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Why Not Kill Them All?Review - Why Not Kill Them All?
The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder
by Daniel Chirot and Clark McCauley
Princeton University Press, 2006
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
May 15th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 20)

It takes a little courage to ask the awful, but obvious questions. And that is exactly what Chirot and McCauley show. They are not revealing any great insight when they say that the world is a dangerous place or that political mass murder and genocide appear to have established themselves on the landscape of human affairs. However, they do broach significant and even hopeful areas of inquiry in their exploration and critique of the logic advanced for mass murder, and importantly what can realistically and practically done about it.

Much of the early parts of the book are depressing and dispiriting reading for it seems undeniable that mass-murderous instincts can be found in almost every society in every epoch, although the Twentieth Century does have a special place in the gruesome annals. The reader is reminded of the notion that what distinguishes humankind is not so much that they are tool-using beings, but the capacity to use those tools to kill each other. However, the authors lead the reader through a clear-sighted analysis and a more balanced appraisal which recognizes that mass murder is still relatively rare and ending and resolving disputes without recourse to violence may indeed be the norm.

Nevertheless, the role of ideology in creating the conditions for mass murder cannot be underestimated. Totalizing extremism that only a radical solution, a final solution if you like, has always been a feature of organized and sanctioned slaughter. Black and white, good and evil, us and them are features of the Manichean thinking that seeks to justify and rationalize the horrendous acts that are so often benignly, reasonably explained. Perhaps Yeats was right when he said that it those full of passionate intensity of whom we really need to be afraid. And, of course, in recent history we have the faces to put to the chilling words. It may be different to see Pol Pot or Slobodan Milosovic or to hear the RTML in Rwanda calling for the extermination of 'cockroaches'.

So, are we condemned to act some atavistic impulse that can never be quite contained, never repressed far from the surface? The authors think not. They believe it is possible to devise strategies to avoid the most terrible consequences of conflict.

They argue that it is important to see that almost any group of people is capable of the best and the worst; they do call it 'good and evil'. They also suggest that mass killing has within it a sort of fractured logic that while not necessarily being acceptable does possess a certain inherent congruence. That is to say, if the precept is accepted, the rest will follow naturally. The problem is in the first proposition. So, it becomes important and essential to try to understand this logic and to counter it.

This may seem like combating unreason with reason but, as history has shown, it is often the most intransient who triumph, at least in the short run. So what to do?

There is a theme of relational ethics that pervades the argument of the book. When it comes down to it, everything is about relationships. If we do not know someone, or a group, we find it much easier to treat them poorly – and in some cases this can mean denying them certain rights and privileges, and other cases it can mean chopping off their limbs with machetes and feeding their genitals to your dogs. If we do not recognize ourselves in the other, we will find it must easier to create an alien identity for them. If we emphasize difference rather than commonality we will see only the few things that separate us rather than the many things that bind us.

The authors do struggle with the implacability of 'evil-doers'. What if they are not amenable to reason, what if they do not confess that they had never thought about their enemies in that way and give thanks all round for having this pointed out? The authors are hopeful, they are optimistic and, it seems, they are moved by genuine moral and ethical concerns for others. There is a Christian ethic, but not an evangelical one. They believe in what they are saying, it is not just a cognitive argument.

In the end Chirot and McCauley answer their own question, "Why not kill them all?" with the simple assertion that we should not because they are like us.

 

© 2007 Mark Welch

Mark Welch, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta and Co-Director of the PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre for Nursing & Mental Health


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