Exploring Evil with Dr. James Waller

Interviewed by: Rachel Sleiman ’23, Valerie Brankovic ’23, & Emma Cordes ’25
Written by: Rachel Sleiman ’23

In October 2022, The Comparative Jurist sat down with Dr. James Waller, Cohen Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire and Director of Academic Programs at the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR), an international non-governmental organization dedicated to genocide and mass atrocity prevention.  Dr. Waller, a trained social psychologist, visited William & Mary Law School to present the research behind his book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing.  The following is a transcription of that interview, edited for length and clarity.

To begin, how do you define “evil,”and what does it mean to “become” evil?

When drafting the first edition of Becoming Evil in 2002, I dedicated half a day in my writing schedule to writing out definitions of evil for the book’s first chapter.  But, I had no idea how much philosophers had invested in figuring out what evil was.  Four or five weeks later, the definition I decided to center my book around was “the deliberate harming of humans by other humans,” which encompassed the form of evil I was interested in—the evil perpetrated in genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The title of the book was not my original title because the word “evil” felt very distant from what my central thesis was, which is that ordinary people, like you and me, committed these atrocities.  Yet, the book was in print when the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened.  President George W. Bush, in his first address to the nation after the attacks, had talked about evil;[1] and “evil”—which had been a dead concept academically and intellectually—suddenly came back to the forefront and grew in popular discourse. So, given the tenor of the times, Oxford University Press thought that including “evil” in the book’s title would work well in terms of publicity.

What sparked your interest in understanding human evil?

In 1990 and 1992, I taught intergroup relations, my area of specialty in my Ph.D. studies, as a visiting professor in Berlin and Eckstedt, Germany.  Germany was undergoing significant change; the Berlin Wall had just come down in 1989.  Eastern European students had come for the first time to study in a new, free Germany.  During the course, where we focused on race, gender, religion, and ethnicity and how these groups relate and misrelate, the students related their projects to the Holocaust.  At that time, I had never studied the Holocaust formally, so I found myself learning from the students, visiting Holocaust memorials, and speaking with Holocaust scholars.  And when I returned to the United States, I began attending conferences and seminars on Holocaust studies.

Around 1993, I taught the first course in the United States (U.S.) on the psychology of the Holocaust.  Given my social psychology background, my interest in the Holocaust was less about the victims, survivors, and bystanders, than about the perpetrators.  My focus on perpetrators did not revolve around bureaucrats or architects; I focused on the rank-and-file killers, who, by and large, had escaped justice.  I was fortunate that my entry into the field of Holocaust studies at that time coincided with a shift by historians from the architects to these killers.  So, as historians began to discover the who, what, when, and where, I, as a psychologist, began to answer the how and why pieces of understanding the people at the front lines of the killing.  While I did not necessarily plan for this path, I seized the opportunity as a social psychologist to develop a niche and contribute to a deeper understanding of human behavior in a field dominated by historians.

What about studying the psychology of evil in the context of international crimes deepens our understanding of not only mass atrocity and genocide but also of humanity itself?

For the longest time in Holocaust studies, we knew more about those responsible for the broad mechanics—the architecture—of mass murder than we did about the men and women who carried it out, and I think that was partly due to the pursuits of justice in Nuremberg and elsewhere that had focused on these architects.  So, these efforts reinforced the notion that these atrocities happened at the hands of (mostly) men who had come into power and made these policies for destruction.  But the Nuremberg Trials failed to recognize that although these individuals created these policies, they didn’t kill anyone.

The lesson I gained from my over thirty years of research is that ordinary people—like you and me—have committed these atrocities.  The truth is that most people never do something like this, but under certain conditions, people can make choices that lead them to commit these kinds of atrocities.  I am intentional about focusing on human agency—people are not just victims of the situations around them.

In terms of humanity, I have always believed that self-knowledge is always good knowledge.  Others may think that to mean that self-knowledge about the goodness of who we are is good and true knowledge, but self-knowledge about the evil of which we are capable is still good knowledge and true knowledge.

So, do you believe that people always have agency, or control over their decisions?

Although I understand how environment and context may restrict the choices available, I hold on to agency.  I am interested in the situations and social structures they are exposed to, how those contexts limit the choices available, and how these perpetrators believe that they had no choice but to kill.  However, even though their choices may have been restricted, they still had agency over their decision; ultimately, they still had the option and finally chose to kill.

