust have increasingly focused on the ‘ordinary’ perpe-
trators of genocide.1 Israel Charny’s starting point is also that the majority of
perpetrators of genocide are ‘normal’ and, therefore, most of us would be capable of
involving ourselves in genocide. As other scholars have concluded, Charny notes that,
‘Murderous regimes never encounter a shortage of murderers!’ (p. 72) and poses the
questions: ‘How could they do such a thing?’ (p. 23) and ‘who among us is psychologi-
cally capable of taking part in genocide, and who among us is not?’ (p. 16). These ques-
tions are not new and Charny’s approach is not unproblematic; throughout the book,
issues of perpetration are often oversimplified and universalized. Charny considers a
multifactor model of twelve ‘foundations of evil in human nature’, which he argues is
based on behavioural dynamics that are apparent in all of us. These dynamics include
scapegoating, ‘going with the flow’ and sacrificing the ‘other’; Charny argues that
these dynamics can be both positive and necessary up to a point, but, if taken to the
extreme, they contribute to one’s willingness to participate in genocide (see Chapter
2). He asserts that if ‘we’ are all capable of committing genocide, then there are mecha-
nisms ‘in all of us’, that, ‘if not effectively controlled, can release our inner potential for
evil’ (p. 22, emphasis in original).
In terms of considering our own relationship with genocide and our potential to
inflict harm upon others, Charny is certainly correct to encourage greater self-reflec-
tion. However, one problem with Charny’s approach is his use of the term ‘evil’ to do
so; he does not clarify what he means by this term, and its definition is deemed to be
self-evident. Several scholars, including Inga Clendinnen, have called for the aban-
donment of the term, arguing that the concept of ‘evil’ is unhelpful with regards to

1 Though Raul Hilberg had previously emphasized the ordinary nature of the perpetrators, stating for example
that ‘The German perpetrator was not a special kind of German’: Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European
Jews, rev. edn (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1985), vol. 3, p. 1011. Later examples include Ordinary People as Mass
Murderers: Perpetrators in Comparative Perspectives, ed. by Olaf Jensen and Claus-Christian W. Szejnmann
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017), 105–109

doi: 10.21039/jpr.v1i1.40 © 2017 by the Author
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
To view a copy of this license, visit
106 Review of Charny, The Genocide Contagion

studying genocide perpetrators. Their objections include the lack of a concrete defi-
nition, and the use of the term to denote that which is deemed incomprehensible and
thus, beyond explanation, thereby hampering — rather than encouraging — further
enquiry, and contributing little to explaining the actions of genocide perpetrators.2
Charny provides examples of the above-mentioned behavioural dynamics both in
everyday life and in the Holocaust and other cases of genocide. While Charny’s inclu-
sion of examples from a range of genocides is welcome, his references to examples of
violence (not always genocide) are sometimes vague, and further context would have
been needed to make the relevance of these examples clear. A case in point is Charny’s
mention of photographs taken in Kenya of inter-tribal violence in 2006, for which
he provides no further context (p. 60). The book’s intended readership includes stu-
dents of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, but also everyday readers. However, some
background knowledge is clearly necessary to make sense of Charny’s often ambig-
uous examples and the links he is trying to make. Some analogies are more useful
than others; for example, under the heading of ‘“Thinging” and Categorization’ one
example Charny provides is an airline’s failure to provide a passenger whose flight
has been cancelled with the next available flight. Directly below, Charny lists exam-
ples including the Nazi practice of tattooing victims with an identification number
and the photographing of the victims of Tuol Sleng in Cambodia under Pol Pot (pp.
67–68). How is one to understand this leap? At the outset, Charny rightly states the
importance of context and the conditions in which people commit genocide (p. 31); he
makes use of the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments and addresses issues of
habituation and desensitization. However, the juxtaposition of these examples — a
missed flight and atrocity photographs — suggests that all of these cases are in some
way a violation of one’s human rights, which is clearly an oversimplification of the
issues at hand.
Charny has claimed that the book is ‘about all of us human beings long before
genocide takes place’ and emphasizes the need to consider our own actions before gen-
ocide occurs.3 Throughout the book the reader is invited to take part in fourteen inde-
pendent studies in the form of learning exercises, and is encouraged to consider not
only whether they might themselves participate in genocide, but also whether they
would actively work to preserve life (p. 172). These exercises are formatted in a variety
of ways. Some studies are simply a series of questions upon which one is encouraged
to reflect, such as one’s own willingness to humiliate or hurt others; other studies are
based on ticking boxes within a table to indicate one’s personal feelings towards dif-

