Sunday, September 2, 2007

How it happened: Genocide in Rwanda

During the 100 days between the 4th of April when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and the successful take-over by the Rwanda by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) an estimated one million people were massacred (Smith, 1998), mostly members of the Tutsi tribe whom the Hutu tribe sought to be exterminated (Parkes, 1996). For such a massive amount of people to be killed in such a short space of time and under such a horrific circumstances, it is clear that numerous social psychological variables were influential and those variables and theories on how genocide occurs will be identified and discussed.

To begin with, prejudice and stereotypes intensify and become ethnic and cultural distinctions forming dangerous ‘in group’ and ‘out group’ patterns of thinking. In the case of Rwanda, many believe the colonial rulers from Belgium can be seen as introducing this way of thinking, by projecting their own cultural divisions and racist ways of thinking on Rwanda (Smith, 1998). When they arrived in Rwanda, they gave Tutsis special privileges based on earlier reports by missionaries and researches claiming that the Tutsis were ‘the most intelligent’. Creating such a strong social stratification and division between ethnic groups can lead to an ideology of hatred being formed. The group who feels underprivileged then starts to blame not only their own problems and their groups problems, but the problems of society on the ‘out group/aliens’ and a frame of mind forms that those problems will only be resolved if the group is eliminated (Eltringhame, 2006; Parkes, 1996; Zimbardo, 2007). Tension therefore increases along with rivalry and this can drive the group from just feeling this way, to actually doing something about it. In the case of the Rwandan genocide, it can be seen that this strong hatred and destructive ideologies held by the Hutus were the strong driving force that pushed them from feelings of strong hatred to acts of strong hatred carried out on the Tutsis (Smith, 1998).

Once these patterns of thought are in motion, uncertainty and destabilization of the government at national and local levels can create an opening for others to take control (Eltringham, 2006; Parkes, 1996). In the case of Rwanda, after the president’s plane was shot down, by which party is still to this day unknown, it created insecurity and instability at both national and local heights, ultimately creating opportunity for some Hutus to rally to take control.

After meticulous planning and the decision to take control has been put in motion, the group must rally to take control (Eltringham, 2006), using and spreading propaganda to acquire as many participants as they possibly can. This propaganda needs to intelligently justify their proposed actions and in the case of the Hutus, it can be seen that their propaganda was incredibly well crafted, using radio broadcasts to reinforce the needed ingredient of divisionism and social pressure in order to gain mass participants (Smith, 1998). In order to reach their genocidal goals, they realized they had to make the message clear that it was ‘us’ versus ‘them’, Hutus versus Tutsi with no room for anyone in between. Furthermore, the influential leaders seeking to gain control use various methods in order to gain mass participants. For example, studies of past genocides have shown threats (Suedfeld, 2000), force, desirable incentives (Parkes, 1996), widespread indoctrination, coercion (Eltringham, 2006), intimidation and rationalization of their behavior are commonly used tools. Many of these were present within the influential Hutu extremists techniques, who threatened that those who worked together with Tutsis for reconciliation would be considered ‘traitors’ and would consequently be ‘marked for death’; potential participants were given new incentives to loot houses and properties; they wanted to avoid suspicion they were hiding the enemy in their home and fear of negative consequences such as death and torture. These mass murdering individuals are able to commit these horrifying acts due to dissociation (Parkes, 1996; Zimbardo, 2007), whereby the victims were dehumanized and devalued, making the killings easier and making empathy with them unlikely. The Hutus dehumanized the Tutsis, referring to them as ‘inyenzi’ meaning cockroach, in their minds reducing them to animals (Barker, 2004), making it easier to kill them. Reversal of morality is also commonly present in genocides (Suedfeld, 2000; Staub, Pearlman, Gubin & Hagengimana, 2005), whereby killing the victims ‘becomes the right, moral thing to do’ and it can be seen as a ‘racial cleansing’ for the good of the country (Mamdani, 2001).

