Tuesday, August 15, 2006

"Mass Murder: What Causes it? Can It be Stopped" - Some afterthoughts on the ASA forum

I just returned from three days at the American Sociological Association's annual meetings in Montreal, during which I was plunged into a news blackout and cut off from e-mail and the internet. I must confess that at large professional conventions like this (unlike smaller conferences focused on specific subjects), I rarely feel very tempted to attend many of the regular sessions. This time, however, there were a few sessions to which I went with a fair degree of interest and anticipation.
One of these was a "Forum" organized by the editors of Contexts on "Mass Murder: What Causes It? Can It Stopped?".

Thematic Session. Mass Murder: What Causes It? Can It Be Stopped? A Contexts Forum
Sun, Aug 13 - 2:30pm - 4:10pm

Session Organizer: James M. Jasper
Session Organizer and Presider: Jeff Goodwin (New York University)
Panelist: Randall Collins (University of Pennsylvania)
Panelist: Michael Mann (UCLA)
Panelist: Katherine Shelley Newman (Princeton University)
Panelist: James Ron (McGill University)

Panelists will discuss various forms of mass murder, their causes, and possible means of prevention. Among the questions addressed: What are the "root causes" of mass murder? Do different forms of mass murder have similar causes? Are there common means of preventing various forms of mass murder? Are we likely to see more or fewer instances of mass murder in the future?

All these panelists are first-rate scholars, several of them among the most important and influential figures in social theory and comparative/historical sociology. And they covered a wide range of topics, from high-school rampage massacres to the grand historical sociology of modern warfare to the significance of the burgeoning trans-national culture of "human rights" discourse and organizations.

Without trying to address any of these arguments comprehensively or in detail, I wanted to share a few of the thoughts & impressions that struck me at & about this ASA/Contexts session.

=> What was missing? There are several cases of very large-scale mass murder going on in the world right now. Given the ostensible theme of the session, I couldn't help finding it curious that not one of them was systematically addressed or analyzed by any of the panelists in their presentations. A few of them were mentioned in passing--Michael Mann, for example, did mention the gigantic carnage that has been going on in Congo--but passing mentions were all they got.

The major example of full-fledged genocidal mass murder in the world right now, which is of exceptional theoretical and practical relevance to the ostensible theme of the panel, was not even mentioned--that is, the ongoing atrocity in Darfur (which Eric Reeves has aptly termed "Rwanda in slow motion"). According to the most careful estimates, something like half a million civilians have already been killed, either by direct murder or by deliberately induced starvation, malnutrition, and disease--and millions more are living in refugee camps being exterminated at leisure.

After I mentioned Darfur (among other things) in my own intervention from the floor, Michael Mann said that the problem was a failure of international "will" to do anything serious to stop the atrocity. Well, that's right--but from the perspective of serious socio-political analysis, that's also a bit thin. The passive acquiescence and inaction of western governments (most significantly in Europe, but pretty much across the board) has been disgraceful and is a key factor that will probably help to doom the Darfuris in the end. But it is also important that in the diplomatic arena, the genocidal regime in Khartoum has been actively protected, supported and assisted by other governments--above all, those of China, Russia, and the Arab League.

(All across Africa, incidentally, China has followed a coherent policy of systematically befriending regimes with the most horrendous human-rights records, taking advantage of the openings created when these regimes are condemned or pressured by western countries. If US influence in the world declines, as Michael Mann indicated he would like to see, the influence of countries like China will clearly increase. Whatever other effects this might have, the idea that this would help to reduce the international respectability of genocidal mass murder or the willingness to do something about it strikes me as implausible.)

Furthermore, while public outrage about, or even interest in, the Darfur genocide has been inadequate around the world, it also happens that (with a few tiny exceptions) the only countries where significant sectors of public opinion have become aroused to any noticeable extent are the US and, to a lesser degree, Canada and Britain. And partly because of that, the only major government that has even gone through the motions of trying to promote intenational action to stop the atrocity--however intermittently and ineffectively it has done so--happens to be the US government ... with the British government making some of the right noises. In other European countries, as far as I am aware, the whole matter is largely invisible. (Of course, the same is true in China, India, Japan, Latin America, etc.--but we expect that. On the other hand, why this blasé indifference to genocidal mass murder is so routinely predictable that we take it for granted is a question that sociologists might want to raise.)

