In the modern world, hunting and war-making often seem intimately related, even though they serve quite diverse purposes and occur in different contexts. Today both are viewed as male occupations; both can need physical endurance and psychic courage; and hunting weapons have often been adapted for killing people, from axes, to spears, to guns. In many present societies, both activities, when successful, bring approbation. Thus the obvious link was implicit: if humans (specifically male humans) evolved as hunters, they should also have evolved to be aggressive warriors. There should be a natural propensity to pursue both activities.
Dave Grossman, in his On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society examines the killing process at diverse points along the distance spectrum—from maximum series to hand to-hand combat. He argues that maximum-range killing—defined as a range at which the killer is incapable to perceive his individual victims without using some form of perfunctory assistance— carries with it a group absolution, mechanical distance, and physical distance that ease killing.
In his research, he has “not found one single instance of individuals who have refused to kill the enemy under these circumstances [maximum range], nor … a single instance of psychiatric trauma associated with this type of killing.” Grossman, 1995, p. 108
Grossman illustrates his general point with explicit examples from the cases of individuals who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Contrary to popular myth, he argues, these individuals evidenced no signs of psychological problems stemming from their contribution in the maximum-range killing of thousands upon thousands of Japanese civilian victims.
As the range between perpetrator and victim decreases, however, killing becomes ever more difficult—becoming most hard in edged-weapons and hand-to-hand combat range.
Grossman’s work makes obvious the inverse relationship between distance and killing—killing is made easier as the distance between perpetrators and their victims’ increases. This exact association also was observed in follow-up studies on Milgram’s original obedience to authority experimentation.
We should understand, though, that distance is not just a physical construct; it is a moral and psychological build as well. In this way, range also is distinct by the perpetrators’ perception of the victims. Face-to-face killing is facilitated when the victims already have already died a “social death” in the eyes of the perpetrators.
The social death of victims can come after the evil, or it may lead to it. Most times, it makes sense to argue that the social death of victims leads their physical death. At times, though, one could argue that the social death of victims is a result of their physical death.
For instance, in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge might have viewed Lon Nol’s supporters as guilty of treason or corruption, but they were not cruel in their eyes. The same may be said of the Cultural Revolution in China and eliminates in the Soviet Union. In each case, though, the social death of victims—as a justification mechanism— came rapidly after the killings began.
Often, the frequent ground between perpetrators and victims in a mass killing or genocide is eradicated by social and legal sanctions. It is the development of moral sanctions, or exclusions, though, that result in the social death of the victims.
Sociologist Helen Fein affirms the significance of this in contending that a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for genocide is the characterization of the victim as outside the perpetrator’s universe of moral obligation:
“A church holding out the possibility of conversion to all must assume a common humanity, and therefore may not sanction unlimited violence. But a doctrine that assumes people do not belong to a common species knows no limits inhibiting the magnitude of permissible crime.” (Helen Fein, 1979, p. 30).
There are three mechanisms essential to understanding the social death of the victims, or the legitimization of the “other” as the enemy, in cases of mass killing and genocide: us-them thinking, dehumanization of the victims, and holding responsible the victim.
People do not normally engage in evil until they have justified to themselves the morality of their actions. How do perpetrators redefine evil to evade recognizing it as immoral? In part, their conduct is legitimized by the conviction that killing, or being willing to kill, members of another group of people are essential for the safety and security of one’s own group.
As Gourevitch recounts in his chronicle of the Rwandan genocide, “Perpetrators of a slaughter like the one just inside the door where I stood need not enjoy killing, and they may even find it unpleasant. What is required above all is that they want their victims dead. They have to want it so badly that they consider it a necessity” (Gourevitch, 1998, p. 18).
So, the perpetration of evil is made individually and socially acceptable by portraying it as helping socially worthy or moral purposes. Perpetrators might believe this rationalization to such an degree that their evil is not only morally reasonable but becomes an outright moral crucial. Perpetrators can then rationalize their evil as essential to their own self-defense to keep the cherished values of their community, fight ruthless oppressors, preserve peace and firmness, save humanity from subjugation, or credit their national commitments.
Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995)
Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), p. 30.
Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 18