For example, a man I interviewed in Rwanda, Jean-Paul, kept emphasizing, “I had no choice.  I had to do this.  You don’t understand where and how I was raised.”  I had spent some time in the village where Jean-Paul had grown up and interviewed two of his brothers.  Although his brothers were no heroes by any stretch of the imagination, they did not kill the way Jean-Paul killed, and they had nothing to do with the children that Jean-Paul killed.  The decisions made by Jean-Paul and his brothers during the Rwandan genocide demonstrate that despite the situational forces that compressed their choices—growing up in the same village, part of the same family, going to the same church, roughly the same age (within six to seven years)—the choices between Jean-Paul and his brothers were different.  Jean-Paul chose to kill; his brothers did not.

“I had to do this” or “I had no choice” are sentiments shared by many of the perpetrators I interviewed across various conflicts (over 225 individuals over the course of my research).  When I interview them, sometimes they hope I am there to help the courts understand that they had no choice but to do what they did.  But these are coping mechanisms, and if you could sum up everything that I do in this field, it is to figure out what those coping mechanisms are.

Do you believe that our legal system recognizes that sometimes people have no or limited agency and therefore allows certain defendants in certain conditions to assert duress as a partial legal defense?

I certainly understand from a legal perspective that people could understand that there was so much stress and trauma here that, in some ways, informs our understanding of the behavior behind the crime.

I often teach about Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian man who survived the Armenian genocide during World War I and personally witnessed his family’s murder.[2]  Several years later, Tehlirian was tasked by an Armenian political group with and succeeded in assassinating one of the architects of the genocide, Talaat Pasha.  Tehlirian was tried for murder, which captured international attention.  Tehlirian testified at trial and described what he lived through—witnessing his sisters raped and killed, his brother beheaded, his parents murdered.  Tehlirian himself was shot and left for dead.  The jury acquitted him basically on the grounds of temporary insanity.  Due to all that Tehlirian went through, the court understood how he may have felt that he had no choice but to kill Talaat.

How do you perceive the legal framework for international crime?

Issues of a perpetrator’s “intent” has always been problematic for those working in genocide studies.  Often, I am unsure whether perpetrators understand the meaning of “intent” in the way courts think about intent.  Courts focus on the “intent to destroy [a group], in whole or in part,”[3] whereas perpetrators have a very different notion of intent—one that is an issue of motive.  I think there are differences between motive and intent psychologically, so I have intended to focus more on the motives of perpetrators, which can often be about greed, status, or recognition. 

I believe the intent piece is more restrictive than motive, even though I think that, to some degree, the legal system has worked its way around the intent. In the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR), the two tribunals I’ve been most involved with in interviewing perpetrators, intent is demonstrated based on results.  So, we do not need proof of intent if we see 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed over several days in Srebrenica.  Instead, the magnitude of those killings shows that there was intent to destroy that population. 

To some extent, the concept of intent has been broadened, but for me, a broader idea of intent would include concepts of motive, and motive currently does not fall within the framework of genocide.  And, defense counsel, in terms of strategy, will assert that their clients did not intend to destroy people in whole or in part, that they were motivated by other things.  These base motivations are why tribunal prosecutors often choose to prosecute offenses of war crimes or crimes against humanity, avoiding genocide so that they do not have to worry about genocidal intent as much.  So, I wish the Genocide Convention and international tribunals had greater freedom to focus on motive over intent.

Your research takes a comparative approach; what trends and differences have you seen across varying conflicts and with changing times, such as with the increasing prevalence of social media and the COVID-19 pandemic?  What, if any, impact has there been on the psychology of those conflicts?

I don’t think it has impacted the psychology piece, but it has affected the dissemination of how psychology works.  Yes, comparative studies are attuned to differences, but my focus with perpetrator behavior is on the rhymes across case studies, not the repetitions.  From a psychological perspective, I seek to understand people’s behaviors, and I see similarities and patterns across case studies, which I’ve always been struck by.

So, I think the techniques of othering, dehumanization, and marginalization are as relevant as they were in the Holocaust as in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China’s repression of Uyghurs, and the persecution of Rohingya Muslim people in Myanmar.  I believe all those situations have similarities.  Yet, I think that today’s dissemination of information through social media has increased the targeting and dehumanization of certain groups and enhanced the risk of escalation to conflict in ways that the Holocaust never imagined.  Although the process is similar, the pace is more rapid than what we had seen over 60 years ago.

I also believe the pandemic has served as an accelerant.  For instance, Hungary has been on the trajectory toward a more authoritarian government structure, and the pandemic allowed the government to accelerate that process under the guise of security.  We’ve seen a similar trend in Thailand and Poland.  The pandemic gave authoritarian-leaning leaders the license to become even more authoritarian.  In addition, the pandemic drove people to isolation, and, along with social media, they can dive more deeply into belief systems that they already hold and become more extreme.