2 See Inga Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); and Thomas W.
Simon, ‘Genocide, Evil, and Injustice: Competing Hells’, in Genocide and Human Rights: A Philosophical Guide, ed.
by John K. Roth (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 65–78.
3 Israel Charny, ‘Announcement of New Book, “The Genocide Contagion”’, H-Genocide (5 Sept., 2016), <https://> [accessed 5 December 2017].
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
M. Gordon 107

ferent groupings. While it is Charny’s approach in this respect that offers something
new, some of the exercises have wider applicability and relevance than others (subject
to one’s experience with war and threats of violence, for example). We are asked to
list everyone we hate, or consider a range of ethnic groups and tick the appropriate
box regarding our ‘sense of distance or hatred’, ‘readiness to act forcefully to distance
them’, and ‘readiness to use violence against them’. In terms of teaching, some of these
studies may prove useful in encouraging students to think about their own behav-
iour towards others and their responsibility to act, though one would clearly have
to proceed with caution. However, the question presents itself as to whether ‘lessons’
from genocide are the best approach in terms of making human beings more tolerant
and ‘nicer’.4 At times, this book seems to be more about the implications of causing
general harm to others than understanding genocide specifically, and Charny focuses
on ‘aggression’ — although his ‘foundations’ do highlight many common attributes
of genocide. Charny uses a broad definition of genocide (though no clear definition is
provided), which emphasizes ‘mass killing’, ‘excluding clearly justified military activ-
ities against an attacking enemy’ (p. 17).5 Even this definition is not as straightforward
as it may sound, considering the relevance of perceived threats to national security
and the role of fear to our understanding of genocide.6 Indeed, Charny acknowledges
that Nazi anti-Semitism contradictorily viewed ‘the Jews’ as both ‘inferior’ and an
existential threat which forced them to act in ‘self-defence against a dangerous enemy’
The Genocide Contagion builds on Charny’s previous work, which is based upon
the premise that the diagnosis of ‘abnormal’ behaviour needs to consider not only the
potential for self-harm, but also the willingness to harm others.7 Charny’s emphasis
on genocide as ‘cancer’ and a ‘contagion’ is highlighted in the book’s title, and is sum-
marized by Yair Auron, who provides the Introduction: Charny’s approach ‘compares
the processes that lead to genocide to a cancer that starts in one part of the body and
spreads to and kills off other parts of the body as well… This may ultimately result
not only in the destruction of parts of the body under attack but in the death of the
organism as a whole’ (p. 12). This is surely a problematic metaphor when one considers
the language of génocidaires in relation to their victims and the ways in which geno-
cide propaganda typically targets victims with such biological language (including
the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge), deeming them to be ‘parasites’, ‘vermin’ or ‘pests’
4 See Donald Bloxham, ‘Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Days: Using the Past in the Service of the Present’, Immi-
grants and Minorities, 21 (2003), 41–62.
5 Charny criticizes ‘definitionalism’ (p. 151). See also David Moshman, ‘Conceptions of Genocide and Perceptions of
History’, in The Historiography of Genocide, ed. by Dan Stone (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 71–92.
6 See A. Dirk Moses, ‘Moving the Genocide Debate beyond the History Wars’, Australian Journal of Politics and
History, 54 (2008), 248–70.
7 Israel W. Charny, How Can We Commit the Unthinkable? Genocide: The Human Cancer (Boulder, CO: Westview
Press, 1982).
108 Review of Charny, The Genocide Contagion

that need to be removed from the body politic.8 Charny discusses the relevance of
‘contagion’ in his summary, considering the idea of genocide as part of a ‘larger med-
ical category of dangerous epidemics’ (p. 162); members of the medical community
have argued that genocide is ‘the world’s number one cause of unnatural death’ (p. 161).
However, recognizing genocidal processes as they unfold, as Charny acknowledges,
is often not the issue; it is the inaction of the international community that needs to
change. Whether perceiving genocide as a medical epidemic will have an effect in
terms of an ‘early warning’ seems unlikely.
At times, it is clear that this book was first published in Hebrew and would ben-
efit from some rephrasing in line with its intended purpose of encouraging a wider
audience to consider these issues. Charny addresses Israeli Jews directly through-
out and encourages them to look within themselves and challenge their relationship
with violence, beyond that of historic victims. For example, he argues that the ‘lesson
which […] we Jews — who think highly of our culture as presenting advanced moral
codes — must also internalize, is that all “normal” people have a potential to commit
genocide that needs to be countered’ (pp. 26–27). Charny demonstrates the tension
regarding Israel’s relationship with violence in the appendix entitled ‘Studies on the
Israeli Willingness to Commit Evil’ and provides examples of war crimes committed
by Israel. This inclusion serves as an important reminder that reflecting on acts of
violence committed by the State of Israel need not amount to anti-Semitism. It is, of
course, a tendency among nations to perceive one’s own history as less violent than
that of others; Israel is certainly not alone in this regard, and Charny states the need
for us all to consider whether we or others within ‘our nation’ are capable of genocide
(cf. p. 23).9 As Charny’s chapter on denial shows, an open dialogue regarding each
nation’s culpability in genocide and mass violence is essential.
Charny asks us to reflect on how we can be more humane on a day-to-day basis;
he emphasizes moderation and stresses that ‘Common sense tells us that too much of
anything can lead to overload, outbursts, and collisions and that we must remain in
control of our urges and experiences’ (p. 41). Charny highlights the seemingly ‘nor-
mal’ attributes among human beings that, through radicalization, can contribute to
one’s decision to take part in genocidal violence, but how these dynamics and ‘excess-
es’ come together is unclear. How do we hold these dynamics in check? Charny states
that it is not inevitable that we would all commit genocide in the ‘correct’ circum-
stances — as demonstrated by the ‘Righteous people’ who have risked their lives to
save others. Charny raises the issue of resistance, but does not offer answers, advising

