Atrocity: Thinking it Through

It is history day, or rather the evening before history day, but I am posting this early rather than skipping the day entirely, as I have the whole of my writing time tomorrow dedicated to another project. This post does not address a specific event or book I have read, but is rather a meditation on atrocity, a subject that frequently appears in my research. Be warned, the photographs accompanying this meditation were not chosen for their beauty, but for their suitability to the subject at hand. They may be graphic, but considering the subject addressed could not be replaced by other, more banal content. I did not choose them merely to shock, and avoided more gratuitously graphic exhibits.

Survivors of Buchenwald, near Weimar, Germany, 1945
Survivors of Buchenwald, near Weimar, Germany, 1945
Andromache attempts to protect her son from the Achaean raiders, Trojan War
Andromache attempts to protect her son from the Achaean raiders, Trojan War
Bergen Belsen, 1945
Bergen Belsen, 1945
child survivors of Bergen Belsen, 1945
child survivors of Bergen Belsen, 1945

I have been researching Africa in my informal way using the resources of a town which happens to house a university, but is quite consciously and willfully not a college town. Reading African history, especially that of recent years, involves one in atrocity tales. Their presence is unavoidable. This combined with my long years of Holocaust study brings me to consider the nature of atrocity.

According to Oxford, an atrocity is "an extremely wicked or cruel act, typically one involving physical violence or injury:" Other dictionaries offer similar definitions. In all cruelty is the key characteristic that separates an atrocity from other acts of violence. Some argue that all violence is cruel, that violence is always unnecessary, always an inexcusable violation of its target. I would suggest that for most of us, this is just not true. Violence is part of our nature, though we strive to restrain it and redirect it in our lives, and we should so strive. Nature is a weak justification for behavior. Culture and civilization are possible only because human beings can disobey the commands of nature. Still, we recognize that there is violence that is allowable, that is even commendable. It is not violence alone that defines an atrocity. Atrocities are, I would suggest, not a product of nature anyway, for they are rarely linked to the dictates of survival, but are manifestations of culture and civilization, perverted and twisted, but not primordial or primitive.

Guard at Buchenwald poses with his victims
Guard at Buchenwald poses with his victims
A slave punished.  Artist: William Blake
A slave punished. Artist: William Blake
Big Minsk ghetto, 1942
Big Minsk ghetto, 1942
Einsatzgruppen in the East.  More of the Holocaust's victims fell to these mobile murder detachments than to the organized camps.
Einsatzgruppen in the East. More of the Holocaust's victims fell to these mobile murder detachments than to the organized camps.
Einsatzgruppen execution of a woman and child in Ukraine.
Einsatzgruppen execution of a woman and child in Ukraine.

Atrocities are rarely produced in a kill-or-be-killed scenario. They are not actions of instinct. Faced with an intruder in your home, you are unlikely to commit an atrocity. You are very likely to attempt to flee or offer some form of self-defense. Atrocities are committed with laughter, often against those who are unable to offer real resistance. They are indulgences in simulated savagery by civilized men and women. Vengeance can be summoned to justify an atrocity, but does not define it. Vengeance is a thing that follows the originating confrontation after all, and is committed in studied reciprocity. Vengeance is taken once the harm is done, often against those who are no longer prosecuting harm or have been rendered incapable of repeating the original act that roused wrath.

All societies designate permissible victims. They set apart certain categories of people who are presented as suitable for violence, exclusion, and persecution. These categories may not be legally defined as social victims or social enemies. The designation may be informal, or hidden within legal and official actions that retain the semblance of order and propriety: the failure of the legal system to address white murderers of black men, women, and children in the Jim Crow South is an example of this. In times of war, the military is prone to make such judgments and promote such a categorization, in part as a necessary part of its mission, for an army cannot be effective if the soldier must determine as part of every encounter the personal, private allegiances of the other participants. The military is, however, largely aware of the ethical risks of this element of its mission, and resists its possible deleterious effects. The German military, for example, during World War II often objected to including military forces in campaigns against local civilian populations because it would lead to discipline problems within the army and destroy the soldier's ethical standards. It would, the military thought, barbarize them and make them dangerous.

Atrocities are unnecessary. They are not required by the situation or even by the content of a given command. They go beyond duty and obedience, into self-indulgence and the ecstasy of violence. Again, let us look at the Holocaust. It was the desire of the Nazi hierarchy, for this is not the place to get into arguments over how much Hitler knew or where the "order" to kill the Jews of Europe and the East originated, to eliminate the Jewish population using various means, shooting, starvation, labor, and gas. But this is not the whole of what was done. The actual facts of the killings went beyond the given orders. It was not necessary to the project that the Jews be first humiliated, stripped naked, beaten, or used as entertainment in perverse public exhibitions of inferiority and submission. The killing did not make the atrocity; everything surrounding the killing did.

