Identity is a bloody business. Religion, nationality, or race may not be the primary causes of war and mass murder. These are more likely to be tyranny, or greed for territory, wealth, and power. But “identity” is what gets the blood boiling, what makes people do unspeakable things to their neighbors. It is the fuel used by agitators to set whole countries on fire. When the world is reduced to a battle between “us and them,” Germans and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, Hutus and Tutsis, only mass murder will do, for “we” can only survive if “they” are slaughtered. Before we kill them, “they” must be stripped of our common humanity, by humiliating them, degrading them, and giving them numbers instead of names.
The novelist Amin Maalouf begins his humane and eloquent essay with the question of “why so many people commit crimes nowadays in the name of religious, ethnic, national or some other kind of identity.” Was it always so? Or is there something new going on? What is new, I think, is not the phenomenon itself so much as the scale of the damage. There is no easy or single answer to Maalouf’s question. He mentions various reasons why people fear for their sense of belonging: globalization, the erosion of national sovereignty, Western domination over the last three hundred years, the collapse of failed secular regimes.
All these reasons deserve consideration, but none explains the extraordinary bloodlust of identity warriors. Sadism must play a part. Once their basest instincts are given the official nod, some people feel a sense of pleasure, even liberation. The degradation of one’s victims, stripped of their identity, is a way to sooth one’s conscience. This results in a ghastly paradox: the more brutal the method of slaughter, the easier it is on the killers, for the victims are no longer regarded as fully human.
But sadism cannot explain everything. Maalouf observes that mass murder can seem entirely legitimate to people who feel that their community is under threat. He writes: “Even when they commit massacres they are convinced they are merely doing what is necessary to save the lives of their nearest and dearest.” It is difficult to imagine an SS man thinking this while feeding Zyklon-B into the gas chambers of Treblinka, but it was indeed an essential part of Nazi propaganda, and some Germans may have actually believed it, including possibly Hitler himself—but then, from what we know, he didn’t really have any nearest and dearest.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the great demagogues of national identity are themselves not always sure where they belong. Slobodan Milosevic’s family is from Montenegro. Hitler was an Austrian. This suggests that Maalouf may be too optimistic when he claims that people with multiple identities will never be “on the side of the fanatics.” On the contrary, purity is often the compulsive aim of those who feel they have to make up for their …