Confronting crimes against humanity
Confronting crimes against humanity

"Ultimately, everything depends on the quality of the individual." - Carl Gustav Jung, The Undiscovered Self

Following the Holocaust, following the Nuremberg and Tokyo criminal tribunals, one might reasonably have expected some far-reaching improvements in human conduct. After all, following so much unprecedented suffering, at least some tangible enlargement of worldwide optimism would have seemed both plausible and necessary. Still, even a cursory glance at the present state of global affairs - most conspicuously at such tormented places as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Congo, etc -  reveals precious little evidence of a less belligerent or more compassionate humankind.

Precious little, indeed. Rather, what we witness hour-by-hour and day-by-day is a hideously familiar replay of some very old derelictions.

Even more worrisome is the steady multiplication of afflicted areas on our sorely distressed planet.  Not to be forgotten or too-easily disregarded are North Korea, which is already nuclear, and Iran, which is prospectively nuclear. In such volatile venues, the future holds uniquely portentous omens of an expressly nuclear war.

Almost by definition, any such atomic conflagration could be effectively genocidal. War and genocide, after all, are by no means mutually exclusive. In a well-documented history, war has even proven itself the optimal means by which crimes against humanity could most efficiently be carried out.

Such an incomparably murderous convergence is most readily apparent in the Holocaust and in the Japanese mass killings executed at Nanjing, China. But there are many other pertinent examples. Too many, in fact.

Various corollary core questions should now be raised. How, we must inquire, even after the Holocaust and related expansions of international criminal law (most recently, the entry into force of the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court at The Hague), has an entire species, miscarried from the start, scandalized its own creation?  Must we forever remain the potential murderers of those who live beside us?         

What about slavery? In every conceivable form and permutation, this persisting crime continues to grow, insidiously, and without any evident disguise, in Mali, Mauritania and certain other equally tormented places. In this connection, shall we now also recall the infamous diamond mines of Sierra Leone and Liberia?

And, lest we forget, what about the ever-widening radius of human child trafficking, an ancient and medieval practice now perhaps most prominently underway in Nigeria and Benin?

Where, we must inquire finally, is "civilization?" All of these devastating and mutually-reinforcing crimes are still far-flung and relentlessly robust. Paradoxically, they flourish still today, even in the allegedly "developed" and encouragingly "modern" 21st century.

Today, on several continents, whole nations of corpses are fully the rage. As for the vaunted "international community," it stands by smugly...
In world politics and world law, death is always the principal player. For as long as we can correctly identify the tortuously tangled skeins of international history, the corpse has been in fashion.  Today, on several continents, whole nations of corpses are fully the rage. As for the vaunted "international community," it stands by smugly, precisely as it has since time immemorial, more-or-less incredulously, with conspicuously self-righteous indignation, sheepish, yet simultaneously arrogant, dispassionately calculating and lamenting its own self-imposed impotence.

Why?  The answer has several intersecting levels and several overlapping layers of pertinent meaning.  At one level, certainly the one most familiar to political scientists and legal scholars, the basic problem lies in the changing embrace of Realpolitik or power politics.[1] Representing a transformation of traditional political "realism," the relentless deification of states has finally managed to reduce literally billions of individuals to barely residual specks of significance.[2]

In such a barbarously overwhelming world, one wherein the individual human being generally counts for nothing, but where the "self-determination” of peoples is accepted as a singularly weighty legal value, mass executions of the innocent must still be expected. Sometimes, such executions, as a thinly disguised or plainly secular form of religious "sacrifice," are also proudly heralded as sacred.

To prevent terrorism, genocide, and crimes against humanity - crimes which have in common their fundamentally human core - states must first be shorn of their presumed sacredness. Before even this can happen, however, individuals must first be allowed to discover alternative and equally attractive sources of personal belonging. In the final analysis, the essential cause of genocide, terrorism, and crimes against humanity is not the tribal glorification of particular states, or even the cowardliness of powerful bystander states, but rather the continuing incapacity of individual persons to draw true, vital and existential meaning from within themselves.

Although generally unseen, the core problem that we face on earth is the universal and omnivorous power of the herd in human affairs. This is always a potentially-sinister power, now applied by those who would create or control a state, but, at any time, applicable as well by any other organization that is based upon individual submission. The Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung had preferred the term "mass" to the Nietzschean "herd" or the Freudian "horde," but the key message is very much the same: "The individual becomes morally and spiritually inferior in the mass." (The Undiscovered Self, 1957)

At its heart, the problem of crimes against humanity is invariantly one of distraught and unfulfilled individuals. Ever fearful of having to draw meaning from their own inwardness, most human beings, like moths to a flame, will draw closer and closer to the nearest collectivity of non-persons. Sometimes it is the Class. Sometimes the Tribe.  Sometimes the Church. Sometimes the Race. Sometimes, of course, the State.  

We live in a world wherein the individual human being generally counts for nothing, but where the "self-determination” of peoples is accepted as a singularly weighty legal value...
Whatever the palpable claims of the moment, the herd spawns various contrived hatreds of dissimilarity or diversity that can make even mass murder seem warm, welcome and entirely reasonable.  Fostering a soundless but persistent refrain of "us" versus "them," such hatreds can block each individual person from becoming fully human, and thereby encourage each wittingly submissive member to celebrate the death of "outsiders."