8 See Marie Fleming, ‘Genocide and the Body Politic in the Time of Modernity’, in The Specter of Genocide: Mass
Murder in Historical Perspective, ed. by Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2003), pp. 97–116 (p. 109).
9 With regard to Britain’s relationship with genocide, see Martin Shaw, ‘Britain and Genocide: Historical and Con-
temporary Parameters of National Responsibility’, Review of International Studies, 37 (2011), 2417–38.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
M. Gordon 109

individuals to decide ‘how far we should go to help others’, ultimately leaving us to

‘search our souls’ (p. 93).
The author’s central aim is ‘to help readers understand the psychology of out-and-
out genocide’ and also to ‘reveal the very “building blocks” of genocidal hate and de-
structiveness in our common daily lives’ (p. 51), thus enabling us to ward off genocide
and also ‘contribute to much saner conduct in our everyday personal lives’ (p. 51).10
Charny is surely correct that many readers would claim that they have nothing to
learn from the study, as they are certain that they would never harm another person
(p. 127); it is not enough to simply conclude that ‘we’ would never act in the same
way as others have when confronted with genocide. We should all reflect openly and
honestly on how we behave daily as human beings and the independent studies ask
some challenging questions in this regard. However, it is the circumstances in which
a ‘continuous radicalization’ of behaviour takes place that we need to understand.
One part of this endeavour is acknowledging each nation’s role in violence and gen-
ocide. As Charny states, ‘Very few countries, in the world, including the world’s de-
mocracies, are untainted by genocidal bloodshed’ (p. 23).

Michelle Gordon has recently completed a PhD in History at Royal Holloway, Uni-
versity of London, UK. Email:

10 W While Charny criticizes academia and specifically ‘professional’ and ‘intellectual assassinations’ in his book,
he has also embroiled himself in controversy, having written a bizarre piece against the respected Journal of
Genocide Research. See Israel W. Charny, ‘Holocaust Minimization, Anti-Israel Themes, and Antisemitism: Bias
at the Journal of Genocide Research’, Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, 7 (2016), 1–28. In a rebuttal of his
accusations, Amos Goldberg and others have understandably accused him of ‘character assassination’; see
Amos Goldberg et al, ‘Israel Charny’s Attack on the Journal of Genocide Research and Its Authors: A Response’,
Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal, 2 (2016), 3–22.
Duch Is Dead
Thijs Bouwknegt

Review of: Alexander Laban Hinton, Man or Monster? — The Trial of a Khmer Rouge
Torturer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016). 360 pp. 22 illustrations.
$26.95 (pb). ISBN: 978-0-8223-6273-9.

n his stimulating new book, the psychological anthropologist1 Alexander Laban
Hinton chronicles the trial against the confessed Cambodian tormentor Kaing
Guek Eav (a.k.a. Comrade Duch). In exploring Kaing Guek Eav’s state of mind,
the book provokes the reader to think about why we feel the need to ask the
black-and-white question of whether he was a man or a monster under the Khmer
Rouge regime. ‘What does this say about ourselves, our own belief systems, the ba-
nality of our everyday thought, and the moral economies we circulate?’ (p. 270). Rath-
er than editing out complicating detail in favour of abstract truth, Man or Monster?
further complicates, enhances, but also confines our ability to know and understand
perpetrators of mass violence.
Man or Monster? adds to the tradition of Hannah Arendt’s famous coverage of
the Eichmann trial2 and the mounting popularity of the trial report genre.3 Situated
on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the solitary courtroom, overlooked by its colossal
public gallery at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC),
provides a perfect stage setting for Hinton’s ‘ethnodrama’ (pp. 265–66). Featuring the
repentant Kaing Guek Eav as protagonist; victimized civil parties as antagonists;
and robed judges, seasoned prosecutors, and eloquent lawyers as key actors, Hinton’s
book chronicles the long overdue theatrical act of post-genocide justice in Cambodia.
Looking over Hinton’s shoulder, we are witness to the court drama that took place
in 2009. Informed by his attendance at ‘dozens’ of hearings and interviews (p. 4) and
composed in analogy to the proceedings, the book knits together trial testimonies
of survivors such as Vann Nath and Chum Mey, interrogators such as Prak Kahn,
experts such as François Bizot and, of course, Kaing Guek Eav himself. All actors

