Revulsion and Habituation

Ophelia Benson

The unabashed racism of Donald Trump and the enthusiasm of his fans are reminders of recurring questions about how easy it is for people to allow genocides and other atrocities to happen. How thin is the line? Could a genocide happen here?

If you pull the camera back far enough, the question becomes ridiculous. Of course genocide could happen here, because it already has, and not all that long ago. The nineteenth century was one long festival of genocide of Native Americans, and when Reconstruction failed in the post–Civil War South, slavery was smuggled in through the backdoor in the form of Jim Crow labor laws that bordered on genocidal in their effects.

But we feel that we’ve changed. We’ve put all that behind us, and made things better, and resolved to go on in that same direction. I grew up thinking genocide was in the past, in that distant country Before I Was Born—that we had firmly turned our backs on it, vowing never again. But the reality is that genocide never stopped being an option. There was My Lai, for instance, a local holocaust, and there were other local holocausts in Guatemala, Argentina, the Congo—many places, often with U.S. Central Intelligence Agency involvement. The Khmer Rouge killed millions. Did we really mean it about “never again” or did we not? The Balkans and Rwanda seemed to tell us we did not as long as the genocide in question was happening sufficiently far away.

That’s the disconcerting thing about history’s genocides: they demonstrate that very few of us will sacrifice ourselves or even inconvenience ourselves to halt a crime against humanity, provided it’s remote enough. We flinch at the thought of personally killing people, but we won’t interfere if duly signed orders are carried out somewhere distant. I would like to be able to think that there’s a great gulf between the kind of people who can commit genocide and the kind who can’t, but I think in truth it’s a matter of circumstances more than of kinds of people.

In one way, it is possible to separate the sheep from the goats, and that’s on the question of ideology. If you have an ideology that views certain classes of people as radically, ontologically, permanently inferior, that’s a wide-open door to genocide. If by contrast you have an opposed ideology that rejects the whole idea of radical inferiority, that particular door is closed. In that sense I can read Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem without feeling complicit. Nazis were Nazis; they had a belief system that considered whole swathes of humanity not just inferior but dirty, impure, a disease. I’m not a Nazi, I don’t have that belief system, so I wouldn’t have done what they did.

But that gets us only so far. We prefer to think that even if we’d been fully paid-up members of the Nazi Party, we would have drawn the line at genocide. We’d all like to think we have strong enough consciences for that, but the account Browning gives in Ordinary Men, to give just one example, is disturbingly corrosive of that kind of optimism.

The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were middle-aged draftees considered too old for the German army, most of them raw recruits. On July 13, 1942, they were given the job of rounding up all the Jews in the small Polish town of Józefów. “The male Jews of working age were to be separated and taken to a work camp,” Browning writes. “The remaining Jews—the women, children, and elderly—were to be shot on the spot by the battalion.” Chapter 7 gives a detailed account of that day, taken from testimony of the men themselves some twenty years later. They had to march into the forest with their victims, one at a time, and shoot each one in the back of the head. The men did not enjoy their work, and in fact were badly traumatized by it. At first the reader feels reassured by this—but then we read on and find that the officers learned to prevent traumatization via division of labor. The job became a matter of ghetto clearing and deportation rather than one-on-one shooting; the actual killing was done at Treblinka. Problem solved. Browning sums it up chillingly:

In short, the psychological alleviation necessary to integrate Reserve Police Battalion 101 into the killing process was to be achieved through a twofold division of labor. The bulk of the killing was to be removed to the extermination camp, and the worst of the on-the-spot “dirty work” was to be assigned to the Trawnikis. This change would prove sufficient to allow the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 to become accustomed to their participation in the Final Solution. When the time came to kill again, the policemen did not “go crazy.” Instead they became increasingly efficient and calloused executioners.

That’s what human beings do—we get used to things. We adapt. In general that’s a useful and morally neutral quality, but when what we have to get used to is a world of genocide, torture, or mass deportations, it can be a gently sloping road to doing things we could swear we would never do. The men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 went back to normal life after the war, as did millions of other Germans who had taken part in horrors.

A photo of Salah Abdeslam, the suspected organizer of the November 2015 Paris attacks, has been much in the news since his arrest on March 16. He has a rather sweet, soft-featured face, disturbingly so—we expect mass-murderers to look like mass-murderers. But they don’t always look the part, and they don’t always even talk or think or feel the part. Instead, they adjust to their role and get on with the job. It’s a job that most people can be made to do.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).


Given human nature, genocide is always a possibility.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.