Rwandan genocide, 1994
Rwandan genocide, 1994
Rwandan genocide, 1994
Rwandan genocide, 1994
Memorial to the victims of the Rwandan genocide, Daily Mail photograph.
Memorial to the victims of the Rwandan genocide, Daily Mail photograph.
My Lai massacre, 1968, Vietnam
My Lai massacre, 1968, Vietnam

Several years ago I read a letter a German doctor wrote to his wife from Poland. It still haunts me today, although there is nothing especially violent or savage in its content. He is not describing an action against the Poles or the Jews to her. He is sitting outside in the sun on a pleasant day, listening to bones crack as they dry. The bones are recent acquisitions he is treating for preservation and study, taken from Polish citizens murdered at a nearby Gestapo center. The image of this educated, self-satisfied man sitting in magnificent ease listening to the music of sun-cracked bones is to me an image of atrocity, if not the stock image of direct bloodshed, predation, and murder. This is the atrocity of the social man, who sees nothing wrong with what he does or how he profits, so long as he is told he is a good man and all is as it should be in his world.

Atrocities, then, also violate the human integrity of the victim. In war, it is possible to kill an enemy soldier, and yet recognize his value as a human, recognize that in the dread necessity of the conflict something of value has been destroyed, a life equal to one's own has been sacrificed. Atrocities do not recognize any such value in their targets. The victim is not a human being in full possession of all that entails, but an avenue to some other purpose. In the Holocaust, the victims of atrocities were pathways to the pure Reich of the future. They were not fully human, nor when the killer met them were they completely alive, but residents in some strange interstitial space of the not-yet-buried. The Jews died when the decision to kill them was taken; all that happened to them after happened to corpses. A similar perception of the victims as already dead, as objects against whom all acts were permissible because they were no longer truly living human beings, is expressed by participants in the Rwandan genocide in Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld.

We feel that atrocity is more than mere murder. We detect in it an excess of involvement, a commitment of the killer's personality in the act that removes the atrocity from the abstract violence defined as necessary or required in some situations. While a soldier might kill in war without actively desiring to do so, but as part of his commitment to the other soldiers he serves with or out of a sense of duty to his nation or his people, atrocities are committed out of desire. They occur because the killers want to kill, want to torture, and are personally as individuals satisfied by the action. Atrocities often occur against targets the larger society approves, or against those the killers believe are approved targets, but this permission provides the opportunity for the atrocity and is not its substance. In an atrocity, the killer exceeds the command and indulges himself, within a group or as an individual. Serial killers commit atrocities; most murderers do not.

Atrocities are individual. Each is different. Each is a unique violation of unique human beings by other no less unique individuals. There is no value in comparing atrocities and declaring one superior to another, one of more depravity than another. The violation of the human lies at the heart of each, and each such violation deserves our full attention, our full engagement, without participation in some metadialogue that creates, perhaps unintentionally, a hierarchy of victims of greater and lesser value.

Atrocity as entertainment, defended by many of those involved as growing out of official military intelligence operations at Abu Ghraib.
Atrocity as entertainment, defended by many of those involved as growing out of official military intelligence operations at Abu Ghraib.
Somalia, 1993
Somalia, 1993
Photo from Rolling Stones "Kill Zone" report on actions of some members of the US military
Photo from Rolling Stones "Kill Zone" report on actions of some members of the US military
Abusing the dead
Abusing the dead

Are there excusable atrocities? Perhaps. We seem to believe there are, or should be, exclusions from the condemnation applied to perpetrators of atrocity. We want to make allowances for situation, for individual psychology, for stress and pressure. Most recently we have seen this applied in the case of the Marines in Afghanistan who urinated on corpses. Some Americans came to the defense of these young men on the grounds that we, the civilians, could not understand the pressures of combat, and that it was the pressure of combat, not anything specific to these young men, that produced the act in question. A sub-text, and sometimes a primary text, in these defenses was the lesser value of the enemy dead to our own as human beings. I do not imagine that we would allow the same excuses to our enemies if they engaged in the mistreatment of us, their enemies. We certainly did not make such excuses for the Somalian paramilitary hooligans who dragged U.S. bodies through the streets in celebration. Both abuses of the dead were committed with joy, were part of a celebratory mode that combined vengeance and excitement. Both were actions that followed the fact of conflict, that occurred after the fight-or-flight situation had been satisfactorily resolved, and were therefore something extra, something more.

