Could they? They could. They do. And it’s not entirely irrational. Under extreme threat – economic collapse, as in Germany in the 1930s, or invasion, as in Rwanda in the 1990s – people can regress to a primitive logic. If they seriously believe they face a choice of ‘kill or be killed’, then they can and will kill. They have to be persuaded.
Genocide is not spontaneous. There needs to be a leader, like Hitler or Pol Pot, who expresses people’s fears, whips up their sense of being persecuted, and identifies who they should blame – the Jews in Germany, the educated classes in Cambodia. There also needs to be an effective political movement which can organize large numbers of people to carry out the leader’s Final Solution. Genocide is the ultimate option but not the only one for a social group that believes it is under threat.
If the danger to prosperity or survival is less extreme or the leader less paranoid, the solution may be less murderous. Whites in South Africa created apartheid. In Bosnia, genocide took the form of ‘ethnic cleansing’, mainly by Serbs against Muslims and Croats. The Serb extremists’ aim was to drive Muslims and Croats from their homes to create ethnically pure Serb areas. There was no need to kill every single one, just enough of them in a brutal enough manner to terrify the rest into moving. .