War, Hatred and Scapegoating

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Recently, Congress set off an international controversy by wanting Turkey to condemn their World War One atrocity and genocide of the Armenian people. The Turkish government, angered by the threatened Congressional action to declare that event, during 1914 to 1918, an act of genocide, threatened to withdraw military help to the United States in its war in Iraq. Congressional leaders relented and the proposed declaration was withdrawn. But, what about the genocide?

There is a brilliant novel written by Franz Werfel, entitled, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, that portrays life in an Armenian village prior to and during that holocaust. To more fully understand the real meanings of that tragedy the reader must know that Armenians are Christians who, at the time, were living in several areas of what was then known as the Ottoman Empire. That empire stretched from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and included what today is modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Serbia, Bosnia, etc. Then as now, Turkey is a nation that is predominantly Muslim. Christians, whether they are Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Greek and Russian Orthodox, are a small minority.


In many ways, the Armenians were the "Jews of the Ottoman Empire." They were hard working, loyal, successful at business and peaceful. Yet, the Ottoman government hated them and used them as handy scapegoats who could be blamed for political failures and attacked as a way of allowing the public to "let of steam." Like the Jews of Eastern Europe who were frequently attacked by the Tsar’s army in what were known as Programs, the Armenians were the target and victims of tragic and bloody massacres that occurred all too frequently.

One of the awful things about Werfel’s brilliant novel is not how old it is but how relevant it is to the world today. One only needs to substitute a few of the nationalities and the same story emerges in the modern world. We have seen the same story in Hitler’s Germany during World War 11 and we see it today in the constant violence in the Middle East. We also see it in Darfur, in Africa and in repeated conflicts around the world that include the wish on the part of one warring faction to completely annihilate another faction.

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Why does this happen?

Here are three possible explanations:

1. Territory: Mankind remains extremely territorial resenting the intrusion of any "foreigners" into its domain. Territory is land with definite geographic boundaries, such as rivers, mountains, peninsulas and other similar geographic formations. Even in American prisons, convicts set aside parts of the exercise yard as belonging to one gang as against rival gangs. The same thing happens in the streets of our major cities where rival gangs vie for control of neighborhoods.

2. Race and Ethnicity: People seem to group together into nations and neighborhoods according to their race, language and ethnic background. Part of the tragedy of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that one ethnic group comprising two different religions are constantly at war with one another over Israelis or Palestinian territory. The fact is that Israelis and Arabs are both ethnically Semites and resemble one another very closely. Even their languages bear similarities, not to mention a few of their religious beliefs. However, they represent two different religions and are in conflict. Even in Iraq, where there is one religion: Islam, two sects of Islam are at war with one another: Sunnis and Shiites.

3. Projection: People tend to discard anything about their own personality that they dislike and attribute it to another group of people. In other words, self hatred is turned into hatred of the other. In this way, the "other people," or "them" get come to represent everything that is "bad, evil, disgusting and non human." This is how the Ottoman Turks talked about and treated the Armenians, how the Nazis talked about and treated the Jews and how this type of brutality continues today.

4. Nationalism: Nationalism is defined as pride and patriotism with regard to one’s country. Nationalistic pride fueled the arms race during the early 1900’s and led directly to the outbreak of World War One. Today, nationalism continues to sweep the world. It can be seen again, in the Middle East, where Arab countries flex their muscles by setting high crude oil prices. In addition, radical Islam is fueled not only by deep and fanatical faith in Islam but in an equally profound pride in being Arab.

Nationalism leads to war and war gives rise to even more nationalism, much like sports fans rooting for their home team. Where some nations have had a long history of having been weak and poverty stricken, nationalism and the power that comes from oil and even more from nuclear weapons, there is now intense nationalism that ignites local wars as between India and Pakistan, as one example.

Finally, everything that has been so far stated in this posting explain why and how people can commit acts of terrorism against civilians and innocents. Civilians and innocents are viewed by the terrorists as "the enemy" who is attempting to infringe upon their territory, beliefs and natural resources. What better way to kill people than to dehumanize them so that it is some form of animal that is being slaughtered rather than men, women and children.

What are your thoughts, ideas and view points about these troubling issues that transcend politics and psychology?

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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