The Dead Pakistani Schoolchildren: Why Were They Killed?

By Aslam Kakar, Contributor

The poetess Cynthia BuhainBaello says,

Violence is the mark of brutes, 
Unthinking, inhuman, brainless.
Death and grief are their bitter fruits
They are empty of any goodness.

The cold New Jersey night of December 13, 2014, feels ever fresh in memory when on the morning of December 14 in Pakistan, six gunmen killed 140 schoolchildren along with their teachers in Peshawar, the capital of northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

One question, at least, that has stuck in my mind is that who does that. What kind of a human butchers innocent children in cold blood?

I have pondered and read extensively to find a possible answer but have not come to a conclusion. Importantly, I ask myself today: Does violence originate in extraordinary evil or is it something banal that any of us could potentially commit? The political theorist Hannah Arendt uses the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the guiltless Adolf Eichmann on trial in 1961 in Jerusalem, Israel.

Eichmann said that he was not responsible for the killing of Jews because he simply did his job. He obeyed the orders of his superiors and obeyed the law. He, Arendt tells, did not have hatred towards those who tried him. Adolf Eichmann was a German-Austrian Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust.

Studies by experts on genocide show that the architects of the Cambodian Genocide, Pol Pot and Nuon Chea among others, were not evil and selfish people. Personally, Noun Chea lived a chaste and selfless life. And neither was Pol Pot known for being an inherently vicious murderer. Some argue that it is possible that they were sociopaths, who were cruel but manipulative and smart about it.

It could be true as Nuon Chea did not plead guilty and used moral neutralization to evade culpability before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. One can go on and on about countless other leaders in history who were charged with the senseless murder of innocent people. But the question remains the same: Why kill?

In 1931 or possibly 1932, Albert Einstein in a letter to Sigmund Freud, which was later entitled “Why War?,” asked him: “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?”

Freud said that human instincts are of two kinds: “Those that conserve and unify” and those that “destroy and kill.” The former is called “erotic” (or Eros as Plato said) and the latter “Thanatos.” Eros is a creative instinct whereas Thanatos is aggressive, destructive or self-destructive death instinct.

Freud said that usually, a human act is a blend of creativeness and destructiveness and rarely is the case that a single instinct drives our action. Freud’s psychoanalysis may or may not be true, but what is true is that human capacity for vicious murder continues unabated.

Some psychologists like Paul Bloom at Yale University claims that humans are not inherently evil. He argues that experiments on babies show that when exposed to good and bad behavior, they (babies) tend to reward the good and punish the bad.

Some others say that violent mass murder can be best understood in terms of agency and structure. Agency refers to individual and their intentionality, in other words, the fact of being intentional or purposive. Structure refers to institutions in which the individual as an agent operates.

Based on agency versus structure, there are two schools of thought: Intentionalists and structuralists. The intentionalists argue that it is the individual who harbors the intent to hate and commit violence, while the structuralists stress on the larger social and political structures such as religious or political ideology, culture, war, etc.

So many like Eichmann claim that they obeyed the orders of their bosses in Hitler’s Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. In other words, it was structure that forced individuals to commit atrocities. But there were some who did not obey the orders of their superiors when and where it was convenient i.e. when the costs of disobedience were not high. For examples, some Germans who did not kill were in the Reserve Police Battalion 101 that Nazi Germany assigned to the district of Lublin in Poland.

It is rather difficult to say as to which of the two claims is true. More often than not it seems to be the case that structure and agency blend together in shaping human actions. Agency is enmeshed in the structure which the British sociologist Anthony Giddens calls “structuration,” “the making and remaking of larger social formations.” This debate can go on forever, but let’s come back to our original question: Why were the children killed?

It is possible that the six gunmen who attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar and shot down children to the cold cement floor were evil murderers: “Unthinking, inhuman and brainless,” as Cynthia so poignantly puts. Or they were the likes of Eichmann who had possibly come under the heavy spell of barbaric ideology, war and vicious leadership and believed that it was their duty to kill.

Could the gunmen, like some among the Reserve Police Battalion 101, have abstained from the cruel act? I do not know. Possibly. But at least one can judge them based on the fact that they did not stop themselves from killing when perhaps they could because others before them have done so.

About Author: The author is Editor of the Borderless and Ph.D. student at the Division of Global Affairs.

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