Killers of Conviction
Groups, Ideology, and Extraordinary Evil
A group scarcely distinguishes between the subjective and the objective. It accepts as real the images evoked in its mind, though they most often have only a very distant relation with the observed fact. … Whoever can supply them with illusions is clearly their master; whoever attempts to destroy illusions is always their victim.
Gustav Le Bon, The Crowd
WHAT ABOUT THE MEN WHO perpetrated the slaughter at Sand Creek? Was it their membership in a collective, the Third Colorado Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, that best accounts for their active and willing participation in the atrocities? Or was it their membership in an even larger collective, the American culture, steeped in an extraordinary ideological hatred against Indians, which made them unusually fit to perpetrate extraordinary evil? This chapter will examine both of these possible explanations: the extraordinary nature of the collective and the influence of an extraordinary ideology.
One of the ways in which we explain extraordinary human evil is to focus on the means by which groups make that evil possible. Intuitively, many of us recognize that we are vulnerable to losing ourselves in a group. There seems to be something about the nature of the collective—a small band of marauders, an army battalion, a mob, a social or political organization, an office staff, a nation—that brings out our worst tendencies. A long line of scholarly interest in the collective has legitimized that intuition. In 1895, for example, French sociologist and journalist Gustav Le Bon wrote La psychologie des foules, which was published in English the following year under