Trying to make sense of these patterns should be of sociological (as well as practical) interest. For example, the fact that, with a tiny scattering of exceptions, Arab governments and public opinion have largely ignored the Darfur atrocity or even expressed solidarity with the genocidal Khartoum regime is not surprising. But given the fact that what is going on in Darfur constitutes, by far, the largest ongoing mass murder of Muslims anywhere in the world (on a scale that dwarfs even the previous carnage in the former Yugoslavia or the ongoing meatgrinder in Chechnya), one might expect that at least some Muslims would be upset about it. Some are, but the numbers are quite trivial.

(One could respond with the obvious point that the perpetrators of this mass murder are Muslims, too, so this is regarded as a kind of family affair. But that's obviously inadequate as an explanation. If the French, say, had just murdered half a million civilians in another western country, say Italy, I think we can predict that westerners would be very upset about it. And why are significant numbers of westerners upset--or at least embarrassed--when non-westerners are murdered, tortured, or even accidentally killed by the armed forces of some western states or states considered somehow to be extensions of the west, like Israel?)

Furthermore, given that western European public opinion has occasionally gotten very aroused about much smaller numbers of civilian deaths elsewhere, how do we explain the pervasive indifference to the ongoing campaign of genocidal mass murder in Darfur--except, as I noted, in Britain?

At all events, it did seem odd that none of the panelists in a session on "Mass Murder: What Causes It? Can It Be Stopped?" even mentioned Darfur in their presentations. Was this just a coincidence, or does it tell us something about the more general mind-set of educated public opinion in North America & Europe right now? Just asking.

=> Misleadng, selective, and/or simply inaccurate framing of issues. A few of the panelists did mention Iraq, and so did some questions and comments from the audience. But the way in which Iraq was mentioned (though never systematically addressed) was also a little perplexing, and perhaps unintentionally significant.

Now, for a session entitled "Mass Murder: What Causes It? Can It Be Stopped?", the case of Iraq opens up a number of extremely important and potentially illuminating topics for analysis. During the period of over three decades during which Iraq was ruled by the Ba'ath regime, in addition to routine practices of everyday murder, torture, rape, mutilation, ethnic cleansing, and so on (ho-hum, right?), there were recurrent bouts of mass murder on a very large scale, with victims numbering in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. (Not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands.)

At least two of these incidents almost certainly meet the technical legal definition of "genocide" under the Genocide Convention. One of these, which many people know about, is the 1988 Anfal genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan, in which somewhere between 100,000 and 180,000 Kurdish civilians were systematically murdered. The second, which is less often mentioned, is the Baghdad regime's campaign against the Marsh Arabs in the mid-1990s, during which tens of thousands of civilians were killed (the precise numbers remain uncertain), the entire culture of the Marsh Arabs was systematically destroyed, and the entire ecosystem of the Mesopotamian marshes was also destroyed, turning almost all of the area into barren desert from which the population was deported (see, e.g., the brief overview in "Ecocide as Genocide"). In 1991 the Iraqi Ba'ath regime probably killed several hundred thousand Shiite civilians in southern Iraq in the course of crushing the national revolt against it, and the only thing that prevented another full-scale genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan was international intervention to create and maintain a Kurdish "safe haven" in northern Iraq. (The collapse of the "containment" of Saddam Hussein's regime, which was looking increasingly imminent before 2002, would almost certainly have been followed by another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan--which it is a safe prediction that no one in the "international community" would have lifted a finger to stop.)

Did any of the panelists mention any of these incidents? Well, no. (Unless I got distracted for a moment and missed it.)

