Nastiness Diagnosis. Anthropology. Religion. Gender. Justice. A Personal Notepad For the General Public.
Of all the horrors human beings perpetrate, genocide stands near the top of the list. Its toll is staggering: well over 100 million dead worldwide. Why Did They Kill? is one of the first anthropological attempts to analyze the origins of genocide. In it, Alexander Hinton focuses on the devastation that took place in Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979 under the Khmer Rouge in order to explore why mass murder happens and what motivates perpetrators to kill. Basing his analysis on years of investigative work in Cambodia, Hinton finds parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Nazi regimes. Policies in Cambodia resulted in the deaths of over 1.7 million of that country’s 8 million inhabitants—almost a quarter of the population–who perished from starvation, overwork, illness, malnutrition, and execution. Hinton considers this violence in light of a number of dynamics, including the ways in which difference is manufactured, how identity and meaning are constructed, and how emotionally resonant forms of cultural knowledge are incorporated into genocidal ideologies.
A culturalist reading?
In this study of a once-peaceful Buddhist society that got so caught up with Marxism that it came to see virtue in violence and honor in auto-genocide, Hinton goes further than most accounts of the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime in exploring the cultural factors that made Cambodians in the Khmer Rouge willing to kill so many other Cambodians. His sophisticated argument, based on subtle analysis of the Khmer language and extensive anthropological study, shows how Cambodian culture attached great importance to power, patronage, status, and honor; perceived humiliation legitimates anger and retribution, creating the potential for disproportionate revenge. Suddenly finding themselves part of a new elite, young Khmer Rouge recruits were encouraged to dwell on past affronts to their dignity and that of their families and to show no mercy in seeking retribution against “class enemies” and others perceived as threats. The extraordinary power in Hinton’s analysis stems from his readiness to confront hard questions and his skill in elucidating the elements in Cambodian culture that made genocide possible. Although he is careful to keep his analysis focused on the Cambodian case, his insights also help explain genocides in general
Ethos Volume 28, Issue 3