Reflections on genocide and political violence

May 12, 2023
7 mins read
Image of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda on display in the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. Photo credit Emmanuel Santos

At the heart of the study of conflict, peace, and political violence is a question about how and why violence becomes pervasive and mundane. What are the sociopolitical environments that make the otherwise unthinkable, possible, and shockingly banal? One book by American political scientist Scott Straus from the decade past takes an in-depth research look at how violent situations arise, pointing to the technologies of the modern state that contain the seeds for sprouting violent unrest. Straus focuses on genocide in Making and Unmaking Nations, War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa looking at violence that requires the participation and compliance of the public and does not fit the script of what is legal, or generally acceptable.

Straus’s book on genocide, published in 2015, provides a rational choice theory of genocide focusing on how leaders take their people down that path. Straus takes a classically academic look at the phenomenon, using extensive empirical data on incidents of large-scale violence in Sub-Saharan Africa in the post-Cold War era, to identify cases that demonstrate the common circumstances where a genocide may have been imminent. He delves into five main cases in depth; Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal, which present examples where genocide was likely but did not take place, and Rwanda and Sudan, where it did.

In his examination of these cases, he uses elite interviews and studies of news reports and media to build an account of leaders’ decision-making during times of crisis. Straus examines each country from the stages of nation-building up to the crisis and shows the significance of a ‘founding narrative’ in providing the logic of group identity during violence, civil war, and instability. The founding narrative, he argues, lends critical justification for the direction mass political violence can take.

Making and Unmaking Nations by Scott Straus.

The genocide riddle

Why do leaders choose genocide given the high stakes and immense political costs involved? Genocide is rare and distinct from all other kinds of political violence, Straus argues, in that the logic of genocidal violence does not serve to communicate, threaten or force a change in behavior. The very point is to exterminate or destroy a target group. When the ‘target group’ of the violence is seen by the larger political community as being beyond salvation or integration, such that expulsion or extermination becomes reasonable, even justifiable, genocide becomes a real possibility. Genocide requires “the unlikely combination of territorial domination and organizational capacity, on the one hand, and a profound sense of danger associated with a civilian group, on the other” (Straus, 2). The ‘sense of danger’ is important according to Straus, stressing that while it is common that a political leadership may find specific minority groups undesirable, the heightened sense of imminent danger leads them to act against the target group in a way that is not only irreversible in the literal fact of the lives lost and harm done, but in the political narrative of the nation as well. There is a finality to this phenomenon. The use of force towards extermination is a breach that alters dynamics for everyone, essentially unmaking the nation.

Straus emphasizes the logic of the national majority, which sees the target group as being so irreconcilable to their idea of the nation that no remedy can address the breakdown in the relationship. “Genocide and mass categorical violence become imaginable little by little after patterns of interaction and other measures have failed”, writes Straus (67). This implies previous good-faith interactions or attempts. By who – Straus leaves this unstated, so that we may assume or imagine the perpetrators to have invested in engaging in positive interactions at some point. Straus labors to answer how genocide happens, and why leaders choose this, but he does not attempt to explain original motivations for those choices. Motivations can vary, and can be transformed over time, he argues, but the framework holds regardless. The implication is that the desire to completely wipe out an opposing group that undermines an ethnocentric political project is neither unique nor rare, but the actual prolonged brutal enactment of it is. Straus’ depiction may thus be seen as hopeful, in the recognition that such communal hatred is only rarely acted upon in a categorical and final manner by people in power.

The book further tells us that state domination and capacity for “coordination, identification, control and infliction” of targeted mass violence within the territory is a necessary condition. Coordination across different agencies, across time and space, the control over the movement of the target group, the ability to prevent or punish resistance, escape or evasion – all of these generally involve the national leaders working in tandem with local leaders. Enactment involves technology as well as “manpower” to inflict violence on the scale, where governments and local militia have to work together. Identification also requires the involvement of local actors, especially where the target group is less easily or visibly identifiable, and possibly dispersed by location. 

Skulls of victims on display at a church where they had sought refuge during the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The site now serves as the Ntarama Genocide Memorial, Ntarama, Rwanda. Scott Chacon Creative Commons

The external factor

Another catalytic factor of escalation identified is external aggression or war. Straus finds that the most prevalent common factor for when genocide was carried out, was in the situation that the state faced aggression or a threat of aggression externally. He points to political instability, similarly, as helping produce this situation. Although Straus discusses other such factors, such as the capacity to distinguish members of the target group and the previous history of unpunished attacks, he does not make any attempt to lay out comprehensively what the conditions or factors of escalation are. Straus concludes from his findings that the rationale for genocide is impacted by factors that can escalate or restrain, both of ideological and material nature which combine in varied ways.

