Encountering Humanity's Dark Side
Antonius C.G.M. Robben and Alexander Laban Hinton



Approaching Perpetrator Research

THIS BOOK BEGAN with the Blond Angel.

In March 2010, we were in Buenos Aires. Tony was conducting fieldwork on the aftermath of the mass violence that had been inflicted by a military dictatorship (1976–83) known for its forced disappearances. Alex was participating in a genocide studies conference. At the time, he was conducting research on the UN-sponsored Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. This tribunal was established long after the genocide to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders for atrocity crimes committed during the Cambodian genocide (1975–79), which took place at roughly the same time as the political violence in Argentina.

In both countries, justice had been long delayed. At the time, a domestic tribunal was underway in Argentina. One of Alex’s conference hosts suggested that he attend the Argentine tribunal before the start of the conference. As it happened, the person on trial that day was Alfredo Astiz, a notorious military officer who the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo nicknamed “the Blond Angel” and “Blondie.” He had infiltrated their group under the pseudonym “Gustavo Niño” on the pretext of searching for his disappeared brother. Astiz was very much a “spectacular perpetrator,” known for his good looks, playboy lifestyle, and involvement in a series of high-profile disappearances. He was also accused personally of torturing some of the victims. During the trial session Alex attended, Astiz proclaimed his innocence, arguing that strong action had to be taken to confront the dire threat posed by subversives seeking to overthrow the Argentine state.

Afterward we met for coffee, as we had known each other for years. We strolled to the Recoleta neighborhood, trying to maintain a conversation but frequently interrupted by the noise of the dense traffic. Our destination couldn’t have been more appropriate, because the neighborhood was named after the Recollects, an order of reclusive monks who spent the day in spiritual reflection when they lived there in a convent two centuries ago. Calm finally descended over the afternoon when we ordered coffee at a sidewalk café in a large pedestrian area.

“What struck you most about this morning’s testimony by Astiz?” asked Tony, as we waited for our coffee.

“Well,” Alex replied, “he reminded me of Duch, the former Khmer Rouge commandant I’m writing a book about. Duch was in charge of S-21, an infamous security center that is a sort of Cambodian ‘Auschwitz’ or ‘ESMA’ [a notorious detention and torture center in Argentina]. Duch’s the first person to be tried at the UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia. Over twelve thousand people were executed under his watch, many after being tortured into making forced confessions.”

“Which kind of similarities are you thinking of?” Tony followed up. “Can you really compare the commander of a torture center to a low-ranking officer, like Astiz, who belonged to an operational task group that hunted down political opponents and guerrilla insurgents?”

“There are a bunch of similarities,” Alex responded. “Both were part of a machinery of mass murder that had chains of command even as people had leeway to act within them. And both seem to still believe in the original cause. Duch expressed remorse for the deaths during his trial, but you can tell he thinks the fight against ‘hidden enemies burrowing from within’ was just. Astiz seemed to be saying something similar during his hearing today. What did you find during your research on him?”

“Astiz, unlike Duch,” Tony replied, “never had any moral misgivings about torturing and killing people. He is already serving a life sentence in prison and still believes that the Argentine military were fighting a just war against leftist revolutionaries threatening to take over the country. He was a loyal, low-ranking navy officer following the daily orders to track down and either kill or abduct guerrilla insurgents and political activists.” Tony added: “The freedom of action and improvisation was appealing to Astiz. Apparently, he was good at the play of deception, considering his infiltration among the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and his covert operations in Chile and the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. Duch and Astiz differed in rank and ideology but shared the sense of duty to a greater cause and the willingness to commit horrendous acts.”

The photo in figure 1 was taken in 1985 at an appeals court hearing. Alfredo Astiz had been accused of the disappearance of the Swedish teenager Dagmar Hagelin but was acquitted by a military court. The Federal Court of Appeals asked him to appear in a lineup as a civilian, but he refused.1 He presented himself to the court in his navy lieutenant’s uniform to emphasize that he had operated under orders during the military dictatorship.

FIGURE 1. Navy Lieutenant Alfredo Astiz, alias “the Blond Angel.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For hours, our conversation continued in this manner as we discussed our years of research with perpetrators. If Astiz and Duch provided a starting point, our conversation ranged far and wide and touched on areas of research that were understudied, especially anthropology’s lack of methodological reflection on encounters with perpetrators of mass violence in the field.

