The age-old enigma of slaughter

(The Charleston Gazette - April 15, 2003)

By James A. Haught

A TERRIBLE enigma - why do humans plunge into periods of slaughter? - is to be explored Thursday morning at West Virginia State College.

Dr. Stuart J. Kaufman, author of "Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War," is to address a free public convocation at 11 a.m. in the Davis Fine Arts Theater.

I'm to be on the panel, because I've written a couple of books on religio-ethnic conflicts. Another panelist is political science chairman Gerald Beller, who teaches courses on "The Politics of Race" and "The Arab Middle East," and who contributes columns to the Gazette.

Dr. Kaufman's book - a campus-wide selection for the entire student body - focuses on four Eastern European horrors of the 1990s: (1) the bloodbath in former Yugoslavia between Orthodox Christian Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars; (2) Caucasus warfare between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis; (3) multiple outbreaks in Georgia after the faltering Soviet Union ceased using military force to keep the peace; and (4) a small rebellion in Moldova against Russian rule.

The book cites some of the many other recent ethnic nightmares around the globe. Examples: The ghastly hate between Jews and Palestinians in the Mideast. The gory civil war between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka. Massacres between short Hutus and tall Tutsis (Watusis) in Rwanda. Catholic-Protestant terrorism in Ulster. Violence between Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks on Cyprus. The long civil war between Sudan's ruling Muslims and southern Christian and animist tribes. Occasional mutiny by Basques in Spain. Hindu-Muslim-Sikh riots in India. Recurring Muslim-Christian slaughter in Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere. Etc., etc.

Ethnic-cultural-religious differences divide people into separate camps, from which they often view each other with suspicion and hostility. Anything that splits people into opposing groups - whether it's language, skin color, geographic homeland, faith, economic class, or even family clan - can be a formula for trouble. The neighbors may live together harmlessly for generations, then an incident or political change can trigger violence.

Dr. Kaufman differentiates between "mass-led" uprisings, in which common people attack rival communities, and "elite-led" hostility, in which manipulative politicians drag their constituents into war.

Such demagogues employ "symbolic politics" to spur solidarity among followers and resentment of different groups, the book says. The subtle tactics foment ethnic hostility for political gain. As an example, it cites Ronald Reagan's famous sneer at "welfare queens" - a campaign pitch discreetly telling white conservatives that Republicans shared their prejudice against jobless black women living on tax money. A similar example, not mentioned in the book, was the notorious Willie Horton ad that helped elect the first President Bush in 1988. It showed a black prisoner who raped a white woman after being furloughed under Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee.

Dr. Kaufman, a University of Kentucky political scientist, lists other symbolic appeals used by leaders to make themselves heroes to their ethnic cliques, at the expense of out-groups. But this demagoguery usually doesn't generate enough hate and divisions to produce war, he says, unless various other factors worsen the problem.

The professor's book won a major prize for peace advocacy. Although he deals with localized ethnic conflict between specific geographic peoples, his description of politician-caused wars made me think of President Bush's relentless desire to destroy Iraq and kill Saddam Hussein. A year ago, few Americans wanted to attack the little Muslim country. But Bush endlessly denounced Iraq as "evil" and implied secret connections to terrorism. Bush brushed aside every peaceful solution, and unleashed the horrible killing power of the world's strongest military machine on the weak nation. As the fighting proceeded, most Americans came to support Bush's war - proving the famous observation by Nazi mastermind Hermann Goering that the people of any nation generally will back any military assault their leader launches.

Meanwhile, what about the dozens of bloody ethnic conflicts ravaging "hot spots" around the planet? Personally, I think warfare is rooted in deep, primal, animal urges, fueled by testosterone. Gangs of young male chimpanzees raid neighboring chimp colonies in deadly battles. The history of humanity contains thousands of episodes little different from this chimp behavior.

The potential for slaughter and devastation always exists. But human intelligence, decency and compassion can prevent it from erupting. To me, that's a high and noble goal.