On the other hand, there were several references to Iraqi civilian deaths since the 2003 Iraq war (and, during the question-and-answer session, some conventional but factually inaccurate clichés about the effects of sanctions during the 1990s). Michael Mann, for example, repeated some of the wilder claims about how many Iraqi civilians have died since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But no one thought to raise the question of precisely who has been killng Iraqi civilians, and why. In some conversations I had at the ASA convention, it became clear to me that even some intelligent and normally well-informed people have the vague impression that these civilians are being killed by US troops.

In fact, at least since the beginning of 2004, the great (and increasing) majority of the civilians killed in the Iraq conflict have been murdered (not accidentally killed, but deliberately murdered) by the so-called "insurgents" (or, in some circles, "resistance"). The Sunni Arab "insurgency" in Iraq is a loose coalition of various tendencies, and some of them have continued to try to kill US soldiers. But the Ba'athists and jihadis at the core of the "insurgency" have focused on a systematic strategy of murdering Shiite civilians in order to detonate a full-scale sectarian civil war in the Arab part of Iraq that will make the country ungovernable, panic the US into withdrawing, and allow them to crush their internal opponents and re-establish Sunni Arab domination. The victims have included Shiite political & religious leaders, professionals, and quasi-civilians like government officials & police, but the heart of this strategy has been the indiscriminate mass murder of ordinary Shiite civilians.

For a long time, the mainstream Shiite political & religious leadership made frantic efforts to prevent Shiite reprisals and, thus, to prevent civil war from spiraling out of control. (Intriguingly, as part of this effort the mainstream Shiite leaders also tried to maintain the fiction that the mass murder of ordinary Shiite civilians was purely the work of foreign "Wahhabi" terrorists, not of other Iraqis. The small kernel of this truth in this mostly inaccurate picture is that the vast majority of suicide bombers who actually blow themselves up have been non-Iraqi jihadists from other Arab countries. But the role of surviving Ba'athist secret-police, military, and organizational networks has been crucial for actually organizing and conducting these suicide bombings.) However, the February 2006 bombing of the Askariyah shrine in Samarra, one of the most symbolically significant sacred places in Shiite Islam, may finally have pushed the Shiites over the edge. (Durkheimians will appreciate the fact that what the "insurgents" couldn't accomplish with two years of steadily murdering Shiite civilians, they may have accomplished by an attack on a symbolically central sacred object.) This touched off a wave of reprisal killings of Sunni Arabs by Shiite Arabs, many of them carried out by Muqtada al-Sadr's "Mahdi Army" militia, Sunni Arab counter-reprisals, and so on--generating a momentum which may indeed spiral out of control.

So it is beginning to look possible that this strategy pursued by the so-called "insurgents" may prove to be successful, leading to a real bloodbath. Meanwhile, civilian killings in Iraq are now overwhelmingly the product of sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, with an increasingly significant minority consisting of Sunni Arab victims of Shiite death squads. Iraqi civilians killed by US and other "Coalition" forces (whether accidentally or intentionally) account for an even smaller proportion of the total than before.

Of course, one could argue that the US is still indirectly responsible for these mass murders carried out by the Sunni Arab "insurgents" and, to a lesser but perhaps increasing degree, by Shiite Arab reprisals. No doubt it would have been better to leave Iraq under the control of a genocidal fascist regime (and to allow that regime to go through with another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan) rather than "destabilize" it. OK, that's a possible argument. But when people bring up Iraq at a session that is ostensibly about "Mass Murder" (not "mass mortality" but "mass murder") one might expect someone there at least to mention the actual murderers. Apparently not. Am I the only one who finds this odd and potentially interesting?

=> These are just some quick offhand impressions. But as I said at the beginning, there is something genuinely puzzling--and sociologically intriguing--about this curious pattern of omissions, distortions, misleading focuses, and apparent mis-impressions in a session entitled "Mass Murder: What Causes It? Can It Stopped?". I offer these observations & reflections as food for thought.

