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The Good Intentions of Violent Perpetrators

What do perpetrators say about their collective violence?

One way to find out why people commit collective violence is to ask them. The observations here are based on the actual testimony of violent perpetrators. These perpetrators gave testimony to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to receive amnesty for the violent crimes they committed during apartheid. Full disclosure meant they were allowed to go free, so they were strongly motivated to give detailed and comprehensive explanations. What did these perpetrators reveal?

Acting in support of an ideology. Many perpetrators described abbreviated ideologies that formed the conceptual basis for their violent actions. Captain Dirk Coetzee of the South African Police summarized the beliefs that guided his illegal violence against anti-apartheid activists: “We were God’s own people, threatened with a communist revolutionary onslaught from the north, which – if it was ever to succeed – would plunge the southern tip of Africa into chaos.” On the other side, fighters in the anti-apartheid, liberation movements characterized themselves as warriors for freedom, fighting for democracy and the return of their land and against violent, authoritarian oppression.

Status, excitement, and personal fulfillment. Perpetrators on all sides of the struggle in apartheid South Africa spoke of increased status and excitement when they joined their respective organizations. Colonel Eugene de Kock, who commanded killing squads against anti-apartheid activists, said, “It clearly was regarded as an honor if one was allowed to participate in an action.” Paul Erasmus stated, “I started on the Security Branch, believing as a very young man that this would be exciting. And then I would be something of a James Bond type of character and lead this exciting life dealing with very important issues.”

Robert McBride described his response just after joining the military wing of the African National Congress to fight against the apartheid government: “This elevation in my status was for me the most empowering moment of my life.”

Doing good. Repeated brutality was supported by a strong belief in the goodness of one’s actions. With the Security Police in apartheid South Africa, this belief arose from the religious doctrine of the Dutch Reformed Church, which spoke to the divinity of Afrikaans stewardship of Southern Africa. The religious doctrine then allowed members of the police security forces to carry out their illegal violence, knowing that they were acting in good faith.

Doing more. In the armed wings of the anti-apartheid liberation movements, initial operations began with less risky and non-lethal operations and progressed to more destructive and deadly actions. Each operation then primed the next operation. Luyanda Gqomfa started with smaller bombings where no one was killed and then moved up to attacking a crowded tavern where the objective was “to kill as many people as possible.” Perpetrators spoke of their first kill as a traumatic and dissociating event but also as a required step in their on-the-job training.

Initiative and creativity. Violent perpetrators creatively developed and refined their methods of destruction. Within the norms of their organizations, perpetrators acted with inventiveness and ingenuity, dispelling the illusion of the follower. Paul Erasmus of the Security Police exemplified this approach: “We certainly worked very hard to outdo each other, we became very inventive. I certainly flourished in this environment. I developed new techniques of harassment and more bizarre ways, which were more effective than some of my colleagues or commanding officers could ever have dreamed of.”

Group cohesiveness. Within militarized groups, strong social bonding prevailed. General Johannes van der Merwe emphasized this when he said, “There was a team spirit like no other unit of the South African Police.”

Focused attention. While perpetrators were actually participating in violence against others, they focused on the specific actions and techniques that accomplished their tasks and not on ideology or morality.

Robert McBride described his focus while placing explosives for the armed wing of the African National Congress: “When you do an operation, you are trained, go and lay your charge, initiate it, and retreat. That’s your frame of mind. I had been doing that on more than ten occasions: going, gaining entry and laying charges, and retreating. That’s what it is. That’s what your mind is on.”

While carefully explaining how he selected a location for his car bomb that would kill three young people and seriously injure scores of others, McBride revealed an unnerving practicality: when setting a car bomb, it is necessary to find a good parking spot.


Many violent perpetrators do not think of themselves as cruel or doing wrong. They engage in collective harm-doing for what they consider virtuous reasons, fulfilling themselves ideologically, personally, and morally. They join violent organizations to translate ideology into action and for increased status and personal fulfillment. While committed to their organizations, perpetrators engage in what they conceived of as meaningful work, helping to advance their political cause.

Based in ideology, these perpetrators begin with good intentions and then proceed through a progression of increasingly more violent actions, motivating their violence with rational reasons, moral justifications, ingenuity and a drive to excel, and group cohesiveness. While actually carrying out their violent actions, perpetrators maintain a narrowed focus of attention and concentrate on successful technique.

Obviously, a young person does not wake up one morning and say, “When I grow up, I want to torture and kill other people. I think I’d be good at it.” But when ordinary people step onto the platform of a violent organization, they can be incrementally shaped to engage in extraordinary brutalities for a cause, with individuals and organizations reciprocally influencing each other toward increasingly harmful actions.

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