Mar 21st, 2017, 01:39 PM

James Waller's "Becoming Evil"

By Melisa Ulkumen
Image Credit: Pixabay/barakbro
A riveting lecture on how ordinary people commit genocide.

On Thursday, February 23, 2017, social psychologist and author James Waller delivered a captivating lecture about his book, Becoming EvilThe lecture was hosted by American University of Paris' Professor Brian Schiff and the Department of Psychology. Professor Schiff introduced Dr. Waller as he kicked off the lecture discussing his 22-year long study on how ordinary people commit genocide and how perpetrators step back into the societies they once destroyed. After years of traveling and interviewing both perpetrators and victims of genocide, Dr. Waller talked students through his research and findings.

Dr. Waller based his research around the question: "How many people does it take to carry out genocide and mass killing? Who are these people and how are they enlisted to perpetrate such extraordinary evil?"

Image Credit: Melisa Ulkumen

He found that there were two approaches towards these questions:

1. The "Mad Nazi" Thesis regarding human psychology

In this portion of the lecture, Dr. Waller discusses the theory that there is something psychologically wrong with people that commit murder. Dr. Waller debunks this theory with the example of the Nuremberg Trials, in which perpetrators had to take several tests such as IQ tests and the Rorschach/Inkblot test. The perpetrators were expected to have below average IQs and disturbing results. However, all the subjects tested with above average intelligence and had normal Rorschach results. 

2. The "Bad Nazi" Thesis regarding personality

Dr. Waller jokingly talked about his least favorite part of his book to write calling it "boring". In an attempt not to bore the students with this portion of the research but simply explains how there is no one personality of a perpetrator. A perpetrator's personality is not flawed in any particular way and is the same as any other ordinary person. 

Finally, there is Dr. Waller's theory that ordinary people commit mass killing and genocide. Dr. Waller explained that this theory is difficult to admit to ourselves because there is the chance that anyone could be a murderer. Telling stories from his visits to prisons and Rwandan churches he reflected on the numerous times that his theory seemed legitimate. From studying the homes across from Auschwitz where people would "go home after a day of killing to their wives and children, just like anyone else". Dr. Waller believes that is important to put ourselves in the shoes of perpetrators for the purpose of understanding and preventing mass killings. 

"There is danger in stepping into [a perpetrator's shoes. But I think that there is greater danger if we cover our eyes and say 'This is not something we want to look at' our intent is to understand, not to forgive. We can prevent it in the future if we can understand it." he explains. 

Dr. Waller goes into further detail as to how to understand perpetrators and help prevent mass-killing in his latest book: Confronting Evil: Engaging Our Responsibility to Prevent Genocide