The Threshold of Atrocity

29 April 2010


crematoria ashes with Wittgenstein quote

At what point do we pass the threshold of atrocity? If a single death is a tragedy (and therefore not an atrocity) while a million deaths is a statistic (and therefore possibly an atrocity), at what point between one death and a million deaths do we pass the threshold of atrocity? This is what philosophers call a “sorites paradox” or a “paradox of the heap”: if you continue to pile grains of sand together, eventually they will form a heap, but when? What is the threshold of a heap?

I introduced the phrase “the threshold of atrocity” in The Moral Status of Non-Atrocities, in which I attempted to identify on-going forms of political brutality that fall short of atrocity but which nevertheless ruin countless lives. In that post I predicted that the world would see more violence and suffering that falls just short of the threshold of atrocity as a result of political calculations of tyrants and dictators who are learning to contain their depredations within limits that will not arouse the interest of the wider world (“rousing the sleeping giant,” as Mike Burleson put it in a recent New Wars post).

One form of near atrocity is population transfer. In his series of lectures for The Teaching Company, Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius discusses population transfer in his seventh lecture, “The Hinge of Violence.” He observes that after the First World War, with the ideological reconstruction of political entities as nation-states, the “problem” of ethnic minorities emerges. An ethnic minority within a nation-state putatively defined in terms of an ethnic nationality is a source of cognitive dissonance, like a splinter that festers and irritates. What does one do with a splinter? One removes it. Thus Liulevicius says of this peculiarly modern problem:

“As an expedient to deal with these new situations there was arrived at, by politicians, the notion of something that’s ubiquitously and euphemistically called “population transfer.” This is a case of a trend we will see repeatedly in the course of our lectures of the power of euphemisms, of code words, to cover up harsh human realities. “Population transfer” sounded, and was meant to sound, neat, humane, and efficient. The reality, however, was of a brutal, uprooting process of populations who were now to be moved around involuntarily.”

Liulevicius cites the example of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between Greece and Turkey, which set a precedent for population transfer. He recounts how the uprooting of Greek Christian populations from Turkey and Muslim populations from areas in Greece and the Balkans became a series of horrors, and then remarks:

“…in spite of this bloody record of the Treaty of Lausanne, in spite of the atrocities and violence that accompanied the policy of population transfer, the mark that this procedure left in European intellectual history was quite different. It was truly starkly in contrast to the human reality that historians record. It was hailed by European historians of the time as a successful model of problem solving, of the redrawing of borders, of dealing with the supposed problem of ethnic minorities within new national states, and this hailing of so brutal an expedient, this euphemistic policy of population transfer, was truly to have ominous results…”

Thus Liulevicius clearly sees such “procedures” as atrocities, or at least as often involving atrocities, though he also remarks that few today recall the episode, and that it was viewed as a success in its own time. This atrocity, then, was not only not the focus of an intervention, but was seen as a model to emulate.

Population transfer is treated a little differently in another contemporary source, which calls it “expulsion,” though we can see how the two treatments are related. Daniel Goldhagen, in his Worse Than War (which I previously mentioned in Revolution, Genocide, Terror), distinguishes five levels of what he calls human eliminiationism. Of these five levels, expulsion is the third, coming between repression and prevention of reproduction. Goldhagen characterizes expulsion thus:

“Expulsion, often called deportation, is a third eliminationist option. It removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps. From antiquity to today, expulsions, often by imperial conquerers, have been common.”

Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, pp. 15-16

One contemporary example of such euphemized violence that involves small scale brutality is the recent dispossession of white farmers in Zimbabwe. Recently the BBC ran a surprisingly soft piece on Robert Mugabe’s “land reform programme,” Zimbabwe’s new farmers defend their gains, in which some of the violence of the evictions is described but not given much attention, as the story focuses on the new farmers who have acquired the lands of those who were evicted. To call the process of evictions in Zimbabwe “land reform” is clearly in the tradition of a policy intended to sound “neat, humane, and efficient” but which in fact has involved widespread suffering. And that suffering is not primarily the suffering of the 4,000 or so white farmers. The primary targets of the violence of the evictions were the native employees of the farms, and the entire population of Zimbabwe has suffered horribly from the botched “land reform” that has meant a catastrophic fall in the country’s agricultural productivity. How are we to take the moral measure of the impoverishment of millions for the benefit of a few well-connected Zimbabweans who prosper because of their relation to the ZANU-PF party?

Is Zimbabwe’s “land reform” an atrocity? We have already seen that the attempt to define an atrocity involves us in a classic philosophical paradox. There are, of course, philosophical responses. An excellent book by Claudia Card, The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil (a book imbued with the true spirit of philosophical inquiry, I must say, however much I disagree with parts of it), focuses on atrocities. Card writes:

“…evils are foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable wrongdoing… Evils tend to ruin lives, or significant parts of lives…” (p. 3)

Thus Card does not demand that atrocities be defined in terms of mass death, so we avoid the paradox posed by locating an atrocity between the tragedy of one death and the statistic of a million deaths. Further along Card writes:

