How can this happen? If there's any question that people interested in genocide ask, it's this one. How can people do this to each other? How can this be possible? What is wrong with this world that this can happen?
Maureen Hiebert's book Constructing Genocide and Mass Violence: Society, Crisis, Identity (Routledge, 2017) offers an answer to this question. Hiebert is a political scientist and approaches the subject through that lens. She reminds us that societies engage in genocide because it offers the most plausible answer to their dilemma, but that many others in the same situation have opted for different solutions. The question, then, is to understand why some governments opt for genocide. Hiebert lays out a framework in which elites reimagine an already existing minority as both fundamentally alien and existentially threatening. It is this sense of existential danger, where the minority group threatens the state by the very fact of its existence, that leads elites to choose genocide.
Hiebert is refreshingly honest in the interview about questions her theory can't answer. And she has important insights about how genocide scholars might help policy makers understand how academic theories apply to them. As such, she is participating in a long discussion amongst scholars and citizens about how to understand genocide.
Kelly McFall is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Newman University. He’s the author of four modules in the Reacting to the Past series, including The Needs of Others: Human Rights, International Organizations and Intervention in Rwanda, 1994, published by W. W. Norton Press.
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