On SAGE Insight: The ‘ideal perpetrator’: The French National Railways and the social construction of accountability

From Security Dialogue

While countless individuals, organizations, and companies made the Holocaust possible, for the past decade the French National Railways company (Société nationale des chemins de fer français, SNCF) has been one of the few entities finding itself embroiled in debates about accountability. More than 70 years after the Holocaust, Le Monde, Figaro, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and numerous local papers continue writing about the ongoing conflict in which a proportionally small group of Holocaust survivors are challenging the French National Railway’s right to do business in the United States. The company remains the target of compensation debates for its role in the deportation of roughly 76,000 mostly Jewish, foreign-born deportees towards death camps during World War II.

This article offers a framework that is useful for understanding how the condemned often embody attributes that keep them in the spotlight. Because norms used to identify perpetrators can set the context for future. An examination of our discourses about these individuals and groups seeks not to expunge guilty acts but to resist the binaries and simplistic storylines which often lead us right back into violence. Highlighting only certain perpetrators leaves us steaming along too resolutely towards dangerous forms of justice.

Abstract

Mass atrocity requires the participation of numerous individuals and groups, yet only a few find themselves held accountable. How are these few selected? This article offers a framework that is useful for understanding how the condemned often embody attributes that keep them in the spotlight. Because norms used to identify perpetrators can set the context for future violence, long-term security requires interrupting both the actions of perpetrators and the discourses about them. A form of praxis, this study of the contemporary conflict over the French National Railways’ (SNCF) amends-making for its World War II transport of deportees towards death camps considers how certain perpetrators come to stand for the many. The SNCF remains in the spotlight not because of greater culpability or an unwillingness to make amends but because it embodies attributes of an ‘ideal’ perpetrator: it is (1) strong, (2) abstractable, (3) representative of the nature of the crime, and (4) has a champion-opponent who focuses attention on the perpetrator. Understanding the labeling process makes visible who and what we ignore at our own peril.

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Article details
The ‘ideal perpetrator’: The French National Railways and the social construction of accountability
Sarah Federman
Article first published online: June 1, 2018
DOI: 10.1177/0967010618775025
From Security Dialogue

     
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