I cannot say what should be done with those young Marines caught on video. I would have to know more about them and their situation. I would have to know more about the dead, how they got there and who they were. I would need context I do not have. I will say, however, that I am not in a rush to excuse them on the grounds of their Americanness and the fact of combat. Neither alone is a valid defense. Being American is certainly no justification for atrocity, nor does being American remove the participation in atrocity from the realm of the possible. The fact of combat complicates the field of judgment, but does not remove atrocity from the range of possible definitions of the act. Even if we, in the end, decide this event was not an atrocity, but somewhere lower on the registry of human violence, we can only affirm that it was wrong, regrettable, and conduct unbecoming a human and a soldier. We can only affirm that it was a breach of civilized behavior, but one to which we think we have an appropriate reaction, an effective method of reconciling the perpetrators to society.

It is in some ways easier to deal with atrocities against the innocent. We are not bothered by the complications involved in how one deals appropriately with one's enemies, on the limitations of human restraint, on the expectations we can reasonably have of our soldiers treatment of our enemies. We are not so prone to indulge our resentment of the enemy in addressing the action taken. The murder of children is always the murder of children, and the difficulty lies in justifying and defending it, not in condemning it. The murder of unarmed women and the elderly falls into the same category. The condemnation of these outside of the situation in which they occur is easy, seems obvious and beyond debate. However, when the victims of atrocity are young men and soldiers, it is easier to summon a justification and sympathy for the perpetrators. Young men and soldiers, after all, could, we imagine, fight back, may have even earned in the course of combat the hatred displayed against them. Young men and soldiers are placed in our minds in a different relationship to the perpetrators than the obviously innocent children, women, and elderly. We see in them more possibilities of complicity, of a complicating relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.

What is the power of the group in atrocity? The Rwandan killers in Hatzfeld's book were participants in atrocities that they undertook as a mutually supporting gang of young villagers, in a wider social field that encouraged their activities and profited from them. The degree of their involvement varied, but they did not condemn one another, did not attempt to restrain one another's actions, and actively refused to consider their actions when they undertook them as saying anything about their individual worth and ethical position. They targeted those their society permitted them to target. They acted as their society permitted them to act. Their actions brought them immediate material benefit and a feeling of power within their group, as well as over their victims. Even when it was clear that the time of their power was ending, they continued to massacre the Tutsi, for that was what had to be done. The complete annihilation of the Tutsi was the point of the exercise; it had been present in the first killings and must be seen through to the last, despite changes in the situation outside of their village, away from their killing field. Perhaps this provides us with some clue to the motivations and emotions that fueled the death marches at the end of the Holocaust, which seem without purpose or meaning in the last days of a lost war when the failure of the Nazi state and all its intentions was clear. Those bonded by crime had nothing but further crime to hold them together, and their only justification for starting a genocide lay in completing it.

Disturbingly, the definition of atrocity relies upon our sense of the motivations of the perpetrators, their psychological and social situation, more than it does upon the persons whose bodies are rewritten in the act recognized as an atrocity. The persons tormented, raped, murdered are less important, unless we are able to place them in the category of innocents, a category which simplifies the process of identifying the act as an atrocity, than the people who torment, rape, and murder. This is created by our identification of atrocity with criminal activity, with actions that violate norms that should be, in some way, clear to all. The fact of the crime exists: the victims have been dealt with. We turn in the aftermath to the person of the criminal, and entertain the excuses, justifications, and reasons for the crime, either to reject them or confirm them. We address atrocity in part to separate the perpetrators from ourselves, to place them in another place, another world, one which we do not share and whose commandments we do not recognize. The fact is, unwelcome as it is, that just as the victims belong to us as humans and fellow citizens, so do the perpetrators. There is something of us in them. We should find little comfort in investigating atrocities. Our distance from the killers, while it appears a chasm, is not so great and does not guarantee us purity or innocence.

In the structure of the atrocity story, the victims are stripped of their individuality. They are made representatives of a group, of a situation, of a conflict. As representatives, they are less real, less wholly human, than their killers. They stand before us as signs and engage our sympathies as signs, not as people. The perpetrators, however, retain their individuality, the particularity of their nature, even within the larger context of the situation and their society, because it is in our interest that they remain individual and apart. Part of the purpose of the atrocity tale is to establish the separation between us, the innocents, and they, the murderers. Atrocity stories are told as lessons for the civilized of what the Other is like, and what the Other can do. Rarely, are they cautionary tales of what you, or I, might be like, and what we could do, although this is often at the core of the event, and our unconscious, or opportunistic, social inflections of hate and spite are acted upon by others, from whom we struggle to separate ourselves, to dissolve our bonds to the murderous. After all, the perpetrators went too far and took too solemnly what we did not truly mean, or would like to claim now, faced with the perils of it, we did not intend.

