Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing

By James Waller | Go to book overview
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8
Who Is the “Other”?
Social Death of the Victims

Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

LT. COL. DAVE GROSSMAN, in his On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, examines the killing process at different points along the distance spectrum—from maximum range to handto-hand combat. He argues that maximum-range killing—defined as a range at which the killer is unable to perceive his individual victims without using some form of mechanical assistance— carries with it a group absolution, mechanical distance, and physical distance that facilitates killing. In his research, he has “not found one single instance of individuals who have refused to kill the enemy under these circumstances [maximum range], nor a single instance of psychiatric trauma associated with this type of killing.” 1 As the range between perpetrator and victim decreases, however, killing becomes increasingly difficult—becoming most difficult in edged-weapons and hand-to-hand combat range.

Grossman's work makes clear the inverse relationship between distance and killing—killing is made easier as the distance between perpetrators and their victims increases. This exact relationship also was observed in follow-up studies on Milgram's original obedience to authority experiment. We should understand, though, that distance is not simply a physical construct; it is a moral and psychological construct as well. In this way, range also is defined by the perpetrators' perception of the victims. Face-to-face

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