Ordinary Murderers, Part 1: Crimes of Obedience

Synopsis: This blog series discusses the social-psychological background of mass atrocities, and what implications it may have for genocide education.

Ordinary Murderers, Part 1: Crimes of Obedience

The extent of past and current mass violence is shocking and barely conceivable for most of us as detached, remote bystanders. The most horrible genocides of our time have been as atrocious as they have been diverse – in the ways they were carried out, prepared, and dealt with, as well as in the number of victims, or in the brutality of crimes. Yet most have one thing in common: Many perpetrators were seemingly ordinary persons that were repeatedly compelled to commit acts of mass violence and rape against their own kind.

A few years back, I took a class on the interplay between perpetrators, victims, and bystanders during genocides and mass atrocities. At the start of the very first lecture, the professor asked students to raise their hands if they thought they could or would ever torture another individual, even on a small level. I distinctly remember how lonely those two or three hands looked up in the air, including the professor’s.

Towards the end of the course, my classmates and I all understood why our professor had asked that question and why none of us could be sure anymore how we’d now respond. We learned how easily ordinary people could be capable of harming others under certain conditions, and that anybody could be one of these ‘ordinary’ individuals.

Many times, perpetrators of genocides followed an ideological belief and killed because of that belief. The world is, of course, inhabited by a good number of people who will easily commit horrible crimes, or are prone to violence at the least. At the same time, there are instances when ordinary people without any prior offenses or wrongdoings become deeply entangled in and indoctrinated by the rules, regulations, and orders of a totalitarian government – without being genuine followers of an ideology.

In this blog series I want to focus on the latter scenario. Why do ordinary people participate in mass atrocities? Why are people so prone to following orders, sometimes against their will? I want to discuss this in four parts: The theory behind “Crimes of Obedience” (Part 1); how this becomes visible in different cases of mass atrocities (Part 2); observations in everyday life (Part 3); and finally, a conclusion as to what this means for society and education (Part 4).

If we are to discuss the influence of authority, the term “Crimes of Obedience” is key. Coined by scholar Herbert Kelman, it refers to crimes that might naturally receive a strong punishment under normal conditions – such as massacres – yet are enabled by the policies of authoritarian states. Kelman believed that the psychological environment of a sanctioned massacre has been changed so drastically from normal morality that individuals are no longer able to refer to it on their own. In the process, a new moral code replaces feelings of responsibility towards the victims, and requires that a new duty is fulfilled. Perpetrators feel compelled to focus on the job rather than on its meaning, and automatically assume the victims to be guilty. They might tell themselves that there is simply no way that the recipients of such unthinkable violence are not guilty themselves of even more horrible crimes.

Kelman describes this as the “transformation process”: Slowly, the perpetrator’s mind is programmed to believe in a goal for which violence is legitimate. Once the first order of violence is completed, there is no reason for questioning any other orders, let alone the return to previously-held morals – the slate is already “dirty.” In the very last stage, killing and violence can be justified because questioning the purpose and morality would mean defying the state’s authority and core ideology, which is held by the whole group. And, as I will propose in the following blogs, it should take a very brave and unique individual to discard group morals in favor of his or her own intuition.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Not all genocides occurred under strict authoritarian planning such as the Holocaust did, and all were subject to different circumstances. Yet it is an introduction to a mindset that is informed by obedience to authority. The case studies of the next blog will delve deeper into that.


For further vital reading on “Crimes of Obedience,” I recommend the corresponding book, Crimes of Obedience, by Herbert C. Kelman and V. Lee Hamilton from 1989; Kelman’s “The social context of torture: Policy process and authority structure” (1993), and Erwin Staub’s The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (1989).

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