Defining mass murder these days is difficult because there is just too much of it. In the last century human beings have killed each other by the millions in the name of race, religion, community, economic class, social class, and politics.
We would like to be able to say that mass murder is more than just one of those things people like to do in their free time. The key to understanding does not seem to be in the choice of the people to be killed, or even in knowing how that choice is made. Anyone defined in almost any way can be murdered with his like en mass. It is the latter part of the description, the fact of en mass, that tells us what we need to know.
Mass murder doesn't occur because of any characteristic of one group or another, murdered or murderers. Rather it is a mechanical behavior, a repetitive sequence to thoughts and actions, that human beings are liable to fall into.
Mass murderers tell themselves, we kill because we have already killed, we kill because now we must in order to stay as we are. We repeat the action against our human nature to silence the protests the remnant of that human nature makes against what we are making ourselves into. Mass murder is not as usually considered so much the story of how everyday people one by one became what is known as a killer. It is more the story of how individuals once they killed kept on killing, and became a model to others of this means of adapting to the group of people they find themselves among.
In accord with the doctrine of compassion, the Dalai Lama of Tibet is a strict vegetarian, but only when at home with other Buddhists. He is a meat eater when abroad, sharing meals with dignitaries in the course of his political activities.
I don't know how he justifies this compromise. Maybe he argues that the human companionship and sympathy of shared meals goes out into the world as an example, spreading happiness in incalculable ways, and this spreading out of happiness is, weighed in the balance, more important than pain to animals that are raised and slaughtered for human consumption.
Yet with a little creativity, good feeling between people with different customs can be held onto, and creativity is superior in all cases to compromise. The Dali Lama isn't going to start raving about massacring his enemies, yet a step has been taken in the wrong direction.
I've read that one of my favorite film directors, Jean-Luc Godard likes to make nasty comments about Jews. He suggests the Jews of World War II were holocaust kamikazes, willing victims looking ahead to the political gain their people would get from their mass suicide. In other words, he suggests that the Jews were mass murderers of themselves.
That we have got to the point where such a suggestion can be made openly tells us that I am not the only one who has noticed that mass murder is no longer believed to be tied to any particular idea, custom, habit, or history. It has begun to be talked about as a technique, a way of life, one among others.
The Dalai Lama is willing to go against himself, against the sympathy he feels for animals, for the sake of a calculation that life is not a realm of certainties and that it seems better to live happier among people since he is more essentially one of them, than save intact his own human nature to feel sympathy with animals. What Godard suggests the Jews did to themselves in World War II is just that calculation, taken to an extreme. "Every Jew loves himself as an individual, but relations between people as a whole are more important, therefore the feeling one has for oneself must be sacrificed."
And we conclude: sacrificing human feeling, for the sake of better relations in one's group, is exactly the definition of what constitutes mass murder we are looking for. Not multiple murder to attain political ends, but repetitive action that changes yourself for the sake of a changed place in your group. Or if you like: mass murder is a teaching and practice of personal compromise perpetuated by a group.
The kind of prejudice that Jean-Luc Goddard is an example of is almost too human a fault. Godard, like me when I rage against my family or against modern American life, is identifying and reacting against a habit of compromise, a habit of denying one's own human feeling of sympathy. Human perversity is such that the act of identification leads to the practice, the imitation and repetition of the very same compromise oneself.
That the mechanical component of mass murder communicates itself from one side to another, from the murderers to the murdered, shows that this behavior has nothing to do with particular ideas, peoples, or historical movements.