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Transforming Ordinary People into Killers: The Tutsi Genocide- and Interview with Dr Scull

Tutsi genocide is one of the most horrific truths of our recent history.  It happened in 1994, and led to the death of 20 percent of the total population of Rwanda. An estimate of 175000- 210000 Hutu perpetrators participated in this genocide. The violence was incredibly brutal and intimate, the Hutu perpetrator killed Tutsi’s that they had been raised with like their neighbors, family members with machete. During the time, it had become a normal everyday activity for the Hutu’s to go out and kill the Tutsi. Why did these seemingly ordinary citizens turn into killer? This is what the paper “Transforming ordinary people into killers: A psychosocial examination of Hutu participation in the Tutsi genocide” looks at. The researchers: Nicholas C Skull, Christophe D. Mbonyingabo, and Mayriam Kotb interviewed 17 perpetrators to understand what caused them to become murderers.

  1. Could you touch a bit on what the research is for our audience who may be learning about the research for the first time?

Generally, I am interested in what causes people to participate in political violence. The Tutsi genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 presents a compelling context to study this topic as average, everyday citizens armed themselves with primitive weapons such as machetes, clubs, and farming tools and went door-to-door killing their neighbors, friends, and even their own family members. In just a little over three months, between 800,000 to a million people were killed. When one reads about the Tutsi genocide, the lingering question people have is: why? I wanted to answer this question.

  1. What got you interested in this research?

I am a psychologist by training so I am interested in individual factors that guide behavior. However, when we consider why people participate in political violence, we cannot just look at individual factors. We also need to look at the environmental context in which people live and figure out how the environment influences people’s decision to participate in violence.

  1. In your paper you have mentioned that one of the participants was not forced to kill, what do you think was the reason that they participated in the killing?

We found that in addition to being pressured to kill, some individual factors were also prominent including dehumanization and desensitization.

Although most of the participants did not have any personal feelings of ill-will toward Tutsis and most even had Tutsi friends, all of the participants described being raised in a society with a great deal of discrimination and anti-Tutsi sentiment. Societal views of Tutsis seemed to be the seeds of the genocide.

In addition to a history of discrimination, once the genocide began, people eventually became desensitized to the killing. Nobody I interviewed started off with killing. Instead, their involvement was progressive and they eventually became desensitized to the violence. For example, people would start by joining mobs but not carrying weapons or directly engaging in the violence. Then, they would start carrying a weapon and eventually begin engaging in violence. Once they killed someone, participants described that their feelings basically shut-off and they lost their sense of humanity and their conscience. Many described becoming “animals” and losing all perspective of what they were doing.

Everyone I’ve interviewed about the genocide also described that killing just became a way of life during the 3-month genocide. For example, many said that they would wake-up in the morning, have breakfast with their families, sharpen their machetes, and then go to the local football field to receive instructions from the main community organizer about where they would go “hunting.” After a few hours of “hunting” they would gather at the local cabaret or bar, drink banana beer and discuss their day before going home for the evening. For many, this was their daily schedule. Participants described that killing just became a way of life and they very much became desensitized to it.

The specific participant who you are referring to very much believed that what the genocide was a “just cause” due to anti-Tutsi propaganda, a legacy of discrimination (from both sides, and dehumanization of Tutsis.

  1. In your paper, you have mentioned that the Hutu were scared of the violence they would have to face if the Tutsi took over and how the Tutsi terrorized them so how did they justify those same actions when the situation was reversed?

All of the participants were told that they were going to be attacked by Tutsis and that they needed to kill them in order to protect themselves. It is important to understand that many who were directly involved in the genocide were poor and generally not well-educated, which might have caused them to be more susceptible to deception and manipulation.

  1. Do you think that after the Hutus were release and went back to their village, the fact that some of them ended up making good relations with Tutsis, sometimes even with the family members of people they killed, helped with the transformation process?

