James Waller's new book, Becoming Evil, isn't meant to be comforting. Subtitled "How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing," it concentrates its gaze not at the "architects of genocide" like Hitler or the mid-level bureaucrats who oversaw the Final Solution, but at the people who actually did the killing. There are chapters full of theories of social psychology, detailing the incompleteness of previous ideas on how to account for evil on a massive scale, and Waller's own four-stage model that answers his question, "How does a schoolteacher in Bavaria become a brutal guard in Auschwitz?"
In addition to all that material, Waller intersperses eight graphic accounts -- "periodic slaps in the face," as he calls them -- that detail horrific brutality in far-flung genocidal wars. There are accounts of German marksmen standing atop piles of corpses while executing still more Jews at Babi Yar; of Turks literally crucifying Armenians; of Guatemalan soldiers gouging out a man's eyes and forcing him to swallow his own teeth one by one; of the Hutus of Rwanda using machetes and flaming kerosene on Tutsis locked in churches. In Kigali, the Rwandan capital, Hutu paramilitary forces killed the unfathomable number of 800,000 people in just 100 days. That's more than five people dying every minute and, as Waller notes, "three times the rate of the Jewish dead during the Holocaust." Remarkably, he says, "Some of the material I came across was too graphic to include, though readers may find that fairly incredible, given what's actually in the book."
While the Holocaust, as the most fully documented genocidal horror, looms large in our consciousness, there have been many others in the 20th century. Too many, judging by its label: the Age of Genocide.
Many thinkers have pondered why and how ordinary people commit extraordinary evil. One of the strengths of Waller's argument is how clear it is about the incompleteness of previous answers. Many, including Freud, have pointed to mob hysteria as an explanation. But Waller points out that some groups, in contrast, are capable of exceptional goodness. Furthermore, the individuals within a mob still retain their responsibility as moral agents and decision-makers. In fact, he reasons, crowds don't make people bad so much as they make them extreme: mobs, that is, tend to exaggerate our emotions and actions, whether for good or bad.
For many people, it's also tempting to subscribe to the "mad Nazi" theory: to commit such terrible evil, it's assumed, the German soldiers must have have had a personality disorder or some kind of psychosis. They were crazy, goes the refrain; they're fundamentally different from us. Ultimately, of course, this is a comforting line of thought: I'm not insane, so of course I'm not capable of such atrocities.
Waller's response? Oh, yes, you are. He wants to compel a realization: We have within the capacity for inhumanity, murder, even sadistic glee -- each of us. Saying that the Nazis were possessed by demons is just a means of avoiding the question. Like Adolf Eichman, they were ordinary men. Waller, in effect, accepts Hannah Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil" -- and then ventures beyond it to seek an explanation. We may all be capable of great evil, but the fact is that the vast majority of us don't actually commit such acts. Why not?
Waller has developed a four-step model for understanding the process by which ordinary folks may, in some circumstances, become sadistic large-scale killers. First of all, we are the product of our ancestors: ethnocentrism, xenophobia and a desire for social dominance are practically instinctive with us. (In other words, we like to know who's on our side and who isn't -- and then, how to overpower the other guys.) Second, most of us have been raised with some level of respect for authority, along with the desire to pursue our own interests and then justify them. In the case of killing, Waller terms this "moral disengagement." This involves buying into three attitudes, broadly speaking: What I'm doing is right; it's not all that bad, not really; and besides, plenty of others (including the targeted victims) have done worse.
The third and fourth steps of Waller's four-stage process involve living in a "culture of cruelty" (in which potential murderers are trained and desensitized, an upside-down world in which inventive ways of torturing people are actually valued) and "the social death of the victims" (in which the other side is labeled as an enemy, blamed and dehumanized).
The ancestral shadow of us/them thinking and the urge for superiority falls over all of us; many of us respect authority, continue to look out for No. 1 and are capable of blaming others and making excuses for ourselves. As such, most of us fulfill the first two steps of Waller's four stages toward extraordinary evil. Put most of us in a culture of cruelty -- in which increasingly sadistic forms of torture and brutality are valued, in which individuals come to regard themselves merely as cogs in a wheel of destruction meant to trample The Other -- then begin to view the target group as blameworthy and less than human, and any of us might start to mutilate the living and bulldoze the dying into ditches.
But psychological understanding and moral evaluation, as Waller feels required to state repeatedly, are separate categories: "To understand all is not to forgive all," or, as one of Waller's fellow researchers in perpetrator behavior has said, "Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving."
Still, most people find it unsettling, to say the least, when it's claimed that we are not all that different from Nazis and the terrorists of al Qaeda. That's why the book's first "slap in the face" doesn't depict violence in some faraway place. Waller's editors at Oxford University Press insisted that the first graphic account had to come from the United States, and from well back in our history: U.S. Army soldiers scalping and sexually mutilating Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in the Colorado Territory in 1864. In the Sand Creek massacre, the soldiers scalped their victims, competed at shooting down screaming children who were fleeing for their lives. They brandished genitalia on sticks and bayonets held hysterically aloft.
When Waller recounts the graphic violence in his interspersed chapters, when he listens to an auditor at a book reading recount even more sickening details, his eyes become steely, as if bracing against another onslaught of the unthinkable.
"As a result of this project," he says, "I think less of myself. It has been very humbling." He found himself engaging in some classic us/them thinking: The atrocities are done by other people, out there somewhere far away. But gradually, he reports, the process of writing a book about such extraordinary evil "became less about them. It became more about me, me, me. I could do this. Any of us could."
Within all of us lies a beast. Most of the time, society's restraints keep its cage locked. But sometimes, as at Kigali and Babi Yar, at My Lai and Tonle Sap and Sand Creek, we unlock the cage, and then the beast begins to prowl.
The title that James Waller originally intended for his book summarizes our nature well: We are all the children of Cain.