Mutilations associated with the Belgian rubber trade in King Leopold's Congo Free State
Mutilations associated with the Belgian rubber trade in King Leopold's Congo Free State
Kaunas, Lithuania, 1941
Kaunas, Lithuania, 1941
Kaunas, Lithuania, 1941.  German and other spectators view the aftermath of a pogrom the Germans did not have to execute, but did not interfere with, either.
Kaunas, Lithuania, 1941. German and other spectators view the aftermath of a pogrom the Germans did not have to execute, but did not interfere with, either.
Executed Communards in 1871
Executed Communards in 1871

When we, outside events and distant from the act, address the atrocity, we are presented with the insoluble. The terms of justice do not apply, for what has been done is past the human capacity for redress, even of the Old Testament "life for a life" kind. Atrocities involve a number of victims, though not so many that we lose all sense and scale, for the atrocity exists within a genocidal program at the intersection of perpetrator and victim, on a very human level, and thus a single life does not compensate for the multiple lives lost. Prison is tawdry and so far removed from the reality of the action as to appear almost laughable, were its minimal terms and the difficulties associated with the act of trial not so tragic. We lack the means to speak to the crime.

All that we attempt to say and enact in response falls short, fails to resolve and to explain the single question that rises in all of us: why? We are left with to whom it happened, what it was that happened, and by whom it was done. The justifications perpetrators offer, once we have accepted that this event was an atrocity and not merely a mistake or a mass delusion, leave us cold. They are insufficient. Reason is no guide here and does not help us judge or decide what should be done. Summoning the irrational also fails, for we are sure that, somehow, the perpetrators could not then, and cannot now, escape the sense that what was done was wrong, evil, beyond the boundaries of acceptable human behavior. The victims become mere representations of the crime that devoured them, but the perpetrators too become signs, lose their humanity as we feel we cannot understand them and cannot go where they did. Atrocities leave us stuttering and lost, as everything we know, all the words we are able to use, seem radically inadequate, incapable of expressing or of penetrating the nature of the event in a full realization of both it and its implications.

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Comments 3 comments

gmwilliams profile image

gmwilliams 4 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

To Ed Michaels: Atrocities are the results of abysmal and banal evil. People who commit atrocities have completely abdicated their moral compass. In essence, people who commit atrocities can be classified as psycopathic sadsists i.e. they have no conscious and/or not concerned about what the acts they have.

Another thing which lead to atrocities is the dehumanization of people and/or persons who are deemed "the other" by society. People who are deemed "the other" are often thought of as inferior and "not us" by the prevailing culture at hand. People who are "the other" can be easily dehumanized by the prevailing culture because they are viewed as outsiders. Since they are considered outsiders, they are considered subhuman species to be treated any way the prevailing culture sees fit.

You have presented quite an educational piece of history. Every young person should read and study this hub.


Ed Michaels profile image

Ed Michaels 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

the most disturbing, and least realized, because least comfortable, element of the commission of atrocities is the ease with which human societies, and individuals, appear to undertake them. There is, I would argue, a culture of permissiveness, of complicity, surrounding the individual act found in the social designation of the Other, the establishment of categories of people who are not only different, but deserve different (inferior) treatment and are burdened with a lesser form of human dignity than the rest of us. This appears in little examined elements of our public discourse. For example, one of the things we do as a society when addressing the crime of murder is escape the facts of the crime in order to focus on the person of the victim. We decide whether they deserved to be murdered or not, then we discuss the murder, depending upon our evaluation of the victim's worth. The same situation occurs when we address conditions in prisons: conditions that would be inhumane for good people are perfectly appropriate, or at least acceptable, when applied to those we do not define among the good. As many who commit atrocities believe they are acting with approval, that they are daring to do what society and their fellow citizens want or need them to do, they must often be confused by the reaction that follows the commission of the crime. After all, when society denies the human dignity and worth of one of its members, why should members of that society expect the consequences for harming them would be real or severe?


gail641 profile image

gail641 3 years ago from Mason City

Atrocities are horrible crimes committed against others. The ones' committing the atrocities are cruel and inhuman + evil. Very interesting hub! Atrocities are unnecessary. They are evil crimes against humanity.

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