The reconciliation process is one of the most amazing aspects of the genocide and really speaks to the humanity of the Rwandan people. Once the genocide was stopped, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned for their crimes. Of course, it was logistically very complex to have trials for so many people so they resorted to their traditional court system called Gacaca Court. When perpetrators went through the Gacaca system, they were asked to confess their crimes to surviving members of the family and if they did so, they were then sent to re-education camps to teach them about genocide and prepare them for reintegration into their villages. Through this process, many started to learn that what they did was wrong. The Gacaca system was also meant to facilitate forgiveness and possibly reconciliation but there is conflicting research on the effectiveness of this.

There are countless examples of perpetrators returning to their villages and ultimately being accepted. Imagine someone killing your family members and then moving back in next door to you. What would you do? Again, the fact that there are so many examples of forgiveness and even reconciliation very much speaks to the humanity that exists in Rwanda.

All of the participants I interviewed noted that being forgiven for their crimes was a large part of their transformation and re-gaining their sense of humanity. Some of the participants eventually became close friends with the families of their victims and they shared resources and helped one another. Most of the participants had also attended a reconciliation program with an organization called CARSA. I am constantly amazed by the strength and resilience of displayed by both perpetrators and survivors in their ability to reconcile.

  1. Do you think that this event can be used to show hope for rejuvenation of criminals like serial killers?

The psychosocial factors that caused people to participate in the Tutsi genocide are very different than the motivators for serial killers so I don’t think the event can be generalized in this way.

  1. With your research, what do you hope to see from it within the next year or so?

One of the more important findings of the study was how perpetrators didn’t just dehumanize their victims, but they also dehumanized themselves. It is well-established in the psychological research that many perpetrators of political violence dehumanize the opposing group. In the case of the Tutsi genocide, this was done through mass propaganda where Tutsis were called “cockroaches” and other inhumane terms. However, at least in the case of perpetrators of the Tutsi genocide, some also dehumanized themselves by referring to themselves as animals and in so doing, it seemed to make it easier to engage in the violence. In other words, if one sees themselves as an animal, does it make it easier to detach from humanity and make it easier to kill? This is something we’re starting to explore in a follow-up study.

Another research team and I are also now looking at the psychosocial motivations for joining terrorist organizations and we are conducting in-depth interviews with members of ISIS and Al-Qaeda to better understand this.

  1. What are some challenges that you faced during the times of your research?

It is very difficult to conduct international research. I made a number of trips to Rwanda to learn about the country, the history, the genocide, and to meet local community members, survivors, perpetrators, and organizations that work with both groups. When I was conceptualizing the study, the guiding principle was that I wanted to make sure that the findings would be useful to Rwanda and the organizations that work with survivors and perpetrators. I eventually made some amazing friends and contacts and some of whom became my research assistants. They were essential in not only helping to ensure that we were pursing a line of research that would have direct benefit to communities and organizations and to also ensure that the research was culturally sensitive. My research assistants were essential to the success of the projects.

  1. Do you have additional resources or further readings for those who want to learn more about the topic?

One of my favorite books on the Tutsi genocide is called, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch.

To read first-hand accounts of perpetrators of the genocide, I recommend a book called, Machete Season: The Killer in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfield.

Ervin Staub also wrote an excellent book called, Overcoming Evil: Vioelnce, Genocide, and Terrorism.

The American Psychological Association has a division dedicated to psychological study of peace, violence and conflict (Division 48): http://peacepsychology.org

There are also some excellent organizations in Rwanda doing great work with both survivors and perpetrators. I encourage your readers to visit their websites and support their efforts. Here are some I recommend:

Survivors Fund (SURF): https://survivors-fund.org.uk

Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Action (CARSA): http://www.carsaministry.org

IBUKA: https://www.insightonconflict.org/conflicts/rwanda/peacebuilding-organisations/ibuka/

This research gave me a very dark understanding of factors that influence the mind of people that commit such atrocities and how such people can be redeemed if a systematic effort is made.

If anyone has any questions or comments about the research, Dr. Nicholas Scull can be reached at: nscull@gmail.com

10 Comments

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  1. The desensitization of an act because it has become so common, in addition to seeing people including the self as not human is something that can be seen in all sorts of smaller scale situations as well. A common seen example is making degrading remarks at someone of another race. However, even though the core issue is the desensitization and the dehumanizing process, I think there are many more factors that are likely to be involved with the inhumane acts of violence as well as insensitive words that may be said about others.