1 ECCC, Transcript of Trial Proceedings (Nº 002/19-09-2007-ECCC/TC; Phnom Pehn, 14 March 2016), p. 9.
2 Hannah Arendt, ‘A Reporter at large: Eichmann in Jerusalem — I’, The New Yorker (16 February 1963), pp. 40-113;
Arendt, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem — II’ (23 February 1963), pp. 40–111; Arendt, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem — III (2
March 1963), pp. 40–91; Arendt, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem — IV’ (9 March 1963), pp. 48–131; Arendt, ‘Eichmann in
Jerusalem — V’ (16 March 1963), pp. 58–134.
3 Stéphanie Maupas, Le Joker des puissants. Le grand roman de Cour pénale internationale (Paris: Don Quichote
éditions, 2016); Tjitske Lingsma, All Rise: The High Ambitions of the International Criminal Court and the Harsh
Reality (Utrecht: Ipso Facto, 2017); Thierry Cruvellier, Court of Remorse: Inside the International Criminal Tribunal
for Rwanda, trans. by Chari Voss (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017), 110–114

doi: 10.21039/jpr.v1i1.42 © 2017 by the Author
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
To view a copy of this license, visit
T. Bouwknegt 111

apply their own frame to the man in the dock, including Hinton himself. The result
is an exquisitely and inventively written narrative, which is richly illustrated with
archival pictures, Kaing Guek Eav’s prison sketches, and drawings by torture victim
Bou Meng.
Like the trial, the book deals with questions of history, politics, law, psychology,
and even literature, and is directed at historians, social scientists, transitional justice
scholars — virtually anyone interested in the mechanics of mass violence. From the
start, however, it is clear that this is not a typical scholarly work, nor is it a purely
factual journalistic report. Exploring and blending styles, it is also an experiment in
creative writing. At times, this derails the flow of the chronological storyline of the
trial, highlighting selected hearings, including opening statements, testimony, clos-
ing statements, and judgement rendering. Through the frame of the trial and through
Hinton’s eyes, the book takes the reader back to the paranoid, ‘Pol-Potist’ and gen-
ocidal reign of the Khmer Rouges’ Democratic Kampuchea between April 1975 and
January 1979. Unlike Hinton’s seminal work on ordinary Cambodians who killed
other ordinary Cambodians during this period,4 Man or Monster? offers insights into
an unusual perpetrator.
A former prisoner himself, Kaing Guek Eav, who adopted the nom de guerre Duch,
became a prison warden. As director of the notorious ‘Santebal 21’ (S-21) prison, the
Communist Party of Kampuchea’s (CPK) most secret ‘security centre’, he managed
the torture and mass murder of at least 12,273 purged Khmer Rouge cadres. In his
2,000-strong former school-turned-slaughterhouse, Duch treated his detainees ‘as
dead people’ (p. 164), forcing them to ‘confess’ to their betrayal of the party before
they were ‘smashed’ (Khmer euphemism for killing) in the killing field Choeung Ek.
Historically, the paradox of S-21, which now serves as a museum, is that it became the
place which represents the colloquial ‘Cambodian genocide’, while eighty percent of
its victims had previously been members of the murderous regime.5 As much as the
crime was unique under the circumstances, its perpetrator was also unique: Duch
was a Khmer Rouge who was killing Khmer Rouge. Yet he was the first to stand trial
at the ECCC under docket number ‘001’, not for genocide like his elderly superiors
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in case 002, but for crimes against humanity and
war crimes.6

4 Alexander Laban Hinton, Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (Berkeley: University of Califor-
nia Press, 2005).
5 Thierry Cruvellier, The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, trans. by Alex Gilly (New
York: HarperCollins, 2014), p. 183.
6 “Crimes against humanity (persecution on political grounds) (subsuming the crimes against humanity of ex-
termination (encompassing murder), enslavement, imprisonment, torture (including one instance of rape), and
other inhumane acts). Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, namely: wilful killing, torture and
inhumane treatment, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, wilfully depriving a
112 Review of Hinton, Man or Monster?