In 2018, we decided to continue the conversation and help fill this key gap by writing this book. Our thinking had developed considerably since our meeting in 2010, and perpetrator studies—which, as Alex notes in the next chapter, dates back to attempts to account for Nazi atrocities—had evolved into a full-blown interdisciplinary field of research with a journal, conferences, and an interdisciplinary network.2 Perhaps most important, there were many students and scholars, both emerging and established, who were undertaking research on perpetrators.

As the subtitle of this book suggests, our goal is to deepen the study of perpetrators with the insights we have acquired through decades of on-the-ground research into genocide and mass violence committed by authoritarian states. Our lessons learned extend to fieldwork with perpetrators who operate in security forces, revolutionary insurgencies, terrorist organizations, and racist supremacist groups. We examine the challenges of interviewing those violent actors and processing the accompanying emotions. We also consider how the personal and interpersonal impact of this sort of research informs the writing process.

This book is the outcome of our efforts, which encompass everything from the researcher’s dreams to the dangers of ethnographic seduction when perpetrators try to make the interviewer accept their account as the only truth. We focus on our fieldwork relations with perpetrators and show how ethnographic knowledge is constructed inter-subjectively. And we analyze our research practices in Argentina and Cambodia, and we examine each other’s ideas to draw general lessons for the benefit of other scholars.

In this book we work to shed light on fieldwork with perpetrators based on the practical wisdom we have gained through years of research on them—what the ancient Greeks called phronesis. Each of the chapters and interludes in this book is informed by this phronesis, a point we return to in the book’s conclusion. So, too, are our writing strategies. Each of us began writing about perpetrators through conventional ethnography. Over time, we both became convinced of the importance of writing about perpetrators in more experimental ways, a conviction that informs this book from start to finish.

Thus, we began this introduction with remembered dialogue from our 2010 discussion at a coffeehouse in Buenos Aires. The remainder of this introduction, in turn, intersperses expository prose with dialogue reflecting the conversations we had as we wrote this book—in a manner that echoes the creative interludes we intersperse between the three sections of this book.

Perpetrators: Who and What Are They?

Perpetrators seldom regard themselves as such because perpetrator is an indeterminate concept. Etymologically related to the Latin term perpetrāre, perpetrator (and its verb form perpetrate) connotes performance and execution in the sense of denoting someone who “carries out” an action, particularly one that is “evil” or “criminal, immoral, or harmful.”3 Indeed, the term, which is rooted in a Judeo-Christian genealogy, has come to have a strong legal inflection while also suggesting boundary transgression (e.g., against another person, a social community, a legal order, the state). This book is therefore not about perpetrators in the legal sense as everyday offenders of civil and criminal law but about actors involved in mass violence.

The term perpetrator is deeply intertwined with a mirror term, victim (and here again our focus is on victims of mass violence as opposed to victims of ordinary crimes). The term has an implied sense of innocence that relates to its early biblical meaning of victims as offerings to a deity or as scapegoats sacrificed to atone for a great harm, such as an epidemic or a war.

The semantic association of perpetrators with victims influences fieldwork. Regarding research participants as perpetrators—instead of patriots, idealists, revolutionaries, or bureaucrats—may have an impact on interviews and provoke strong emotional reactions. A further complication is that perpetrators may be victims. For example, child soldiers may be considered legally accountable for their violent acts, but the circumstances of their forced recruitment into an army or militia attenuates their moral responsibility. In other situations, perpetrators may come under suspicion and be arrested, as was the case with many of the prisoners in the Khmer Rouge security center Duch ran. Even as we note some of these complexities, connotations, and limitations to our perpetrator keyword, however, we argue that there are good reasons for using this key concept, in part because it offers valuable analytical affordances.

Who are perpetrators? We begin with a working definition inflected by our concern with perpetrators of mass violence and the emerging literature in perpetrator studies. Perpetrators are active participants in state institutions and repressive organizations or informal associations and networks who carry out genocide, mass killings, or violent acts for the presumed greater good of the state, a people, or an ideology.

Our definition is deliberately broad because perpetrators are active in various types of organizations and have therefore varying degrees of involvement and responsibility for the violence committed. The command-and-control procedures of standing armies and police forces imply that officials of different ranks may be responsible for the same violent act, whereas a loosely organized white supremacist group often consists of members who don’t need orders from above to act violently and often communicate through social media technologies.

These differences complicate the conceptualization and identification of perpetrators. For example, low-ranking officers or police may argue that they are not responsible for the violence because they were following orders, whereas their superiors claim that their legitimate orders were not carried out to the letter. Likewise, the founders and spokespersons of supremacist and racist groups may dissociate themselves from violent acts committed in the group’s name, saying that they have no control over the actions of their sympathizers.