    What I would like to know is whether the idea of what the place of an individual has in the world has any part in it. Although, I do imagine that what the society deems as definitive of a person’s identity and worth will set the stage for what the individual will see as important to them. For example, if the definition of being accomplished is being recognized by others, then the individual will focus their energy on getting recognized by others to feel accomplished. As a result, they will have been conditioned to think that people who are not recognized by others are not good enough and therefore, propaganda that takes advantage of the narrative that a certain group of people are below them because they are not recognized by others will become self-validating. In other words, the people are making judgements not really based on objective information, but on an ingrained subjective way of thinking.

    With that said, it would be interesting to not only construct a pedagogy that specifically targets the recognition of others as human, thereby meaning they need to be treated with respect, but also to allow spaces for organized discussion and interaction of the divided people. As I believe that teaching theory and critical thinking and reflection is not nearly enough. A key component is to actually experience the humanity of both the individual themselves and “the other”. Unfortunately, as the world stands many people do not get the chance to interact with the people that they speak about (based on facts and trends) causing a type of dehumanization.

  2. This interview presented topics I had never thought about before. As someone who only had a vague knowledge of the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis, I greatly appreciated the background information provided in the introduction. There were a few spelling mistakes that could easily be fixed with a quick read-through, but my main suggestion for the future would to be to ask more specific questions. You’re covering such a broad subject, so you might be better off focusing on a smaller part of it.

  3. This interview and article touches on a fascinating and deep topic, one that is hard to cover in such a short amount of time. Kudos to the author for taking on this on head first! This is a difficult subject matter.

    My main suggestion to the author would be to narrow down the topic for future interviews (and I do hope you continue to post about this topic). Answering the question of why people participate in violent crimes, such as genocide, is an enormous subject and a question that is almost impossible to answer as it is. Subtopics will be your best friend here. Focusing on societal pressures, individual factors, and other subtopics individually and then collectively will help organize and more clearly convey your main points.

  4. The Rwandan genocide was a horrible event in history and it’s occurrence still isn’t common knowledge in history. Even though I knew about it to some extent this article really helped me further understand it and just how horrible and sad it was. This interview was cohesive and easy to follow but it did have some grammar issues which I think can be fixed with just a little proofreading and reading to yourself aloud. Something even more beneficial, and what would really help is explaining more about the Tutsis and the Hutus. Who were they? What made these groups different within Rawanda? Did those differences come into play during the genocide and that’s what motivated this “ruthlessness”? Did the Tutsis have less social power and were angry with the Hutus? Dr Scull answered this to some extent but knowing this answers early on changes your thought process as you analyze the information being presented by Dr. Scull so I think a bit of it would be beneficial in the introduction.

  5. I not too long ago listened to a lecture give by Dr. Jordan Peterson that similarly touhed upon explaining the rationale behind genocide. In his lecture, he was attempting to educate on how he came to understand(not sympathize with) those who participated in the Holocaust.

    I cite this lecture because he, too, mentions the dehumanization of an “other” through the use of language. Similarly, in Nazi Germany Jews were referred to as cockroaches, pests, etc.

    Peterson suggests that this was made possible because German had become a society high in conscientiousness, with a leader similarly oriented. High conscientiousness was equated with obsessive cleanliness and orderliness. It was stated that one of Hitler’s first agendas was to clean factories. It was also stated that Hitler was germaphobic.

    In using language which would suggest that those who didn’t fit a certain criteria were, “pathogens” this allowed Hitler maneuverability in exploiting the pathology of German citizens. One of many suggested points of exploitation.

    This interview was incredibly enlightening and I intend to read further materials to better synthesize the concepts presented by both Peterson and Scull.

    Thanks for the book suggestions and descriptions! Nice touch.

