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Ohio State Reseacher Finds Perpetrators Of Genocide Believe They're Good People

Dylan Walters
Belgian Soldier Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, where 10 Belgian soldiers were ambushed in 1994.

After the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda interrogated some of those who participated in the mass violence, which took some 1 million lives.

An Ohio State professor's study, published in July in the academic journal Social Problems, found the most common way perpetrators accounted for their actions was by stating that they were good people. 

Along with her co-authors, Hollie Nyseth-Brehm, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, poured over 10,000 pages of testimony from the tribunal, zeroing in on 27 defendants.

"We were particularly interested in understanding how they spoke about their crimes: How did these men actually talk about what they did, how did they try to rationalize their actions, how did they try to make sense of it?" Nyseth-Brehm says.

Nyseth-Brehm says while some of the techniques seen in classic criminology theory were used to neutralize their guilt - such as denial of responsibility and ad hominem attacks - the 27 defendants she studied used an "appeal to good character" more than every other strategy combined.

"When you're accused of genocide, often this can mean that people see you as a monster or as an evil individual," she says. "And when you look at their testimony, often what they were trying to do was to say, 'No, I'm not a bad person, look here are the good things that I've done,' as a way to try to appear like a good person."

One thing that sets Nyseth-Brehm's study apart is the fact it's looking at the post-hoc explanations for genocide. 

"We are looking at their rationalizations after the act, so there's no way to know necessarily if this is how they were thinking beforehand, but I think it actually might," Nyseth-Brehm says. "We think that people use techniques of neutralization to actually enable them to commit the crime in the first place."

And that means that her study could lead to insights on how to curb this type of violence before it happens.