The closer they are to the violent act, the easier it seems to identify perpetrators. Perpetrators harm and kill people, but not everyone who takes a life is a perpetrator. The murderer, the hangman, and the physician who performs euthanasia are not perpetrators. The first acts out of personal motives and circumstance, the second carries out a verdict, and the third fulfills an authorized request. However, the assassin who eliminates political enemies, the executioner who takes partisans to the gallows, and the physician who administers lethal injections in a eugenics program are perpetrators. But what about a policeman who kills a nonviolent street protester at a political rally, or members of the Ku Klux Klan who lynch a Black man? We regard them also as perpetrators, rather than criminals, because they committed violence as members of respectively a state institution and a formal organization. Perpetrators of mass violence, in other words, are embedded in institutions, associations, or networks.

Scholars have developed different typologies to distinguish perpetrators of mass violence, each with strengths and weaknesses.4 We find the tripartite model of Üngör and Anderson to be useful for the purposes of this book because it differentiates architects, organizers, and killers who correspond to “different layers of authority, different motives of involvement, different rules of engagement, and changes in these factors over time.”5 While there are other ways of categorizing perpetrators, Üngör and Anderson’s three levels make analytical distinctions that acknowledge real-world fluidity as individual perpetrators move between levels or combine several positions within the same level.

For example, militias that operated during the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone were run by commanders who allowed their combatants to commit horrendous acts of violence and involved them also in the trade of blood diamonds. Danny Hoffman shows how these militias did not constitute hierarchical military organizations but consisted of patron-client relationships between ruthless, powerful men who provided protection, food, shelter, and weapons to their armed men and then demanded loyalty and labor in return. As in other loose associations, these dependency relations could be challenged by ambitious combatants who tried to become patrons themselves by luring away clients from weakened commanders.6

Perpetrator-architects refer not only to the Hitlers, Stalins, and Pol Pots of this world but also to the leaders and prominent members who serve under them as part of the inner circle of decision-making. They help justify the violence of their own subordinates on ideological or strategic grounds, but they do not formulate detailed plans. The study of these architects requires sufficient historical knowledge because such violence generally occurs during wars or civil strife with public expressions of racist, supremacist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim sentiment. These circumstances result in definitions of individuals, groups, and organizations as enemies whose annihilation promises to create a better society.

This targeting is a process of priming society for violent action against people who are portrayed as posing an existential threat to society. The political situation in Cambodia in the mid-1970s illustrates this process.7 Against the backdrop of an enormous socioeconomic upheaval (the Vietnam War, civil war, foreign incursion, economic stress, and US carpet-bombing), a genocide emerged in Cambodia that upended systems of meaning and ways of life. The Khmer Rouge offered a vision of renewal that appealed to many, even as it demonized certain groups that were targeted for elimination after the Khmer Rouge took power.

Mid-level organizers operationalize destructive doctrines and objectives as specific procedures and killing methods. The organization of violent death can take the form of a bureaucracy with a clear task division and chain of command, but it may also consist of spontaneous actions taken by lower-level groups and actors. Procedures are developed as the perpetration unfolds because the killing is improvised in response to the unpredictable reactions of executioners, victims, witnesses, bystanders, prosecutors, foreign governments, and human rights organizations.

Scholarly attention is often focused on what Üngör and Anderson have called perpetrator-killers because they are most directly involved in the violence. We prefer the term perpetrator-facilitators because the social category of “killers” is not restricted to perpetrators who physically kill people but also includes interrogators, guards, and physicians who have contact with, harm in ways large and small, and help facilitate the violence and killing.

The study of perpetrator-facilitators raises questions about agency, motivation, and dehumanization. We touch upon these issues in this book, but the research of Martha Huggins and her collaborators about police violence in Brazil during the military dictatorship (1964–85) is instructive here. The researchers distinguish torturers from executioners on the basis of the different practices of each. To be most effective, torturers try to understand the psychological makeup and vulnerabilities of their victims. They build personal relationships based on complete dependency in order to extract information with torture methods adapted to each individual victim. One person breaks down through humiliation, while another fears waterboarding and threats to family members. Torturers who cause the accidental death of a victim consider it a failure that angers their superiors because they do not obtain the sought-after information. In the case of Brazil, executioners instead acted fast. They knew little about their victims and did not face the moral dilemmas of torturers who had some kind of personal relationship with their captives.8

