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The Psychology and Role of Bystanders in Turkey’s Purge

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Genocides, persecutions, and mass killings have happened several times throughout the history in different parts of the world such as Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Cambodia. The role of perpetrators is well known in these devastating events, and most of them have been convicted with their crimes early or late. But what about the bystanders?

The role and psychology of bystanders, those who turned blind while the people besides them were being violently killed, tortured, and oppressed, has been neglected by the observers of these events. In his article The Psychology of Bystanders, Perpetrators and Heroic Helpers,  Ervin Staub argued that bystanders have a great potential power to prevent such events, especially when the violence against a group increases progressively.

Bystanders can be internal, from within the oppressed group or nation, or external such as those from other groups and nations. Although they have the power to act against oppression, bystanders choose to remain passive, and this allows perpetrators to see their persecution against the minority group as acceptable and even right. Eventually, a vicious cycle of silence and violence occurs. As the bystanders remain silent, more violence is applied by the perpetrators and vice versa. As a result of their passivity, bystanders feel the need to change their attitudes towards persecutors and victims. To suppress their feelings of empathy and guilt, they start to distance themselves from victims while getting closer to the perpetrators. At the end, as Staub concludes, the bystanders ‘come to accept the persecution and suffering of victims, and some even join the perpetrators’.

In Turkey, a massive purge against political opponents of the ruling government has increasingly victimised different political and ethnic groups. The role and responsibility of internal and external bystanders in this ever-growing purge is tremendous. Since the Turkish police and prosecutors launched a corruption probe which involved some members of AKP (the ruling party) government in 2013, the government undermined the rule of law.

Extrajudicial punishment, torture, and inhumane treatment became the new norm in Turkey. Particularly after the failed coup attempt in June 2016, the government became more aggressive in suppressing opponents in the country. Since the coup attempt, 118,235 people have been detained, 55,927 of them have been arrested, 4,424 judges and prosecutors were dismissed, 8,271 academics lost their jobs, 149 media outlets were shut down, and 269 journalists have been arrested. Opposition parties and Turkish media have been completely silenced or transformed into the government’s mouthpiece, thus, the victims have lost their means to speak out.

The worst part of the ongoing tragedy in Turkey is the deep silence of the majority of the people, the other opponents of the government, the intelligentsia, and the international community. This silence of the opponents might even be considered as a kind of support, when the seriousness of the human rights violations is taken into consideration. In the Gezi protests, which blazed up in the summer of 2013, for example, the AKP harshly suppressed the protesters who were mainly left-wing youth contesting the urban development plan for Gezi Park in Istanbul. The other opponents who have right-wing or religious ideologies stood behind the AKP and supported the violent reaction against the protestors. This was followed by the counter-operations against the police officers and prosecutors who disclosed the corruption cases of the four ministers of the AKP and the son of the Prime Minister Erdogan on 17th and 25th December 2013. This time the left-wing opponents of the AKP supported these unlawful counter-operations either directly or by keeping silent, because they did not view these operations against a threat towards their own social identity but to the others. The persecution has deepened after the controversial coup attempt, and the silence of bystanders turned to an approval of ongoing suppressions of the government.

The social atmosphere before the Nazism emerged in Germany was more or less the same with the current situation in Turkey, and the silence of bystanders opened the ways for Hitler to commit one of the most violent genocides in the history. The current purges, arrests, and wide crackdowns in Turkey might be the right flags of such a genocide towards political opponents. In the first anniversary of the coup attempt, President Erdogan said, ‘We will chop their heads off’ while his supporters were chanting ‘We’re the soldiers of Erdogan’. If the internal and external bystanders persist to support this tragedy by keeping silent, the persecutors will continue to spread its suppression towards the other potential opponents by creating new fictional enemies as Hitler did.

Keeping silent will not be an excuse for the bystanders’ historical responsibility to stop this violence, but they will be seen as the contributors to one of the most devastating purges in the history.

Davut Akca studied Forensic Psychology and Criminology. He completed his BA degree in the Turkish Police Academy.  After working for five years in the Turkish National Police he received his MA in Criminology at University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Canada. His master’s thesis was on the spatial influence of risk factors behind open-air drug markets. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Forensic Psychology department of UOIT and studying on the relationship between personality traits and interviewing success of police officers. His research interests are investigative interviewing, police psychology, and crime mapping.



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