Becoming Evil speaker addresses nature of genocide

By Cole Caviston
On May 2, 2014

Students crowded Memorial Union Building Theater I Wednesday night to listen intently to a lecture delivered by Dr. James Waller on the nature of genocide and the reasoning that ordinary people have for carrying it out, also known as "Becoming Evil." 

The event soon became packed and more students began arriving after the event began at 8 p.m., causing late-coming students to sit down in the aisle or listen from the doorway. 

Dr. Waller was introduced by his daughter Hannah Waller, the president of Amnesty International UNH. She described him as a "huge inspiration of why I want to do the work I want to." 

The talk was filled with anecdotes from his experiences researching genocide, from exhuming mass graves in Bosnia to interviewing the perpetrators of Rwandan Genocide. Dr. Waller presented his lecture through PowerPoint that touched upon the three main points of his research. 

His first point addressed what the historical scope of genocide and what it looks like today. 

Waller described the 20th century as "the age of genocide," in which the greatest mass killings and ethnic slaughters were carried out, from the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

"The conservative estimate is 60 million killed in genocide in the 20th century," Waller said. "People who thought they were protected by their state, but their state turned on them and tried to kill them." 

Waller next addressed whom it was that carried out the acts of atrocity. He was careful to distinguish between architects responsible for the policy or the bureaucrats who implemented it, but rather the rank and file who killed the victims in person. 

"There is never a case where a regime cannot find people to carry out killings," Waller said. 

There is no definitive answer to know how many killers it takes to carry out genocide, but most of the guilty parties, which often number in the thousands, are never brought to justice. 

Waller addressed what he believes to be the myths surrounding genocide. He disputed the idea that ideology is the basis for evil behavior, as he believes that not everyone is imprinted in the exact same way and may well be motivated by other emotions, such as greed. 

He also mentioned the idea that the way we think influences how we behave is misleading, when actually modern research suggests that how we act affects how we think.

"The reason for slavery in America was for economic purposes, but afterwards racial ideas of superiority were adopted to justify the existence of slavery," Waller said. 

The idea that perpetrators are purely pathological (the "Bad Nazi Thesis") was proved to be inaccurate at the Nuremburg trials where the defendants were given personality and intelligence tests, with results that placed all but one of the defendants as having above average intelligence. 

Waller quoted W.H. Auden, saying that "evil is unspectacular and it is always human" to describe how he came to realize that the origins for most of the perpetrators that he interviewed were remarkably ordinary. 

"I was struck more by the ordinariness of who they are, of their life outside of the evil that they have committed," Waller said. 

Towards the end of the lecture Waller discussed why he believes the study of genocide matters. He stressed the importance of understanding and humanizing the perpetrators, who had not done the same for their victims.

"This is not to emphasize, sympathize or apologize for the evil they've committed, but to understand why they commit these types of atrocities," Waller said. "If we can understand how ordinary people become capable of this extraordinary evil, we can start to understand the ways to shift that behavior in a different direction."  

Dr. Waller is a social psychologist and professor at the Cohen Center of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, a department that is one of the oldest for Holocaust research studies in the country. He is the author of the book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, which is scheduled for a third edition release this year. 

"I study the worst thing in the world, maybe, but what I'm hopeful and optimistic about is that what I study is a problem created by humans," Waller said. "If it's a problem created by humans, it's a problem that can be solved by humans and I absolutely think it's a problem we can overcome."

Amnesty International UNH and UNH STAND sponsored the lecture.

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