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Shelf Help: 'The Killing Compartments:The Mentality of Mass Murder'

Why do people commit genocide?
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The Killing Compartments:
The Mentality of Mass Murder

Abram de Swaan
Yale University Press

Why do people commit genocide? For decades, a simple answer has dominated social science: People are mostly the same, and it’s circumstances that make them violent. De Swaan argues that this explanation lets killers off the hook too easily. In the same circumstances (whether Milgram’s lab or Nazi Germany), some kill and some do not. Drawing on limited data—mass murderers are elusive research subjects—de Swaan finds evidence that killers share a personality type: They readily follow orders, and they feel sympathy for only a narrowly defined community. Mentally, they compartmentalize their violence, taking a sort of ethical vacation (what the sociologist Randall Collins has called a “moral holiday”) when killing. The dubious belief that "circumstances made me do it” makes the killers think they have a moral free pass; de Swaan makes a persuasive case for revoking it.

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