We have had several consultative meetings with social media companies over the years to have them change their algorithms to restrict hate speech and prevent people from being driven deeper toward more extremist ideology.  One of the issues I helped address in conversation with these companies was explaining what Holocaust denial, and other examples of genocide denial, looked like and why such rhetoric is dangerous.  We helped them understand what denial was to be able to identify denialist posts.  And, sometimes, denial is not outright denial, so we also discussed what distortion looks like, i.e., distorting facts in ways that can still produce harm. 

Once we provided examples of denial and distortion, the media companies questioned why genocide denial was dangerous and whether it was dangerous enough for them to risk violating their policy by removing such denialist and distortional posts.  We made the case that these posts were dangerous because they revised history, revictimized victims, and increased the risk of renewed violence.  However, these companies believed that any action to remove such posts would still violate their ethos of open, democratic, and uncensored speech, and they did not consider genocide denial severe enough to be able to break from that philosophy at the time.

It was interesting and discouraging to realize how much driving force profit is.  They couldn’t argue that genocide denial was not dangerous speech and did not produce dangerous effects, but they found policing such speech even more dangerous, threatening their profitability.  It was disappointing because, especially in Myanmar, social media has become such a vehicle for hate speech and the persecution of people.  Even though the United Nations (U.N.) issued a statement in recognition of that harm,[4] and every human rights group has recognized how dangerous this is, it still has not moved the needle for these social media companies.

How do differences in governments’ assessments about what is and isn’t harmful speech affect these notions?

Freedom of speech in the U.S. is an absolute right, with limited exceptions. In contrast, freedom of speech is a conditional right in other parts of the world.  What worries people is that when conditions are placed on speech, there is a question about how far those conditions go; there is a recognition that conditions affect a slippery slope.  All social media companies struggle with this slippery slope.  However, we should have conditions on speech to combat the targeting and persecution of groups.  We must consider the global impact of not limiting speech in these ways.

What are the psychological effects of mass atrocity ​on post-conflict societies? What practical steps can be taken to address the uniquely painful impacts of mass atrocities for survivors?

My most recent book, A Troubled Sleep, focuses on Northern Ireland, which is not a case of genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity.  I was interested in exploring how a post-conflict society deals with its past, and I completed my research as a visiting professor there.  The biggest lesson I took from my experience was that I’m unsure whether there is any such thing as a “post-conflict society.”  I don’t know what that looks like.

When societies have been torn apart by conflict—like Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Bosnia, and even the U.S. to some degree––I don’t know whether we ever get to the “post” piece.  I know psychologists who work in post-traumatic stress disorder who do not like the term “post” because “post” implies that an individual is supposed to get somewhere beyond the trauma, and if they don’t, there is a perception that they have done something wrong.  So, “post-conflict” makes less and less sense to me than it used to.  I believe that conflict remains woven into the fabric of conflict-ridden societies.

How do we reduce this trauma from becoming destructive again?  I’ve focused my work on three pillars of how society transitions from conflict: justice, truth, and memory.  Justice includes both retributive and reparative or restorative justice.  I think society often focuses on the perpetrators, but post-atrocity societies need to focus more on justice for the victims.  Truth facilitates questions about understanding the reality of what happened, who gets to write the narrative, and how we teach what happened so that individuals do not learn different versions of contested history.  Memory represents how that truth is communicated and remembered, including in novels, films, art, music, and storytelling.

When justice, truth, and memory are not done well, society is at risk for future violence.  Although many risk factors influence a given society’s likelihood of renewed violence, the greatest threat is whether society experienced genocide in its recent past.  If it has, it leaves them susceptible to recidivism if that society’s justice, truth, and memory efforts have been compromised or worn to some degree.  It also leaves them susceptible if the society does not recover to some degree of political and social stability.  It is so heartbreaking to me in my work, for example, in Bosnia & Herzegovina, because everyone in that society believes that they are more divided than before the 1992 conflict, at greater risk of violence than they were then, and surprised that there has not yet been a resurgence in conflict.

Which societies offer positive examples of post-atrocity justice?  Which societies are still in the process of finding a way forward?

In addition to Bosnia & Herzegovina, Northern Ireland has struggled with what justice, truth, and memory look like, and its society is very traumatized and deeply divided.

The U.S. struggles with what truth and memory look like, particularly, as well as justice, to a large degree.  I don’t know if we have ever come to grips with recognizing that our country was founded upon the near extermination of one people and the enslavement of another people and to what extent that makes its way into education, truth, and memory.

Germany has achieved some aspects of justice, but most Holocaust perpetrators have not been brought to justice.  The country has done well regarding truth and memory. Yet, Germany is unusual because the victim group has, by and large, left Germany and never returned; there remains a very small Jewish population in Germany today, which is very different than in Rwanda, where victim and perpetrator groups live literally next door to each other.  So, sometimes I think that Germany conflates reconciliation more than it should because there aren’t many Jewish people left there.

