Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing

by James Waller
Oxford University Press, August 2005
336 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 0195189493

How did the girl next door end up leading a naked Iraqi man around on a leash?

When the first headlines came out, Rumsfeld said the abusers in Abu Ghraib were a few bad apples, a handful of psychopaths. Many headlines later - Red Cross reports leaked, a jailed Briton from Guantánamo testifying to abuse, two American soldiers convicted of murder (one of a severely wounded teenaged captive, the other of a fellow guard) - even those who were willing to accept that explanation in the beginning want a better one. One that will make the abuses end.

In Becoming Evil, social psychologist James Waller examines extraordinary human evil: genocide and mass killing. Between each of his chapters he includes firsthand accounts from those who have experienced some of the greatest human evils of our history, from the slaughter of Native Americans by Europeans to the tragic cycle of genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. For the history lesson alone, this would be a valuable book.

Waller argues that we must neither disown those who do evil, nor excuse them. Social pressures exist, but they are not deterministic. There were Hutus who did not kill Tutsis and Tutsis who did not kill Hutus. One of the things that we have to do in order to create a society with less killing and cruelty is never to excuse or minimize killing and cruelty. Individuals must be accountable for the evils they themselves do. But we must be accountable for our part in creating a culture that encourages either empathy or cruelty.

It is not enough to reject evil; in order to exercise responsibility, we need to understand it. Then we can change the social factors that make evil more likely, or less likely. That is what this book is about. Waller does not excuse evil acts because "society is at fault," nor is this simply an academic study. There are practical lessons here for how a society becomes corrupt, and how to prevent it. Like the poor, evil will always be with us. That does not mean we should be fatalistic about evil. It means that we should always be ready to address it.

Waller examines previous explanations of extraordinary human evil - including "a handful of psychopaths" - and then proposes his own explanatory model. An explanatory model should be useful, and Waller's gives us immediate things to do, in our individual lives as well as in social policy, to increase human kindness.

Waller cites psychological experiment, ethnological field studies, and evolutionary theory to support the thesis that humans are genetically predisposed to divide into groups, value our in-group over other groups, and treat those within the group more "ethically" than those outside of the group. In human history, this predisposition has encouraged ethnocentricity and xenophobia - bigotry and hatred. Our biological heritage also influences our response to authority and our desire to exert authority over others.

There are also social forces that help prepare people to commit genocide. One is cultural beliefs, like nationalism, racism, or "manifest destiny." Another is disengaging morality from conduct by such things as:

It is alarming to see these arguments promoted in American culture today. There are other disturbing signs.

The more highly regarded one's self-interest becomes, the easier it is to justify evil done to others. At the same time, having a self-identity that is distinct from one's group identity is essential to maintaining moral norms. When one's entire identity is wrapped up in being a prison guard; when the message of your social group is that brutality is not only acceptable but a positive good; when any refusal to obey orders or disclosure of anything to others that may reflect poorly on the group is considered betrayal: that setting is a horror waiting to happen.

American popular culture promotes advancing one's self-interest with no regard for any conseqences to others. Our consumer culture encourages only what "individualism" can be marketed.

The "victim blaming" popular in American culture is also a sign of social corruption. To make "crimes against humanity" psychologically supportable, according to Waller, it is critical to deny your victims status among those to whom you are morally obligated, and make them responsible for their own suffering. As in: "These people have attacked our society itself and thereby given up all social rights." "These particular offenses place these prisoners outside of the Geneva Convention." Humiliation, forcing others into ragged and unclean conditions, also helps to disassociate us from them.

We may not be able to overcome our biology, or want to. But there are insights in Waller's scientific analysis that we have heard before, like: Do not justify doing evil in the name of fighting evil, or we will become what we fight. Now that it has a scientific imprimatur, perhaps more people will apply that simple maxim. If enough people read this book, we may be able to reverse the corruption of the American conscience.

-Review by Anitra Freeman