GENOCIDE HAPPENS IN SOCIAL SPACE

genocide

This year is the 22nd  anniversary of the publication of my book, ORDINARY PEOPLE AND EXTRAORDINARY EVIL.  It was my first response to the Holocaust — as both a child survivor and professional sociologist — who is not satisfied with how historians address the Holocaust, and genocides generally.   Here is what produced my mission:

An investigator of the 1990’s genocide in Rwanda wrote:  “… The killers, by and large, were ordinary people — not jackbooted representatives of the state.  Neighbors did it — to neighbors.  Pastors did it — to parishioners.  Doctors did it — to patients.  Schoolteachers did it — to pupils.  In-laws did it — to in-laws. Workers did it — to fellow workers at the … local tire factory. (*)

My response is that it is not enough to report such horrors.  We need explanation! How is it that ORDINARY people would engage in such horrendous acts?  This is the challenge I try to meet in that and subsequent books.  My work is in the tradition of Hannah Arendt’s banality-of-evil thesis,  but goes far beyond it, showing how our “ordinary” makeup — of how we cope in Social Space — can be used to taking part in horrific actions,  even as this same makeup can be used for our most humane and decent actions.

(*)  From Paul Henrickson, “Witness to the Unimaginable,” Washington Post,15 November 1998.  This is a review of Philip Gourewich’s book, WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES. (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.)

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