To explain how people can turn into these evil, mass killers with no sense of remorse or understanding of what they have done (Finzch, 2005), the perpetrators must be examined on an individual level, as well as within the group. In the documentary Ghosts of Rwanda the perpetrators were described as ‘not human’, ‘pure evil’ and ‘killing machines amongst others (Barker, 2004). Some reasons put forward for their participation include they were conforming to the group, saying they were just ‘doing what others around them were doing’, they wanted to avoid suspicion they were hiding the enemy in their home, obedience to authority (Zimbardo, 2007), the knowledge of how to kill, with many Hutu members had already been given the opportunity of lessons on how to kill (Parkes, 1996), and Zuckerman (1994) proposes the individual trait of sensation seeking as an explanation, that these perpetrators were looking for a thrill and the perpetrators realized they received excitement out of killing. In the documentary, it was also stated that once these perpetrators made the first killing, it was easier to commit the second, and then once they had killed dozens of people, killing dozens more became insignificant and ‘normal’. During the day, they were had either ‘just killed and were looking to kill again, or hadn’t killed yet and needed to quench their thirst for a kill which they hadn’t done yet that day.’ Skinner (1968) also proposes a reinforcement theory, stating that rewards given for consequences will increase a behavior and the way to successfully and efficiently increase a behavior is to make the behavior ‘more frequent, more intense, more likely’. All of these influencing factors resulted in the mass participation of perpetrators and lead to a successful genocide in Rwanda.

Country factors: Rwanda
Other factors which can be seen to have aided the Hutus towards a successful genocide include Rwanda’s dense geographic settlement (Staub et al., 2005), a country history of institutions geared towards mass participation, the structure of their political system, in that the more power those who rule have, the less human rights and civil liberties of their people, then the more likely the rulers will commit genocide and mass murder (Parkes, 1996). All of these factors acting simultaneously on the Hutu tribe lead to the unfortunate and horrific but successful genocide that occurred in Rwanda.

It is clear that many impacting social psychological variables were present within Rwanda, and when they reach a ‘perfect storm’ or optimal level, genocide is highly likely. There have been many theories put forward for the explanations of genocide, but current thinking is that genocide includes a combination of all of them. Genocide ultimately begins with ethnic division and ‘us versus them’ patterns of thinking, which commonly stem from long held stereotypes and prejudices. With psychology’s contributions into genocide and their causes, warning signs and social psychological variables which could result in genocide can therefore hopefully be detected and future genocides prevented.


Barker, G. (2004). Ghosts of Rwanda [video recording]. United States of America: Public Broadcasting Services, (frontline). Viewed during Week 4 Lecture.

Eltringham, N. (2006). 'Invaders who have stolen the country': The Hamitic Hypothesis, Race and the Rwandan Genocide. Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 12(4), 425-446. Retrieved from Ebsco host database on the 30th of July, 2007.

Finzsch, N. (2005). 'It is scarcely possible to conceive that human beings could be so hideous and loathsome': Discourses of genocide in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America and Australia. Patterns of Prejudice, 39(2), 97-115.

Mamdani, M. (2001). When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Parkes, C.M. (1996). Genocide in Rwanda: Personal reflections. Mortality, 1(1), 95-110.

Skinner, B. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Crofts.

Smith, D. N. (1998). The Psychocultural Roots of Genocide: Legitimacy and Crisis in
Rwanda. American Psychologist, 53:7, 743-753. Retrieved from Psychinfo database on the 7th of August, 2007.

Staub, E. (2003). The Psychology of Good and Evil. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Staub, E., Pearlman, M.A., Gubin, A. & Hagengimana, A. (2005). Healing, Reconciliation, Forgiving and the Prevention of Violence After Genocide or Mass Killing: An Intervention And It's Experimental Evaluation in Rwanda. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 24(3), 297-334.

Suedfeld, P. (2000). Reverberations of the Holocaust fifty years later: Psychology's contributions to understanding persecution and genocide. Canadian Psychology Psychologie Canadienne, 41(1), 1-9. Retrieved from Ebsco host database on the 11th of August, 2007.

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House.

1 comment:

James Neill said...

Quick comments:

- Abstract is optional but it can helpful for improving readability

- References - APA style
-- do not cite issue number for journals with consecutively numbered issues
-- check capitalisation

- Concept Map?

- Appendix?