The division of tasks of repression was standard practice in Brazil, but there and in other places, the roles of executioners and torturers are often not so clearly defined. A manual for Khmer Rouge interrogators gave the following instruction: “Thus we beat them to make them afraid but absolutely not to kill them. . . . Don’t greedily want to quickly kill them—bring them to death.”9 The same combination of roles occurred in Argentina, where an interrogator told his victim: “If you talk I’ll offer you an easy death, a shot; if not, a pig’s death through torture.”10

We want to emphasize that there are also violent abusers who do not go to the extremes documented in dictatorial Argentina, Brazil, and Cambodia. Beatrice Jauregui conducted fieldwork among police in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, showing that officers continuously wavered between authoritative control and coercive violence to enforce the law. Much depended on the situation. For example, if outnumbered by a violent crowd, they might resort to excessive violence to disperse the rioters or keep crime rates down. Police officers were involved in illegal detentions and extrajudicial killings, but at other times they worked by the rules. Jauregui concludes that Indian officers negotiated the maintenance of public order through legal and extralegal means.11 This vacillation is a challenge to researchers, because perpetrators are likely to situate themselves at a far end of the spectrum from force to violence.

Such perpetrators are also often depicted as either monsters and perverted sadists or ordinary human beings trapped in repressive organizations. Similarly, the scholarly debate over the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann was about his humanity, not about whether he organized the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps. The Israeli prosecutor contended that Eichmann was coldhearted and evil. Hannah Arendt argued the opposite: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”12 Eichmann positioned himself as a victim whose virtuous obedience had been exploited by his superiors: “I am not the monster I am made out to be.”13 Many perpetrator trials have been informed by the opposed characterizations of monster versus human being, and similar lines of defense as Eichmann’s have been heard from terrorists, abusive police, and racist offenders: they were following orders or believed themselves to be fighting for a greater good and a better world.

The Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, referring to the calamitous rise of German fascism, believed that human beings contain both good and evil. “There’s a great deal in all of us that is false, coarse and primitive, an unholy mixture of stuff usually kept under wraps,” he wrote. “Many people living in normal social conditions have no idea of the cellars and basements of their own being. But there has been a catastrophe—and vermin of every kind have escaped from the cellars. Now they are at large, scuttling through rooms that were once bright and clean.”14 Grossman was suggesting that we all have darkness lurking in the recesses of our interior. We may see ourselves as morally upright, but our baseness is always ready to burst forth under extreme circumstances.

The assumption that human beings harbor good and evil is often related to moral agency. The Christian belief that people choose to act in either moral or immoral ways, while allowing for some forgivable shades in between, and the notion that right or unjust acts stem from a personal disposition in a receptive environment, are commonly held opinions in the Western world. These viewpoints don’t necessarily exist in cultures with other moralities and may not apply to situations in which people’s existence is at stake. Moral codes and war conventions, for example, can be violated as a last resort. However, as the political philosopher Michael Walzer has argued, a just war doesn’t exempt the belligerents from their responsibility for unjust deeds.15 This question of accountability is relevant to research with perpetrators. What are the ethical concerns and obligations of ethnographers toward perpetrators? How should fieldworkers prepare themselves for research interviews with different types of perpetrators?

We didn’t have any clear answers in mind when we wrote those rhetorical questions. More questions were raised by the leading scholar of genocide and perpetrator studies, Uğur Ümit Üngör, during a Q&A about the book’s first draft. Large parts of this correspondence have been incorporated throughout this introduction. New issues arose once we finished the final manuscript. We decided to explore them further by email, and thus continue the conversation we had begun in Buenos Aires. We have inserted these exchanges throughout this book, using our familiar names, Alex and Tony. The dialogue allowed us to reflect in more general terms on our fieldwork experience and offers readers an opportunity to rethink our conceptualization of mass violence and perpetration.

ALEX: How do you fit the indeterminacy of perpetrators into Üngör and Anderson’s tripartite model [i.e., architects, organizers, killers], and how would you compare such diverse perpetrators as Argentine intelligence officers operating in a dictatorial state and Indian police officers working under democracy?

TONY: This is a tough question because of the major status differences among the three types of perpetrators and the cultural, historical, and political variations between the two countries. Perpetrators are not one-dimensional violent actors but have particular functions, personalities, social backgrounds, and goals in life. Yet as the tripartite model shows, perpetrators can nevertheless be classified from high to low on the organizational scale, irrespective of the national circumstances. Perpetrators make those distinctions themselves. Once, I told an Argentine general that I had interviewed a lieutenant-colonel who had tortured captives. I forgot to say that he was a first lieutenant during the dictatorship. The general burst out: “A lieutenant-colonel? Then he must be a sadist!” It was obvious to him that low-ranking officers may torture people but not when they move up the ladder. This prompts the question what low-and mid-level perpetrators have in common. Can we compare the Holocaust’s principal organizer Adolf Eichmann to the concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk?

