Of course ethnic and religious violence has been present in humans societies for thousands of years. When we hear about the terrible Hutu-Tutsi massacres in Africa, the Muslim-Hindu violence which periodically erupts in India, the awful events in Kosovo and the Balkans, we seem to be living in a world where the tide of inter-communal violence is rising. Yet when we remember the massacre of up to a million Armenians in the early twentieth century, or the millions of Jews in the genocide of the middle of the century, it seems likely that we could go back through history to find endless examples of this violence.
It appears that whenever people are held together by a sense of ‘we’, through notions of religion or race, then these concepts can suddenly become a dividing line. ‘We’ are humans, ‘they’ are sub-humans, no different from the animals which we torture and slaughter at our will.
What is perhaps most distressing and perplexing is that people who previously seemed to get on very well and be tolerant of each other’s difference can so quickly become deep enemies and commit terrible atrocities on each other. One week there is chat and coffee with a neighbouring family, the next they are demonized, so that to rape their daughter or chop off their son’s hand seems a reasonable thing to do.
Humans are clearly very malleable and suggestible. There does not seem to be an innate and ever present enmity which suddenly ‘erupts’. There are differences which normally do not matter or cause strong feeling. Yet when the feelings are manipulated by a Hitler, Stalin or Milosevic, or through a wider changing political context, fear is whipped up and sane, tolerant, people, become fanatical. The instincts to protect the family and community, of vengeance at perceived wrongs, become mobilized, and in a few hours your friends become your foes.
It is not unlike the psychology of witchcraft, where someone’s smile can very easily change from friendly to seemingly sinister if you suspect them of being a witch or an outsider. It would be a great service if someone could design an ‘ethnic and religious hatred defusing kit’ which could be applied as these terrible situations begin to catch fire.