“Why take atrocities as paradigms? Many evils lack the scale of an atrocity… Atrocities shock, at least when we first learn of them. They seem monstrous. We recoil of visual images and details… It is not for their sensationalism, however, that I choose atrocities as my paradigms. I choose them for three reasons: (1) because they are uncontroversially evil, (2) because they deserve priority of attention… and (3) because the core features of evils tend to be writ large in the case of atrocities, making them easier to identify and appreciate.” (p. 9)

While I agree in spirit with much of this, it misses what I have been trying to capture above. The near atrocities of expulsion or population transfer are not uncontroversially evil. As we have seen, such actions are sometimes employed as models of sound policy. Further, because near atrocities are not uncontroversially evil, the core features of evil are not writ large. On the contrary, the evils that I see growing in the world today, and which I also see as dominating the world of the future, are often writ in a very subtle script, and at times in invisible ink. Sometimes it is very difficult to discern the subtle, ongoing evil that distorts and disrupts lives in the millions. Precisely because mass, low-level suffering can come to seem the norm, one’s perspective can become distorted and evil no longer appears as evil, but just as the typical way of the world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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6 Responses to “The Threshold of Atrocity”

  1. T. Greer said

    A few thoughts.

    Defining what is and what is not an ‘atrocity’ is a tricky game. Any such effort is inherently subjective – tolerance levels for violence and evil vary from person to person, evil to evil, and victim to victim. I am reminded of an old adage newsmen like to share – “The arithmetic for headlines: 50 dead Africans are worth 20 dead Arabs, 20 dead Arabs are worth 5 dead white men, a 5 dead white men are worth 1 dead man from this city.”

    But one need not be so hard-nosed as the newsman to appreciate the point. Most folks will call genocide an atrocity – even when the numbers involved are quite small. Ask them, “which is worse?”, “which needs the world’s attention?” – Darfur’s genocide or the conflict raging across Northeastern Congo, and the answer will always be the former, despite the disparity in the number of people who have lost their lives in each.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Greer,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I suspect that defining “genocide” is at least as problematic as defining “atrocity” if not more so, though I don’t doubt your claim that most people would respond more strongly to an episode identified as genocide than to some other evil. I suggest that this is because, in the terminology of Claudia Card, genocide is an uncontroversial evil in which “the core features of evils tend to be writ large.” One of the results of this recognition of genocide as an uncontroversial evil is that there emerges the tendency to identify as genocide incidents that one would like to see condemned as uncontroversial evils. This in turn leads to making the definition of genocide more problematic, which leads in turn to its indiscriminate use. The end point of this evolution of meaning will be to ultimately deprive the term of definite content.

      Best wishes,


  2. xcalibur said

    Expulsion is a form of mass violence. The 20th century and the ancient world are far removed from one another, but I believe the Assyrians used that tactic to break up ethnic enclaves and solidify their rule.

    “On the contrary, the evils that I see growing in the world today, and which I also see as dominating the world of the future, are often writ in a very subtle script, and at times in invisible ink. Sometimes it is very difficult to discern the subtle, ongoing evil that distorts and disrupts lives in the millions. Precisely because mass, low-level suffering can come to seem the norm, one’s perspective can become distorted and evil no longer appears as evil, but just as the typical way of the world.”

    I completely agree with this quote. In school, everyone learns about war, slavery, genocide – dramatic evils, committed in bold brush strokes, which oppress and kill on a large scale. It’s easy to overlook subtle evils and injustices, structural frictions in society, all the mild ways in which people are exploited, subjugated, and have their minds distorted and placed under stress.
    I see much of this in modern society. Mental health issues, eg the suicide rate and shooting incidents. The rampant narcotics problem. Unemployment and poverty. Urban blight. The bullying culture of schools. College students starting their career with large amounts of debt that can’t be removed (not to mention $200 textbooks). Getting bogged down in pointless wars that maim and traumatize, in the name of freedom. Commodity fetishism and consumerism. Usury in credit and loans. And so on, and so on.

    I could list more examples, but I think I’ve made my point – dramatic, extreme evils get all the attention, while subtle wrongs and deficiencies are easily overlooked, even when they’re pervasive and destructive.

    • Wonderboy said

      1000X yes. The low-to-mid-grade suffering caused by terrible political, social, economic and monetary policies wreaks havoc on BILLIONS of people. The tyrants, elitists, and sociopaths have discovered that they can hide “atrocities” by spreading them out thinly upon massive numbers of people.

      • geopolicraticus said

        We have no effective way to measure the loss to a life compromised by low-to-mid-grade suffering, or even for deprivation without obvious suffering, and that makes it difficult to render an accounting of depredations below the threshold of atrocity. For examples of deprivation without obvious suffering, consider those nation-states that restrict their citizens’ access to information: even if everyone is fed and clothed and housed (more or less the Chinese conception of human rights) if they cannot develop their minds in terms of the most advanced thought of our time, then their lives are less than what they might otherwise have been. This statement involves a counterfactual, and that makes it even more problematic, but, to my mind, no less of an offense to human dignity.

        Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        That is true, and it is difficult to quantify offenses to human dignity below the level of atrocity. My point is that it’s important to understand that lesser degrees of violence, exploitation, and oppression are present in society and that they can be very problematic. The idea that all is well, or that there are no real problems because “it’s so much worse over there or back then” is a myth.

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