In popular, scholarly, and legal discourse, psychological trauma is an experience that belongs to victims. While we expect victims of crimes to suffer trauma, we never ask whether perpetrators likewise experience those same crimes as trauma. Indeed, if we consider trauma in the perpetration of a crime at all, it is usually to inquire whether a terrible experience earlier in life drove a person toward wrongdoing. We are loath to acknowledge that the commission of the crime itself may cause some perpetrators to experience their own psychological injury and scarring.
This Article aims to fill this gap in our understanding of crime and trauma by initiating a long-overdue conversation about perpetrator trauma. Specifically, this Article argues that perpetrator trauma exists and merits attention. In doing so, it traces a cultural evolution in the concept of trauma from a psychological category to a moral one, and in response, it proposes a counternarrative of trauma—one that recognizes trauma as a neutral, human trait, divorced from morality, and not incompatible with choice and agency.
Finally, this Article argues that we ignore this counternarrative of trauma at our peril. Acknowledging the reality of perpetrator trauma can improve reconciliation efforts in the aftermath of mass atrocity by exposing the need to rehabilitate perpetrators. As importantly, recognizing perpetrator trauma erodes the all-too-common perception of perpetrators as cartoonish monsters by exposing their ordinariness and humanity. The point is not to generate sympathy for a génocidaire. But recognizing him as a person who chose to kill, and who now suffers because of it, can illuminate both the roots of his crimes and the real horror undergirding them—that perpetrators are merely people, and that any other person could do the same. In exposing these overlooked aspects of crime, this Article unsettles understandings of suffering and violence, challenges the categories of perpetrator and victim, and makes clear that the question of how to respond to mass atrocity is even more complex than we know.