With such a sacrificial dedication, it is a small matter that the target victim population, wherever it may exist, is constructed of an identical flesh and blood. As the terrorizing figure has already chosen to renounce self in favor of the multitude, he or she has become viscerally impervious to reason, responding only to the unambiguously strong emotional advantages of "belonging."

Each of us contains at least the possibility of becoming more fully human, a possibility that would reduce false loyalties to the herd and ultimately prevent genocide, terrorism, and related "Nuremberg-category" crimes. Yet, it is only by actively nurturing this ennobling possibility that we can safely plan to endure. The overriding task, then, must be to discover the way back to ourselves as empathetic persons.

The alternative?  We will continue to fly with the crushing ideals of a delirious collectivism.

Understood in terms of the contemporary prevention of genocide, terrorism, and crimes against humanity, this portentous prospect calls forth an immediate and inescapable obligation. Here, we are commanded, and at once, to look far beyond ordinary politics, and instead toward a determinedly worldwide actualization of authentic persons. It all seems a bit visionary, of course, but we may remember the insightful observation of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini: "The visionary is the only realist."

In principle, living can be a process of continuous rebirth, but once we allow ourselves to fall under the captivity of predatory states or other lascivious herds, most of us will choose to die before we are fully born. Although not every state is a source of potential harm, and although some states are even a welcome blessing to the world, the ubiquitous herd element generally retards personhood. It does this by issuance of darkly consuming and non-negotiable demands for complete obedience.

Because these demands carry an arsenal of punishments and rewards that may seem impossible to defy, vulnerable individuals are easily ground down into willing cogs of compliance. While few will openly acknowledge any such deformations, a too-willing servitude to herd demands may ultimately make many forms of mass killing commendable. This lamentable truth should be evident to anyone who reads the daily news updates, but only if he or she is also willing to look meaningfully behind the news.

Left unchallenged by those few who have already become authentic persons, herd leaders will plausibly remain what they have always been - hyenas assembling stale verses among the tombs. Ever ready to prey upon the weak in the presumed interests of some "higher cause," these predators can carry out their nefarious crusades for Tribe or Nation or God only because they are warmly sustained by "mass."  Any state that masquerades as the heroic vanguard of "revolution" or "self-determination," or "global caliphate" does not really think. Because it is comprised of systematically disadvantaged and propagandized populations who would find true thinking unbearable,[3] its misjudgments may imperil entire regions of world politics with terrible harms and irremediable crimes.

At its crucial source, the unrecognized but critical human task must be to migrate from the Kingdom of the Herd to the Kingdom of the Self.  In succeeding with this very nuanced and grand movement, one must first want to live in the second kingdom.  This is foreseeably the most difficult part of the needed migration, because the Kingdom of the Herd always has immense and even irresistible attractions.

The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called the state "the coldest of all cold monsters." When this Kingdom of the Herd represents a state, there can remain no worthy alternative to the herd's irreducible sovereign authority. 

Students of contemporary world politics should finally take note. The terminal risks of living unmindfully within the Kingdom of the State may become apparent only when it is already too late. At that eleventh-hour awakening, the lifesaving possibilities of migration to a widening community of genuine individuals would no longer exist.

It follows, that we must inevitably "fix" the fragmented and fractionated world at the "molecular" level, at its most elementary and irreducible source. Then, examining the microcosm, we could do whatever is needed to enable our fellow human beings to finally find sufficient comfort and reassurance outside the segregating and potentially murderous herd.

No one understood this obligation better than the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung, who reasoned that "the individual becomes morally and spiritually inferior in the mass..." and requires a genuinely fundamental "rebirth of spirit." In the absence of such a thoroughly indispensable renaissance, society must remain forever poised to commit or at least to ignore every conceivable human transgression.

In the end, we may learn further from Carl Jung, all this because "society is essentially the sum total of individuals in need of redemption."


Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. He was born in Zürich,  Switzerland, (as was Carl G. Jung, eighty years earlier) on August 31, 1945. Some of his broadly philosophical and legal writings have been published in The New York Times; The Atlantic; Yale Global Online; The Hudson Review; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; Jurist; Harvard National Security Journal; American Journal of Jurisprudence; Humanities in Society; Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law; World Politics (Princeton); The American Political Science Review; and The American Journal of International Law. His most recent and twelfth book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy(2016; 2nd. ed., 2018)

[1] See, earlier, by this author: Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (DC Heath/Lexington, 1984).

[2] This deification calls to mind both Hegel's identification of the state as "the march of God in the world" and Nietzsche's corresponding refutation that " is for the superfluous that the state was invented." Appropriate, too, is the similarly anti-state perspective of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y' Gasset. In his deservedly classic The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega warned that the state was "the greatest danger," mustering its immense and unassailable resources "to crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs it...."  Set in motion by persons whom it has already rendered insignificant, the state, continued Ortega, "establishes its machinery above society, so that humankind comes to live for the state."

[3] Recall here the statement of Bertrand Russell in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): "Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth - more than ruin, more even than death."