November 7, 2022

Explaining Atrocities


  • Limits of Strategic Explanations
  • Why do people engage in violence?
  • The role of Psychology and Structure

Why atrocities?

Why atrocities?

\(1.\) Why do atrocities take place?

ethnic violence may be associated with:

  • mass murder of men, women, children
  • torture, use of sexual violence
  • mutilation of bodies

Can we explain this “senseless” violence?

Why atrocities?

\(2.\) Why pay special attention to atrocities?

  • atrocities seem to defy strategic explanation
  • can they illuminate more about why people use violence?

An Example

An Example

Algerian Civil War

  • in 1992, Algerian Army toppled democratic government headed by political party: Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)
  • Armed groups emerged to challenge the new regime: Groupe islamique arme (GIA).
  • GIA seized control of large areas in 1993-1994.

An Example

Between 1996 and 1998, GIA (rebel) forces started doing massacres

  • repertoire: nighttime raids on villages, with killings
  • targeting: killed families in their entirety (infants to the elderly) in their homes
  • technique: hacking/slicing to death using machetes, axes; corpses mutilated; sexual violence against women
  • frequency: dozens of massacres; between 10 and 400 killed
  • Why would people do this?

Strategic violence

Massacres tied to counter-insurgency efforts

Strategic violence

Massacres targeted perceived enemies of GIA rebels

Strategic violence?

Killers in massacres invoked “treason”…

is there more to this than forcing people to “comply”?


Even if we can explain where and when atrocities take place as “strategic”…

  • why do ‘followers’ follow? Why do perpetrators participate in these horrific killings?


Humans not usually inclined to violence; requires preparation and training

Why do perpetrators participate in ethnic violence?


Based on this video:

Any additional reasons you might give for why perpetrators participate in violence?

“Are we the baddies?”

Perpetrators generally don’t think they are morally wrong

much violence is morally motivated:

person doing the violence subjectively evaluates that their actions are right (that they ought to be done)

“Virtuous Violence”

Fiske and Rai (2015)

Relational Models Theory: psychological theory, from the perspective of perpetrators:

  • people often judge that to constitute or regulate crucial relationships they are morally required to hurt or kill another person

  • by moral, they mean evaluating actions, motives, and intentions with respect to an ideal model of how people should relate

Relational Models Theory

Four varieties of moral relationships; focus on two

1. Communal Sharing/unity:

relationship with people in the same group as undifferentiated and equivalent

  • shared responsibility; shared fate
  • threat to one is a threat to all; crime of one is a crime by all
  • connection to essentialism, social identity

Relational Models Theory

2. Authority Ranking/hierarchy

rank individuals in a hierarchical relationship

  • subordinates are to respect/obey/defer to superiors
  • asymmetrical relationships are natural, good, legitimate, necessary
  • connection to social identity theory, status, ranked systems

Relational Models Theory

Violence is used to regulate at least one or more of these moral relationships with the victim and others

Relational Models Theory

Violence can…

  • create moral relationships (e.g. bonds of unity among perpetrators)
  • enhance or transform relationships (e.g. increase group unity, transform ethnic hierarchy)
  • protect relationships (e.g. to defend ethnic hierarchy; to defend ethnic group)
  • redress/rectify relationships (e.g. to punish/avenge a transgression against the group/ethnic hierarchy)

Why use violence?

  • Violence gets people’s attention
  • Shows that the stakes are high
    • stronger/more important relationships
    • entire relationship is at stake, not simply its practice

Should imply that:

  • violence is more likely when, e.g., there are serious threats to a particular morally important relationship, like racial hierarchy.

Key insights: Cultural Context

Even through RMT is psychological approach to violence, it points to the importance of cultural context:

Why do we often see violence as immoral?

Who evaluates actions as moral?

Key insights: Audiences

Violence may be as much about the audience as the victim

  • violence to regulate relationship with the audience (prove oneself as a member of a team)
  • violence may be constrained if there are multiple, diverse audiences.
  • cultural/symbolic content of violence may be important

Extra-Lethal Violence

Fujii shows that extra-lethal violence often is symbolic action that communicates in complex ways to other perpetrators, audiences, and the victim.

“spectacle lynching”…

  • transformed moral status of perpetrators (both enacting and “above the law”)
  • spectators were “part of the show”
  • communicating white supremacy to other African Americans


In coming weeks, we bring turn attention to

  • Psychology and Violence
    • how are individuals motivated to engage in ethnic violence?
  • Structures (Media) and Violence
    • if individuals are morally motivated…
    • how are events, relationships given moral salience?