Considering the large number of records that survived the torture centre, there
was no denying what happened there. Kaing Guek Eav apologized to his victims and
confessed to his crime before the ECCC, which is inspired by the inquisitorial civil
law system where a simple guilty plea is not an option: he had to stand trial. Thus, for
the first time in the history of international criminal justice, we hear at length the
voice of the confessant perpetrator: his experiences, his explanations, his feelings.7
And at his trial, the historical figure Duch is presented punctiliously well, for Kaing
Guek Eav has an elephant’s memory — reciting Alfred de Vigny’s poetry (pp. 76–77),
referring to his annotations on interrogation reports and referencing documents and
page numbers by heart — and the experience of a lecturer. Hinton observes that the
‘man accused of mass murder has become his nation’s history teacher’ (p. 103). Thus, by
adding Duch’s own interpretation of the events, as given in his trial, the book adds
an insider’s perspective on what was going on at the centre, far beyond what the vast
S-21 archives had already told.8 Through the lens of the trial, Hinton canvasses a cha-
meleon-like Kaing Guek Eav: man, monster, teacher, torturer, executioner, suspect,
accused, convict, son, student, revolutionary, father, stoic, brute, repentant, man of
God, savage, evil, German Shepherd, witness, victim, perpetrator, bystander, pervert,
servant, commandant, cog in the machine, criminal (p. 284). All of these depictions
are in the eye of the beholder, whether they be trial witnesses, prosecutors, defence
lawyers, judges, spectators at the ECCC’s public gallery, or Kaing Guek Eav himself.
Presented with a panoply of retroactive perspectives from the trial on who Ka-
ing Guek Eav was before and during the Khmer Rouge period, Hinton argues that
we cannot answer the seemingly simple question of whether Duch was a man or a
monster. Rather, by reading the book, we understand Kaing Guek Eav’s meticulously
controlled, cultivated, and redacted articulation of his own decisions, acts, and omis-
sions that he adopted more than thirty years before being tried at the ECCC. We now
know Kaing Guek Eav’s perspective on the past without having access to his thoughts
at the time he was running S-21, training interrogators, teaching party ideology and
annotating prisoner confessions. Kaing Guek Eav’s lawyer, François Roux, summa-
rized this epistemological lacuna during his closing statement, saying that ‘Duch is
dead’ (p. 223). And indeed, what is obscured from Hinton’s work are the many years
of a long life during which Kaing Guek Eav was no longer a perpetrator but a teacher,
a born-again Christian, and an employee of an American charity; basically, when
Kaing Guek Eav was no longer Duch. Ultimately, we are left with only a framed snap-

prisoner of war or civilian of the rights of fair and regular trial, and unlawful confinement of a civilian.” ECCC,
Trial Chamber, Judgement (001/18-07-2007/ECCC/TC; Phnom Pehn, 26 July 2010), para. 677.
7 Only the former Liberian President Charles Taylor spent more time on the stand as a witness (seven months)
while on trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, not to confess, as Duch did, but to defend himself.
8 See: David Chandler, Voices From S-21. Terror And History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books,
2000). Chandler was an expert witness during Kaing Guek Eav’s trial.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
T. Bouwknegt 113

shot of Duch’s personality. Rather than understanding the psychology of the historic
perpetrator Duch, who may very well have been an ‘ordinary man in extraordinary
circumstances’ in the 1970s, Hinton’s book provides insight into the mind-set of the
contemporary extraordinary defendant Kaing Guek Eav, who is before an extraordi-
nary court in the 2000s. We see a man who is intelligent, reflective, thorough, does
not like imprecision, hates to be lied to, and calculates and redacts articulate confes-
sions. Here, the book could have probed deeper into Kaing Guek Eav’s psychology
had Hinton discussed the evidence (and report) of two psychologists and seven char-
acter witnesses — including those who testified at Kaing Guek Eav’s trial.9
True, Hinton’s representation of the Duch trial is not the first and others have
already covered similar ground.10 The strong added value of Hinton’s book, however,
is that he explicitly acknowledges, addresses, and problematizes these kinds of omis-
sions and ‘erasures’ (p. 294) not as a failure, but rather as a consequence of covering a
seventy-two-day trial featuring twenty-four witnesses, nine experts, and twenty-two
civil parties.11 Moreover, criminal trials provide a straitjacketed lens on the past and
the present: ‘In law, like math, there was just black and white, guilt or nonguilt; no
gray’ (p. 241). Hinton argues correctly that law is ‘redactic’ — ‘pushing complicating
detail out of sight through the assertion of a monolithic representation’ (p. 263). Obvi-
ously, this also holds true for scholarship. You simply cannot rewrite the whole trial
in the space of 299 pages and ten chapters. Therefore, he opted to write his report on
the Kaing Guek Eav trial like a ‘graffiti artist’ (p. 264), experimenting, framing, cali-
brating, articulating, redacting, and rephrasing rather than quoting trial transcripts.
Because Hinton is not absent from his own writing, we also understand his personal
choices and scholarly perspective. He observes, thinks out loud, and quotes from his
notebook. He also takes the reader on a tour of what is now known as the Tuol Sleng
Genocide Museum, while he follows a class of students. He also recounts a personal
encounter with Kaing Guek Eav, who saluted him at the end of the trial as if they
would never meet again (p. 196).
Hinton manages to unsettle the reader by the uncomfortable undercurrent of the
book: ‘For who wants to acknowledge that, in gazing at a ‘monster’ like Duch, we
catch glimpses of ourselves’? (p. 270). But what does this mean when the observer
gets involved in the very justice system he studies, when the researcher is cross-ex-
amined? What if the genocide scholar and the perpetrator he studied end up in the