Yours for sociology (and also for reality-based & morally serious discourse),
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, it might be worth emphasizing explicitly that my point here is not to criticize the organizers of the forum, Jeff Goodwin and James Jasper, for they way they put it together. They assembled an impressive line-up of scholarly intelligence and expertise to address various dimensions of a profoundly important subject, and the way that the session turned out in practice was not really their doing. In fact, it seems to me that Goodwin & Jasper deserve credit for organizing a session that tried to address a subject as urgently important in both practical and scholarly terms as mass murder. (As far as I can tell from a quick scan of the Final Program for the 2006 ASA Annual Meeting, this subject was very rarely addressed in the other 600+ sessions.)

Also, to flesh out a point to which I alluded in passing, one of the panelists (Katherine Newman) was specifically charged with talking about forms of small-scale mass murder, particularly high-school rampage massacres, so it's not surprising that she didn't address examples of large-scale mass murder. However, this caveat does not apply to the other three panelists, who spoke on subjects for which serious consideration of major ongoing or recent cases of large-scale mass murder should indeed have been crucially relevant--and from whom one might have expected more solid and substantive analyses of the concrete cases that they did mention in passing.

At all events, my main concern was not to get into detailed restatements and critiques of individual panelists' arguments--which would have required a considerably longer discussion anyway. I think it should be clear that my focus was on the overall thrust and tone of this forum as a whole (which included the sociologists in the audience as well as those on the panel), and on the larger pattern of emphases, omissions, paradigmatic orientations, and unreflectively-taken-for-granted conventional wisdom that informed the whole event. I wanted to raise the question of what this pattern might tell us about predominant intellectual and moral perspectives in the discipline and in "the more general mind-set of educated public opinion in North America & Europe right now". What one person happens to say or do on a given occasion may just be an accident. But when these accidents pile up and fall into a pattern, then anyone with a sociological imagination ought to begin wondering whether there is a larger phenomenon going on that ought to be pondered and analyzed. (Feminists spent decades making that point, right?)

In this respect, let me just return to one small but interesting social fact. At a forum organized by a "public sociology" magazine on the subject of "Mass Murder: What Causes It? Can It Be Stopped," in which a number of remarks about current events were made both from the panel and from the floor, not one person in the entire room (except me) even mentioned Darfur. (And although several people mentioned Iraq, they all did so in ways that effectively ignored or misrepresented the actual campaign of mass murder going on there.) Does that seem sociologically interesting and potentially meaningful (as well as morally and intellectually alarming)? Frankly, I think so ... and the responses I've received to my original posting make it clear that other people do, too.

P.P.S. Incidentally, just for the hell of it, I decided to follow up a remark that someone made to me and scan the ASA Convention program to see whether there were any presentations with either "Darfur" or "Rwanda" in the title. I found almost none (not quite none, but almost none). But once again I should note that I did just a quick, superficial, unscientific scan, and there are thousands of presentations listed in the final program, so I wouldn't swear that I caught all the relevant ones.

In the satellite conference of the Society for the Study of Social Problems (August 11-14), which met in Montreal just before the main ASA conference (August 11-14), it appears that none of the presentations dealt with Darfur. (I suppose this means that genocidal mass murder is not a social problem.)

To sharpen the focus a bit, I looked at the ASA sessions filed in the index under the heading of "Peace, War, World Conflict, and Conflict Resolution." There were 17 sessions listed in this category in the final program (including round-table discussion sessions), with a total of 64 presentations. I checked to see whether any of the sessions or presentations had the word "Darfur" in the title. Exactly two (2) presentation did--one in a round-table and one in a regular session.

The other concrete case I highlighted in my post was Iraq. Of course, there were a number of presentations about the 2003 Iraq war in these 17 sessions. I glanced over them to see whether any of these presentations appeared to deal with the ongoing campaign of terrorist mass murder carried out by the Sunni Arab "insurgency" against Shiite civilians. As far as I could tell from the titles, none of these presentations appeared to do so. (By themselves, titles are potentially opaque or ambiguous, so it's possible that a few of those presentations might have addressed this subject--but not many.)

What, if anything, do these statistics mean? Who knows? But I pass them along as potentially intriguing data.