We should be careful not to concentrate exclusively on violence. A framework that centers narrowly on, say, genocide or hate crimes ignores the gradual process through which perpetrators are coaxed into acts of violence on behalf of the state, a terrorist organization, or a racist group. A singular focus on violent action leads to a biased portrayal of perpetrators. Instead, we must give thought to the multiple facets of perpetrators that emerge under complex personal and political circumstances.

Researchers need to extend the meaning of the term perpetrator to those who are participants in atrocity crimes that are committed to serve a greater cause at whichever organizational and operational level. This includes guards, physicians, informers, and hate preachers without whose support the atrocious crimes would not have taken place. I’m aware that this delimitation is debatable. There are no universal criteria. Researchers need to weigh each and every case. Still, I maintain that the type of perpetrators we are discussing in this book are always political actors, in the sense that they don’t act primarily for personal motives. Perpetrators exercise power over others in positions organized and approved by their comrades or superiors. They may steal for personal enrichment, but theft is an ordinary criminal act.

How do you see this, Alex?

ALEX: One common move is to deploy analytical difference to distinguish between micro-, meso-, and macrolevels or the parallel scheme of killers, organizers, and architects developed by Üngör and Anderson. While these schemes can be used in different ways, including dynamic ones, they may also lead to the assumption that the killers are somehow categorically different from the architects. And even these terms inflect our attention in a particular direction, foregrounding and backgrounding issues—such as the “killer” category, which erases related forms of violence, ranging from torture to those who detain and guard victims, which is not in line with the executioner connotations of killers, which is why we prefer the term facilitators. So, to return full circle, I would urge researchers to focus on process and be very careful with typologies, even as they can, when used with care (as Üngör and Anderson do), be useful analytical containers and facilitate research. The problem arises when we get stuck in the language of these perpetrator containers and can’t see out of them.

The issue of culture speaks further to this point, since the very idea of perpetrator is enmeshed in a particular linguistic tradition and intellectual genealogy. What would it mean if we began our research with local glosses for perpetrator? It would, I would wager, disrupt our disciplinary assumptions and enable us to see the perpetrator in different sorts of ways. Like you, of course, I’m biased in this regard as an anthropologist, and I always ask myself how global or transitional justice is understood by people on the ground, for whom such imaginaries may not be very relevant at all.

TONY: Another commonality among perpetrators is that they dehumanize people. When people are regarded as “cockroaches,” as happened to the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, or as class enemies who pose an existential threat, as was common in the Soviet Union and communist Cambodia, then perpetrators feel morally justified to harm others. The same is of course true for policemen who regard migrant workers and homeless people as “animals,” or for Islamist jihadists who defend indiscriminate attacks on Jews and Christians considered “infidels.”

ALEX: This issue of dehumanization speaks directly to the notion of difference you mention, but in terms of process. Perpetrator studies too often get stuck in static typologies due to the figurations that inform the field. One of these is to juxtapose the perpetrator as a “monster” to the perpetrator as “an ordinary human being.” Another figuration that has had much influence on the field is Hannah Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann as the embodiment of the banality of evil. There is, of course, great diversity in the field, and some scholars focus on dynamics and process. But quite a bit of perpetrator research is informed by “the perpetrator” figuration with its criminal overtones—and by implication the objectivity and rationality of perpetrator research.


1. Human Rights Watch 1991, 32.

2. See, e.g., Anderson and Jessee 2020; Knittel and Goldberg 2020; Smeulers, Weerdesteijn, and Holá 2019. See also the websites of the Perpetrator Studies Network (https://perpetratorstudies. and the Journal of Perpetrator Research (https://jpr.

3. Oxford English Dictionary 2009 s.vv. perpetrate and perpetrator.

4. See, for example, Hilberg 1992; Jensen and Szejnmann 2008; Khazanov and Payne 2013; Knittel and Goldberg 2020; Schlund-Vials and Martínez 2017; Staub 1989; Williams and Buckley-Zistel 2018.

5. Üngör and Anderson 2020, 11.

6. Hoffman 2011.

7. Hinton 2005.

8. Huggins, Haritos-Fatouros, and Zimbardo 2002, 233.

9. Crelinsten 1993, 40.

10. Gasparini 1988, 149.

11. Jauregui 2016.

12. Arendt 1979, 276.

13. Arendt 1979, 248.

14. Grossman 2019, 217–18.

15. Walzer 1977.