Abstract

If we want to understand why political elites choose to commit genocide, we need to inquire into how elite perpetrators reconstruct the collective identity of the victim group such that genocide becomes the only possible policy option. This article argues that elites decide to commit genocide, and not some other less catastrophic policy of repression or violence, when three conceptual "switches" concerning the identity, interests, and future actions of the victim group are "turned on" by the perpetrators. First, members of the victim group lose their (often marginal) status within the political community and are constructed as outsiders, to whom rights and obligations are no longer owed. Next, they come to be seen as dangerous enemies whose continued physical presence is seen to pose an overwhelming threat to the political community. This second mortal-threat conception consists of three mortal-threat "motifs": the struggle between the perpetrator and victims as an epic battle; the victims as the controlling force behind, or controlled by, powerful threatening external forces; and the victims as carriers of deadly biological contagion. Finally, the victims are viewed as subhumans who can be killed without compunction. The process of identity reconstruction as a whole is underpinned by a pre-genocide history of exclusionary and authoritarian intergroup norms and practices, and of authoritarian approaches to conflict management, and is triggered by serious economic, political, or security crises.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-9933
Print ISSN
1911-0359
Pages
pp. 5-29
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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