9 ECCC, Psychological Assessment Report of Experts Françoise Sironi-Guilbaud and Ka Sunbaunat (E3/509; 31
March 2008); ECCC, Transcript of Trial Proceedings — Kaing Guek Eav ‘Duch’ (001/18-07-2007-Eccc/Tc; Phnom
Penh, 31 August 2009).
10 I In particular: Cruvellier, Master of Confessions.
11 E ECCC, Trial Chamber, Judgement (001/18-07-2007/ECCC/TC; Phnom Pehn, 26 July 2010), para. 19.
114 Review of Hinton, Man or Monster?

same witness box, testifying against the same ‘legendary mass murderer’?12 It hap-
pened to Hinton and Kaing Guek Eav within a time frame of two months. True to
anthropological methodology, Hinton observed Duch’s trial in 2009, and in 2016 he
participated in the trial of Nuon Chea (a.k.a Brother Number 2) and Khieu Samphan
for four days as an expert witness on perpetration.13 He would later call this experi-
ence ‘extraordinarily stressful’, adding that ‘when the red light on your mic goes on,
that’s your cue. You just stay in the moment and grapple with whatever is presented
to you’.14 It leaves one to wonder if this court experience would have caused Hinton to
appraise differently the performance of Kaing Geuk Eav, who, less than two months
later, happened to sit in the same chair, this time not as accused person but as an in-
sider witness against his superiors?15

Thijs Bouwknegt is a Researcher at the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust

and Genocide Studies (NIOD). Email:

12 ‘ ‘Professor Alex Hinton Testifies at U.N.-Backed International Tribunal for the Khmer Rouge’, Rutgers University
rouge> [accessed 4 January 2017].
13H Hinton testified at the tribunal on four consecutive days: 14–17 March 2016 <​
14 ‘ ‘Alex Hinton Testifies’.
15 I In June 2016, Duch testified in Case 002/2. In February 2012, one month after he was sentenced to life impris-
onment by the ECCC’s Supreme Chamber, he had already testified in the first segment of the trial vs. Chea and
Samphan in Case 002/1.
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017)
Desirable Death?
Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier

Review of: La Mort du Bourreau: Réflexions Interdisciplinaires sur le Cadavre des Criminels
de Masse, ed. by Sévane Garibian (Paris: Éditions Pétra, 2016). 296 pp. €23.00 (pb).
ISBN: 978-2-8474-3151-3.

ow do mass criminals die? What do we do with their corpses? How does
the perpetrator’s death affect society at large? These questions are not new,
but the death in the past decade of Idi Amin Dada, Augusto Pinochet, Sadd-
am Hussein, Slobodan Milošević, Osama bin Laden, Mouammar Gaddafi,
and Ieng Sary makes them highly topical. Yet, they remain under-theorized, a ‘taboo
within a taboo’, as the editor of La Mort du Bourreau, Sévane Garibian, argues in her
introduction to the book (p. 25). Of course, damnatio memoriae and martyrology have
long been studied in different disciplines, starting with archaeology and anthropology.
However, they have not made their way yet into the specific realm of man-made mass
violence. Academics who work at the intersection of body studies and genocide stud-
ies usually focus on the victims. Recent years have brought a growing number of stud-
ies on aspects as diverse as body count, exhumation and forensics, evidence, rituals
and re-interring, political and social uses of the victims’ remains in the aftermath of
massacres.1 So far, perpetrator studies has paid more attention to living perpetrators
than dead ones — a tropism which reflects to some extent the fascination in the public
with the mass murderer’s psychology and intimate life (p. 25). Confessions and testi-
monies are a source of information on the crimes themselves, the individual process of
radicalization, the role of ideology, social circumstances, and peer pressure. There are,
obviously, some studies on the perpetrator’s body, but much work is still to be done on
this topic.2 La Mort du Bourreau, thus, fills a gap. Garibian defines three areas of inquiry:

