What Psychology Can Explain the Darfur Atrocities?
(This entry originally appeared as a comment in the thread “Is Climate Change the Culprit for Darfur?“.)
Social Psychologists have defined aggression as either instrumental or hostile. Instrumental aggression is impersonal and strategic. It’s business. Hostile aggression is hateful. A mugger that beats a man on the street demonstrates instrumental aggression. He doesn’t care about his victim-he cares about his money. Harming the target (victim) is a means to the end of taking his money. Hostile aggression is when the aggressor intends to harm someone for the sole purpose of harming them. Obviously the two are not mutually exclusive. If climate change was the root of the crisis in Darfur, we would only see instrumental aggression. The Janjiweed however has clearly shown hostile aggression. In other words, they have an interest beyond just manipulating or getting something from their victims, demonstrated by the atrocious nature of their attacks.
Lt. Col Dave Grossman, (1995) a former military psychologist, documents with strong evidence a history of human resitance to killing. In "On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society" Grossman cites laboratory psychology experiments as well as historical evidence from wars (including World War II, the US Gulf War, the US-Vietnam War, the US-Korean War, the 6-day Arab-Israeli war) describing how even soldiers trained to kill have resisted, consciously or unconsciously, from carrying out their duties.
Grossman cites one study showing that 98% of survivors (within the study) of 60 days or more of continuous battle became psychiatric casualties. In other words, 98% of those survivors were psychological incapacitated-unable to function as soldiers because of on-the-job stress. This doesn’t seem hard to believe if we attribute this stress to fear of death. Interestingly enough later studies suggest that fear of dying is NOT the highest stress factor in battle (eg. Berkun, 1958; Shalit, 1988). As humans we have an innate resistance to killing our own species. This plays a key role in battle stress (along with other primary factors such as not disappointing comrades)
People with an antisocial personality do not have to worry about this psychological barrier to killing-they feel no guilt. They will only restrain themselves in self-interest.
Antisocial personalities are too rare to make up entire armies. Genocide isn’t mainly committed by people with an antisocial personality. Instead, several mental and physical mechanisms enable perpetrators of genocide.
Distance and dehumanization (among other factors such as obedience, group think, diffusion of responsibility and others) are key enablers for killing, especially in modern warfare. Killing is not nearly as difficult if done with a button from the view of a radar screen. For example, it can be much less traumatic for someone to press a button (dropping a bomb over a village) from 10,000 feet than it is to look even one victim in the eyes.
While the Sudanese government has sophisticated-enough technology for its military to use a physical distance to dehumanize their victims, the militias they contract (Janjiweed) most certainly do not have that technology. They see their victims.
In order for humans to do what the Janjiweed has done, they have to dehumanize their victims through emotional distancing. In most genocides, the perpetrators pick some arbitrary distinction between them and their enemies that (in their minds) justifies their acts. The Nazis were able to separate themselves (mentally) from their victims by dehumanizing them as non-Aryan. How does the Janjiweed dehumanize Darfurians, many of whom they share both religion and race?
Environmental changes can be a factor in Darfur. Climate and the subsequent migration of groups could be a motivation for the government hiring militias (instrumental aggression). The nature of Janjiweed attacks however are more than instrumental. Attackers want to hurt their victims. With intermarriage that has blurred the line between African and Arab, the Janjiweeds’ ability to dehumanise their victims (with whom they share a common religion) is particularly puzzling.