Straus’ innovation in this topic area is his identification of the ideological ‘founding narrative’ as the main necessary factor. As Straus points out, empirically there are many cases where the other factors exist but genocide did not happen. The ideological factor becomes the significant determinant in such cases, he asserts. ‘Founding narratives’, are the specific visions underpinning and binding together the idea of the nation at its founding moment. When this is group-exclusive or lends itself well to framing some groups in the national population as more truly representative of the national character, genocide becomes a possibility. At the time of their scripting, they were not created to be exclusionary or to be used for violence. But they are inherent of a core exclusionary character, such that further down the line, the myth of purity can perpetuate, marking out “a primary population whom the state should benefit and protect and, on the other hand, secondary populations to whom the state should pay less attention and who should not rule.” (Straus 57) ‘Counternarratives’ conversely, can restrain violence while material constraints can also prevent or restrain genocidal violence.

Where the false negative cases are concerned, the evidence is compelling. Well-placed leaders commonly asserted in the interviews that Straus refers to, the lack of any communal prejudice or intention to introduce ethnic divisions to the conflict and in the ways they identified their opponents. These make a good case for how national narratives and leadership can counter the momentum toward ethnocentric violence. The mere act of political leaders making inclusive statements publicly at a communally charged moment is important because it signals to the supporters and opponents of the leader that they will not direct their campaign against a minority group and so there is no sanction for even micro-level violence towards a minority. On the other hand, when it comes to cases where genocide did take place, mere assertions are less reliable for gauging real circumstances.

The human remains and personal items of victims lie intermingled at a church where they had sought refuge during the genocide. The site now serves as the Ntarama Genocide Memorial, Ntarama, Rwanda. Scott Chacon Creative Commons

The shortcomings

Straus’ methodology suffers in this respect because he takes political speech at face value. Where this affects Straus’s larger argument, is in the stress on ‘threat perception’. In several of the cases where genocide did occur, the leaders underscored repeatedly that they believed there was an imminent danger to the nation if the target group was not dealt with. In some cases, Straus suggests that this is more perception than reality, but is a common and important feature nonetheless. It is of course, entirely unsurprising that the leaders would try to make such a case, either at the time the events were unfolding or in retrospect especially. The degree to which these assertions are based on any kind of truth can vary significantly. The Khmer Rouge behaved as though they were in a state of war long before they actually faced any external threat, Straus writes. Any leadership can make a claim to being under attack, and the necessary elements to support this story can be manufactured easily. The political speech certainly cannot be evidence enough to establish this as reality. Part of the problem of this “acute threat” is that the type of circumstances it considers threatening can be found in many postcolonial states throughout their existence. That fear which arouses such nationalistic fervor is a rhetorical political device as much as it may be an expression of a genuine mass delusion.

Additionally, the effect of colonialism goes thoroughly unexamined. Colonial governance in the later stages involved ruling more and more through proxy local leaders in the colonies, and investing in the notorious “divide and rule” policy, charging identities that were previously not mobilized, or sometimes non-existent. How such a history interacts with the different types of founding narratives is unobserved since colonialism as a factor is held constant. For instance, placing national majority victimhood within the legacy of colonialism especially shows the salience of considering vengeance alongside questions of security especially in those polities where a manufactured majority is bound together by the memory of humiliation and degradation experienced under colonial rule, projecting the blame onto a minority, no matter how unreasonable those linkages are. The process of identities being restructured, reorganized, and politically mobilized under colonial rule, also engendered instabilities and upset established hierarchies. It is therefore not surprising that Strauss can find founding narratives that allow for instituting a particular group as the national enemy, in genocide-positive cases. 

Despite these weaknesses, Straus’ book tells an important story, of a horrific social problem that is carried out by nameless faceless enraged masses heedlessly but is fundamentally chosen deliberately and repeatedly by those in power.

Straus, Scott. Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa. Illustrated, Cornell University Press, 2015.

Udita Ghosh

Udita Ghosh is a PhD scholar in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. She has a background in IR and critical global development studies, and her research interests focuses on political violence, conflict-led displacement and refugee studies. She has previously worked in the humanitarian sector with the UNHCR,


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