1 See for instance the research conducted by anthropologists Élisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marie Dreyfus in the
framework of the European research program Corpses of Mass Violence and Genocide, and the affiliated in-
terdisciplinary journal Human Remains and Violence; see also, Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in
the Age of Human Rights, ed. by Francisco Ferrándiz and Antonius C.G.M. Robben (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 20015); Julie Fleischman, ‘Working with the Remains in Cambodia: Skeletal Analysis and
Human Rights after Atrocity’, Genocide Studies and Prevention, 10 (2016), 121–30; Laura Major, ‘Unearthing, Untan-
gling and Re-articulating Genocide Corpses in Rwanda’, Critical African Studies, 7 (2015), 164–81; Layla Renshaw,
Exhuming Loss: Memory Materiality and Mass Graves of the Spanish Civil War (New York: Routledge, 2016); Victor
Toom, ‘Whose Body Is it? Technolegal Materialization of Victims’ Bodies and Remains after the World Trade
Center Attacks’, Science, Technology and Human Values, 41 (2016), 686-708.
2 The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change, ed. by Katherine Verdery (New York: Co-
lumbia University Press, 1999); Death of the Father: An Anthropology of the End of Political Authority, ed. by John
Borneman (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004); Sergio Luzzato, The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the

Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2017), 115–119

doi: 10.21039/jpr.v1i1.37 © 2017 by the Author
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
To view a copy of this license, visit
116 Review of Garibian (ed.), La Mort du Bourreau

the modalities of the perpetrator’s death, the post-mortem treatment of the body, and
the transformation (or not) of the perpetrator’s grave into a site of pilgrimage (p. 23).
The case studies from all the continents cover three key moments: the emergence of
the concepts of war crime, genocide, and crime against humanity in the aftermath of
the First and Second World Wars; the rise of the global human rights discourse during
the Cold War and the decolonization period; and the birth of transitional justice in
the post-Cold War era (p. 27).
La Mort du Bourreau puts emphasis on the legal dimension of the topic. Still, the
interdisciplinary perspective is broad enough to accommodate readers with different
academic backgrounds. The opening essay of the book sets the tone. Élodie Tranchez
discusses the relation of tyrannicide and international law as it was shaped by con-
ventions and treaties over the past century. As she convincingly argues, the difficulty
in reaching a universal definition of the tyrant — head of state or terrorist, civilian,
or combatant — has generated many grey zones between war and peace, intervention
and protection, and the military and political nature of the act of killing the tyrant.
The contribution of Tranchez provides the overarching structure of the book. It is in
the light of the issues it raises that the other essays may be read.
The first part of La Mort du Bourreau looks into the ‘death-escape’ of the perpetra-
tor — when he dies of natural causes — and its effect in terms of legal impunity and
collective remembrance. Two contributions address more specifically the question of
locality. Anne-Yvonne Guillou focuses on the cenotaph of Pol Pot at Anlong Veng in
Cambodia, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold turned a few years ago into a tourist
spot and a ‘new frontier’ area. At the intersection of memory politics, dark tourism,
and economic liberalization, she examines the appropriation of the dictator’s grave by
different groups. The rituals of villagers who just arrived in the region and transform
Pol Pot into a ‘guardian spirit’ of the territory offer a particularly striking example of
alternative memorialization. The combination of indigenous practices and political
myths is a central issue too in historian Karin Ramondy’s essay on Jean-Bedel Bokas-
sa (Central African Republic) and Idi Amin Dada (Uganda). Ramondy compares the
relative ‘rehabilitation’ of the two dictators in their countries and the international
perception still influenced by media images of Bokassa and Idi Amin’s excesses at
the time. This opposition perfectly illustrates the relevance of a postcolonial inter-
pretation of the perpetrator’s death in some contexts. The two other contributions in
this part investigate the legal dimension of ‘death-escape’. Rosa Ana Alija Fernández
uses the cases of Franco and Pinochet to describe the effect of international law on
the social perception of the dictator. Franco, buried in full impunity at the Valley of
the Fallen, remains at the heart of unresolved memory conflicts in Spain. In contrast,
Pinochet, who was prosecuted, ended up in a half-abandoned chapel on the family
Fortunes of Italy (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005); Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, Mengele’s Skull: The
Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2007)
S. Benzaquen-Gautier 117

