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Running Amok

THE DEADLY ETHNIC RIOT By Donald L. Horowitz; University of California Press: 678 pp., $35

November 12, 2000|ANTHONY M. PLATT | Anthony M. Platt is the author of "The Politics of Riot Commissions, 1917-1970." He is a professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento and served as associate director of the Task Force on Violent Aspects of Protest and Confrontation for the Eisenhower Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in 1969

"Ethnic: Not of exclusively white ancestry"



An outburst of internecine warfare is not cause for celebration, except in the book business, in which timing is everything. The release of "The Deadly Ethnic Riot" coincides with the resumption of fierce fighting between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. Unfortunately, readers will find little reason to share in the author's good fortune, unless they are doctoral students in political science condemned to prepare for comprehensive exams. This is a book that does its best to shed murk on a difficult subject: The more you read, the less you understand.

The author, Donald L. Horowitz, professor of law and political science at Duke, is a seasoned scholar with a long record of publications. For years he has been collecting data, interviewing participants and observers and combing the local literature for information about the "deadly ethnic riot," which he defines as "an intense, sudden, though not necessarily wholly unplanned, lethal attack by civilian members of one ethnic group on civilian members of another ethnic group, the victims chosen because of their group membership."

Horowitz examines 150 riots in Asia, Africa and the former Soviet Union from World War II to the present. For comparative purposes, he also looks at 50 other tense situations that were ripe for ethnic violence but where nothing happened. He takes snapshots of butchery and crowds running amok, for example, in the Philippines in 1971-'72, Burundi in 1972, the Sri Lankan riots of 1977 and 1983, anti-Indian riots in South Africa in 1949, anti-Chinese conflicts in Singapore in 1964, Hindu-Muslim riots in India, anti-Muslim violence in Chad in 1979 and anti-Jewish violence in Romania in 1941.

From his panoptic perch in the West, Horowitz surveys the tribal body count over there but rarely looks inside his own backyard other than to take satisfaction in American civility and tolerance. For a book whose subject is "the gore of the violent episode," the writing is surprisingly clinical and detached. The mounds of bodies and severed limbs are reduced to a "concatenation of four underlying variables." Get in, get the data, test the model and get out is Horowitz's formula. We never learn enough about any one place, era or people to fully understand the historical complexity and cultural texture of why people kill one another in the name of purity or sanctity.

The purpose of the book is to demonstrate that deadly riots are not random, but rather "highly patterned" events. The author's goal is to "decode" the pattern, to understand the "bizarre paradox" of rationality in the midst of "bestial slaughter." The riot, he says, "is not merely a do-it-yourself, anyone-can-play event but, for all the grotesque killing and mutilation, it also has the stamp of necessity about it."

The early chapters are devoted to explaining why a riot is different from its "close cousins," the violent demonstration, pogrom, feud, lynching, genocide, terrorism, gang assault and warfare, and why the explanations of ethnic conflicts offered by psychoanalysts, sociologists and historians fail to meet Horowitz's expectations. The author laboriously defines "deadly" and "ethnic" and "riot"; then he breaks down a riot into its constituent parts, revealing its internal rhythms, how rumor and contagion fuel its fires and how it wreaks havoc with purposeful passion. He also looks at the immediate contexts in which riots take place, their triggering flash points and how lawful crowds quickly turn ugly and kill without remorse.

After a long journey unraveling definitional knots and searching for ingredients, we learn about 500 pages later pretty much what we knew from the beginning: "Overall, the evidence suggests that deadly ethnic riots result from the confluence of specific conditions, the absence of any one of which renders riots decidedly less probable." Horowitz reduces the "confluence" to four variables: hostility between ethnic groups, collective rage, a sense of justification for killing and "an assessment of the reduced risks of violence that facilitates disinhibition." If this is the best that political science has to offer, I will stick to the messy, complicated accounts of social conflicts provided by historians such as E. P. Thompson, Eric Foner and Eric Hobsbawm.

In the book's last part, in which he calls for preventive efforts to avert the "precipitating events that make violence seem necessary," Horowitz finally tips his ideological hand. First, he quickly dismisses "systemic change" as a viable option for addressing the underlying conditions that generate riots. Too utopian and impractical, he argues. Better, he says, "to be discriminating in the choice of measures." His call for a "narrower focus" turns out to be the old counterinsurgency model that Cold War liberals embraced during the Vietnam War (see, for example, Morris Janowitz's call for "Social Control of Escalated Riots" in 1969).

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