Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder by Daniel Chirot and Clark McCauley. Princeton University Press, 2006. 288 pp.

In Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder, Daniel Chirot and Clark McKauley seek to explain what seems unfathomable for many observers—the slaughter of masses of innocent civilians in genocides and other mass political murders throughout history. Chirot and McKauley examine psychological, ethnographic, sociological, historical, and political explanations for mass political murder. At the same time, they consider mechanisms that have emerged in various societies that limit group violence. In doing so, the authors emphasize two seemingly paradoxical conclusions: 1) that mass political murder occurs under “normal” conditions rather than being the product of abnormal or criminal psychology; and 2) that genocide happens less frequently than one might predict based on their observations of the causal forces that make genocidal violence possible. In the authors’ view, “mass killing is neither irrational nor in any sense ‘crazy,’” but represents normal psychological responses to group conflict and competition (7). Yet most conflicts, and even most wars, do not become genocidal. A primary objective of their work, then, is to explain this paradox.

The authors begin by considering the question of whether modern genocides differ in any meaningful way from historical mass political killings. They conclude that, although genocide has occurred throughout history, modern states have increased the conditions under which genocidal violence emerges by re-tribalizing human groups in large-scale societies. The authors assume that competition and conflict among groups is, at some level, inevitable. The question of why inter-group competition and conflict escalates to genocidal violence in some cases remains unanswered.

While broadly considering the causes of genocidal violence, the authors explore examples of mass political murder in various historical periods to support their argument that mass political violence is “normal.” They also examine ancient as well as modern examples of inter-group conflicts in which victors are restrained in their use of violence and do not seek to eliminate their enemies in order to explore why most violent conflicts do not become genocidal. Ultimately, they suggest that mass political killing exists on a political continuum. By locating historical cases along this continuum, and by exploring the psychological, social, and political factors that have shaped these cases, the authors hope to shed light on the conditions that lead to genocidal violence and the factors that might enable human societies to control or prevent genocide.

Ultimately, Why Not Kill Them All? is a synthetic work that seeks to provide a taxonomy of the potential causes of genocidal violence. The authors identify four main motives—convenience, revenge, simple fear, and fear of racial or ethnic “pollution”—that can turn basic inter-group conflict into mass political violence. The authors do not claim that all of these factors must be present for genocidal violence to occur but merely argue that at least one of these motivations is present when mass political murder occurs, either historically or in modern cases. In addition to identifying these motives, the authors also claim that various psychological mechanisms are at play when ordinary people are convinced to engage in mass political murder. These mechanisms include desensitization to killing, organization, emotional appeals (fear, anger, hate, love, disgust), and essentializing others.

The historical breadth of the work is useful in documenting the continuity of mass political murder historically. Similarly, the authors’ broad, multidisciplinary consideration of the possible psychological, social, and political causes of genocidal violence makes the work a comprehensive overview of the logic of mass political murder. However, the breadth of the work ultimately diminishes its utility in isolating variables that cause genocide in particular cases. The authors offer plausible explanations for why genocidal violence occurs without putting forth any concrete evidence of why genocide occurs in specific cases. For example, it seems reasonable, on the surface, to assume that hate as an emotion is always in play when genocidal killings occur. But asserting that hate can cause people to overcome their aversion to killing does not prove that hate was a motivating factor in specific conflicts, or, more to the point, in the case of particular perpetrators. The authors of this work put forth plausible assertions without supportive evidence that could lead a reader to reasonably conclude that this or that variable is more likely to be a cause of genocidal violence. Thus, in terms of contributing to our understanding of the specific conditions under which mass political violence occurs and how we might prevent it, this book is of limited utility.

Debra L. DeLaet, Drake University
November 2007


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