Governments have always oppressed and killed elements of their populations. However, the technological and organizational breakthroughs of the 19th century gave states unprecedented capacities. Telegraph, radio, telephone, railroads, automobiles, and air planes vastly improved communications and transportation, while centralized bureaucracies extended the reach of central government in other ways. Chemistry and machine-tools combined to provide killers with new means to deal out mass death. These trends converged to make the 20th century one of unmatched destructiveness.
The best estimate is that between 1900 and 1987 governments killed about 170 million people outside of combat operations between military forces. In comparison, battlefield deaths numbered “only” 34.4 million for the same period. This trend continued to the end of the 20th Century. In the 1980s about 650,000 people were killed in inter-state conflicts; in the 1990s that death toll fell to 220,000 people killed in international conflicts. On the other hand, about 3.5 million people were killed in civil wars during the 1990s.
Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon of state-sponsored mass murder has attracted the interest of thoughtful people. A political scientist named R. J. Rummel was one of the scholars who became interested in this phenomenon. His curiosity yielded one new word and two books. The word is “democide” (meaning the intentional killing of citizens by their government); the books are Death by Government (1994) and Statistics of Democide (1997).
In 1998 the CIA commissioned Professor Barbara Harff (Political Science, USNA) to explore the possibility of predicting future “democides.” Harff found that statistical modeling of social, economic, and political factors produced a list of countries “at risk” of genocide. Some of these countries were places with long-running and already savage wars underway (Algeria, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan). The others clustered in northeastern (Ethiopia, Somalia) and central (Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda) Africa. Last, but not least, there was Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had already slaughtered about one and a quarter percent of the country’s people. (The total population was 24 million.)
Another factor should not be neglected, however. Twentieth-century “democide” has generally been the child of attempts to create totalitarian social utopias. Democratic governments have virtually never engaged in “democide” in the Twentieth Century. (Admittedly, this isn’t going to make the Indians of the Americas feel any better.) Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung killed millions of people attempting to eliminate racial or class enemies. Their fore-runners (the Young Turks, Lenin) and imitators (Pol Pot) killed millions more.
How can we explain the proliferation of destructive utopia in modern times? Did the organizational and technological means available to madmen become much better developed than in earlier times? Did some accident of political, social, and economic conditions bring madmen to power in a single historical period? Is it possible to forestall catastrophe in the future?
“Human Development Report 2002,” Atlantic, October 2002, pp. 42, 44.
Bruce Falconer, “The World in Numbers: Murder by the State,” Atlantic, November 2003, pp. 56-57.
 Curiously, both Rummel and Harff were graduates in Political Science of Northwestern University.