Rwanda has done well, but at the cost of human rights protections for its citizens, so I am uncertain about its success.

The sad truth is that we do not do well at preventing conflict from breaking out in post-atrocity societies.  There is no great blueprint for it; it is challenging and takes a lot of hard work.  I also think that once the conflict is over, the world’s attention tends to turn to other conflicts and other “fires,” and there is a lack of understanding of the importance of rebuilding after a conflict ends.

In addition to focusing on rebuilding, are there any other ways to prevent such atrocities?

The key stakeholder in preventing atrocities is always the state where the crimes have happened and the civil society within that state, so they must be committed to pursuing justice, truth, and memory. Argentina is one successful example of government and civil society’s commitment to justice, truth, and memory, which will help prevent future conflict.

Regional mechanisms to hold states accountable for genocide prevention are also incredibly important and influential.  We work with various regions worldwide at the Auschwitz Institute to cultivate that accountability.  Currently, we have Africa[5] and Latin America[6] networks for genocide prevention. We have recently established a network in the Mediterranean basin of the Balkans.[7]  We also work with the U.N. Still, the U.N. has so many constraints—it is large, bureaucratic, and tends to have less impact on the ground.  So, regional networks, particularly where every country in that region has signed their commitment to a genocide prevention initiative, have much more influence than the U.N. or other countries, such as the U.S. or Germany.

About Dr. Waller

Dr. James Waller is the inaugural Cohen Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire, which is home to the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies–one of the nation’s oldest Holocaust resource centers. In addition to Becoming Evil (2002), Dr. Waller has written five other books and published scholarship in numerous peer-reviewed professional journals and contributed chapters to many edited books. Dr. Waller’s fifth book, Confronting Evil: Engaging Our Responsibility to Prevent Genocide (2016), has been hailed as “required reading for all those who seek to understand and avert these atrocities in the future” and “a well-written . . . immensely valuable contribution to the field of genocide studies.” His sixth book, A Troubled Sleep: Risk and Resilience in Contemporary Northern Ireland (2021), has been praised as a “model for scholarship on contemporary issues.” Through his involvement as Director of Academic Programs of the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, Dr. Waller has also led teacher training in Holocaust and genocide studies for a variety of educational and nonprofit institutions and has worked with governments, international institutions, and companies on intergroup relations and prejudice.

About the Author

Rachel is a 3L at William & Mary Law School.  In addition to being an Editor-in-Chief of the Comparative Jurist blog, she is also a member of the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal and Moot Court Team and serves as the Chief of Staff for the Student Bar Association and Event & Symposium Chair for the Human Security Law Center.  Prior to law school, Rachel worked for nearly five years as a paralegal supporting the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Fraud Section. These opportunities, along with her education and experiences studying  International Studies and Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University–including a semester studying diplomacy and foreign policy in Amman, Jordan–have inspired Rachel’s interest in pursuing a career in public service, litigation, and transnational law.

[1] George W. Bush, President of the United States, Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation (Sept. 11, 2001), https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html.

[2] Siranush Ghazanchyan, I Have Killed a Man, But I Am Not a Murderer: Soghomon Tehlirian Assassinated Talaat Pasha 100 Years Ago Today, Pub. Radio of Arm. (Mar. 15, 2021, 12:46 AM), https://en.armradio.am/2021/03/15/i-have-killed-a-man-but-i-am-not-a-murderer-soghomon-tehlirian-assassinated-talaat-pasha-100-years-ago-today/.

[3] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, U.N. G.A. Res. 260A (III), art. 2 (Dec. 9, 1948), available at:https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml.

[4] Press Release, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Myanmar: UN Experts Condemn Military’s “Digital Dictatorship,” U.N. Press Release (June 7, 2022), https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/06/myanmar-un-experts-condemn-militarys-digital-dictatorship.  

[5] Africa Programs, Auschwitz Inst. for the Prevention of Genocide & Mass Atrocities, https://www.auschwitzinstitute.org/what-we-do/africa-programs/ (last visited Jan. 5, 2023).

[6] Latin American Program, Auschwitz Inst. for the Prevention of Genocide & Mass Atrocities, https://www.auschwitzinstitute.org/what-we-do/latin-america-programs/ (last visited Jan. 5, 2023).

[7] Press Release, Auschwitz Inst. for the Prevention of Genocide & Mass Atrocities, Official Launch of AIPG’s Bucharest Office (Jan. 5, 2023), https://www.auschwitzinstitute.org/news/official-launch-of-aipgs-bucharest-office/.

*The featured image is taken from the cover of Dr. Waller’s book, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing,  initially published by the Oxford University Press in 2002. The second edition was published in 2007.

Categories: Post-Conflict Peace Building, Professors' Scholarship, UncategorizedTags: , , ,
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