  6. It is fascinating how Dr. Scull is interested in what causes people to commit political violence. This is a very new topic that I have not thought about before. There was the Holocaust where there were Nazis that performed horrific acts and committed mass genocide, but this particular case has regular citizens actually just killing their neighbors. This is a very mysterious phenomenon which is why I was extremely interested to read this article. This is also interesting because rather than the individual person, it is a large group of people that are acting this way and choosing to kill. The idea of dehumanization and desensitization always is such a mystery to me because we are able to kill someone else who is the same as us, human. But desensitization is the exact reason why mass killing and genocide is able to occur and work. It is crazy to think that this was thought of as hunting, but by thinking of the people they were killing as less than human, it probably allowed them to think of it as hunting for animals.

    The next part where Dr. Scull describes the forgiveness and reintegration is very interesting. Putting the legal and justice aspects aside, it is crazy how people actually changed from their killer ways to being forgiven and being reintegrated back into society. This reminds me of how there can be mob complexes and how we would never act that way if we were alone. I guess these people were able to act that way in a group and then individually were able to see that what they did was wrong. I never knew that there were these types of programs in place after a terrible event like a genocide and it is truly fascinating to learn about the aftermath.

  7. I would like to know why some of the Hutus were forgiven, because it’s the opposite of what would be expected. I found this article to be interesting, though.

  8. This article doesn’t sit right with me. I think it would have been better if the actual genocide was discussed first to alert people of the exact events that took place. There were many many more factors involved than they told them to kill or they would be killed. The situation is way more complex than that. I am no Hutu sympathizer but an understanding of the events that took place should be required before even reading this article. As far as the article the interviewee didn’t really give answers to the questions in my opinion. For some one who is supposed to be very educated on the topic, his answers lacked the sustenance needed to convince me he’d done all of this research. Yes in the African Country of Rwanada; two different groups of people occupied the land. The Hutu’s and Tutsi’s; you could not look at them and tell them apart from a western perspective. Yes millions of Tutsi’s were wrongfully murdered in cold blood by their Hutu neighbors. The way the article explains it makes it seem like they just started murdering people. They did not take account of all of the political events that inspired these murders. Tutsi discrimination was a horrible problem but it was not the only reason that the horrid events took place. For such a recent event, nobody talks about it. Nobody talks about how the U.S and U.N were reluctant to help or even gave no help at all. We have to tell the whole story because Hutu’s weren’t the only people that contributed to this genocide.

  9. Dear Starbutterfly,
    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on the subject. You raise a number of interesting ideas. To answer your question about education and morality, I do indeed believe that developing the capacity for higher level thinking, especially critical thinking and self-reflection, are critical skills in preventing participation in political violence. When something is able to think about an issue from multiple dimensions they avoid us vs. them; black and white dicotomous thinking patterns that often underpin political violence and genocide. Education is one way to develop these higher level thinking skills. Thanks again for your insightful comments and I’m glad you found the topic interesting. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Dr. Nick Scull

  10. There is much controversy surrounding killers in the contemporary world – millions of people are dying everyday in the hands of people with inhumane traits, the death penalty is being issued, and netflix is streaming around 30 shows on serial killers and brutal murders alone. Truly, it has a huge impact on pop culture. And yet, I have never hear dog the Tutsi Genocide nor of Dr. Scull, which is why I decided to give this article a quick click.

    I appreciate the format of this article and I found the researchers’ insights to be very interesting. Dehumanisation and desensitisation are very real and very harsh truths. People who participate in things out of habit (imagine – killing as a habit) tend to lose perspective and tend to lose feelings for that activity. All morality is thrown out the window. But how does this happen? Why does this happen? Why has killing become a way of their life? I am very intrigued by the cultural differences present in this article.

    When he said “It is important to understand that many who were directly involved in the genocide were poor and generally not well-educated, which might have caused them to be more susceptible to deception and manipulation.” is he suggesting that one of the best ways to prevent the cynical cycle of killing is to educate them and help them become more aware? Is this trend applicable to other cultures? What is education’s impact on morality and awareness of said morality?

    The people described in his research forgave what the criminals did. I’m not sure if that speaks about the humanity that exists in Rwanda but I do know that it has an impact on understanding capital punishment.

    I appreciate this Doctor’s honest responses and insights and the fact that he made very clear the distinction between the genocide and the generalisation of serial killers. I hope he prospers in his research. Thanks for sharing this with us and I’ll be sure to check out the references he left!

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