estate. Linking these legal and symbolic developments, Fernández advocates a ‘pri-
vatization’ of the perpetrator’s remains, which prevents him from haunting public
life in a period of democratic transition. Florence Hartman explores an ‘in-between’
situation, the unfinished trial of Slobodan Milošević due to his death by a heart attack
and the controversy that ensued as his supporters contested the forensic report and
depicted him as the victim of a Western conspiracy. It is an absorbing account (with
the occasional dig at the former Yugoslavia tribunal), which persuasively argues that
this premature end reinforced Milošević’s legacy in Serbia and hampered the collec-
tive process of mourning and taking responsibility.
Hanging, both as punishment of the dictator and a political and symbolic message
addressed to the population, is the theme running through the second part of the
book, the ‘death-sentence’ or judicial execution of the perpetrator. The two essays
emphasize the degrading dimension of hanging, in marked contrast with an honour-
able death by firing squad or on the battlefield. Nicolas Patin looks into the fate of two
groups of high-ranking Nazis, the ‘masterminds’ in Berlin (prosecuted at Nurem-
berg), and those who carried out regional politics in occupied areas (some prosecuted
in Yugoslavia, Poland and Latvia). Seen as a form of controlled violence, the judicial
hanging was meant as the founding moment of the ‘new world order’. With this in
mind, Patin examines the visibility of these executions, either as public event or in
the press, and the role of visual mediation in postwar social dynamics. Ana Arzouma-
nian raises similar questions with respect to the execution of Saddam Hussein. She
explores several aspects of his hanging, such as its religious connotations, the video
and its remediation, the disappearance of the dictator’s body, and the resulting lack
of closure for the Iraqi people. One may regret, though, that she overlooked the reso-
nance between Saddam Hussein’s death and his hiding in a ‘spider’s hole’ for almost a
year before being captured. The last part of her essay, which could easily do without
any references to Barthes and Deleuze, provides an interesting view of the role of art
where justice fails.
The third part of La Mort du Bourreau deals with spectacular ‘death-revenge’. As
all the contributions make clear, extra-judicial killing often fails to bring any form of
closure, whether it is historical, legal, or social. Sévane Garibian focuses on the trial
of Soghomon Tehlirian, the Armenian survivor who killed Talaat Pacha in Berlin in
1921. In spite of its strong impact on the German public at the time, the trial was only
a brief disruption in the long history of impunity and forgetting that characterizes
the Armenian Genocide. While the acquittal of Tehlirian was a powerful gesture, it
was replaced twenty years later by that of Hitler giving back Talaat’s remains to Tur-
key. Didier Musiedlak confronts the multiple narratives of Mussolini’s execution and
autopsy that have emerged in Italy since 1945. His masterly contribution demonstrates
the extent to which the discrepancy between the different versions is what actually
keeps Mussolini’s memory alive — until today — by fuelling interrogations, nostalgia,
118 Review of Garibian (ed.), La Mort du Bourreau

and speculations about the involvement of the Allied Forces in his execution. The role
of external powers, especially France, in the death of Muammar Gaddafi is one of the
questions Muriel Montagut raises in her essay. She discusses the media coverage of
the Libyan dictator’s lynching and the public effect of these gruesome images. More
importantly, she wonders what kind of society may emerge out of this violent event.
Is catharsis, as a reversal of social order, capable to put an end to violence, or is it on
the contrary a door open to new atrocities? Her answer, as might be expected, is far
from being optimistic. A similar criticism of extra-judicial killing is to be found in
Frédéric Mégret’s analysis of the assassination of Osama bin Laden by the Obama
administration. It is a good and meticulous — if at times a bit abstruse to the non-spe-
cialist — illustration of the issues encountered in Tranchez’s text. Mégret uses the ex-
ample of bin Laden to reflect on the execution of the terrorist as either an outcome of
international law or an exception to it. He examines the integration of transgression
as part of the project of eradicating terrorism and questions the consequences of such
a move as the state must confront its own limits in terms of biopower and sovereignty.
Since the book aims to explore the perpetrator’s death in relation to international
law and the pursuit of justice, it would have been fascinating to look into more am-
bivalent situations — or a less obvious choice of perpetrators. Ariel Sharon, whose
body was maintained in a permanent vegetative state for eight years, neither dead
nor alive, would certainly have made an arresting case study. Moreover, the gender
dimension is missing. The execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu after a parody
of a trial would have been an opportunity to deal with this aspect of the dictator’s
death. That being said, La Mort du Bourreau canvasses an impressive array of material.
It successfully demonstrates the potential of adopting an international scope in un-
derstanding differences and commonalities in the fate of perpetrators worldwide. As
such, it provides a welcome addition to the existing body of literature on the subject.
Furthermore, it is a very timely reading in a period of sanctioned and non-sanctioned
military interventions, emotional engagement with atrocity by Western leaders and
populations alike, and a generalized disparaging of international courts and institu-
tions. When many war-torn countries are on the verge of collapse and/or transition,
the question of the dictator’s end and the impact it may have on the future should
occupy centre stage. As Antoine Garapon aptly points out in his foreword, a new life
starts for the perpetrator after his death. It is a life in which the living, whether they
are survivors, relatives of victims, or new generations, have a role to play. A role that
is in part already shaped by the kind of death the dictator met. Montagut gives the
example of children in Libya re-enacting the lynching of Gaddafi as a game. Is that
really what they want? Is that really what we want? She quotes — and the last words
should be his — the former French diplomat in Tripoli Patrick Haimzadeh. Violence,
he says, does not give birth to democracy; democracy is learning how to end conflicts
in a peaceful way (p. 289).
Journal of Perpetrator Research 1.1 (2007)
S. Benzaquen-Gautier 119

Stéphanie Benzaquen-Gautier is associate researcher at the Centre for Historical

Culture, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands.