Review by Gerry Fitzgerald

During the twentieth century, from the Turks’ massacre of Armenians in 1915 through the Serbians’ slaughter of Bosnian and Albanian Muslims during the 1990s, more than 100 million victims died in mass killings around the world. That was more than five times the nineteenth-century number and more than ten times that of the eighteenth.

In Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, social psychologist James Waller cites two factors in accounting for genocide’s twentieth-century explosion: one has been exponential population growth and the other scarcity of resources. Helpfully, he also develops a theoretical framework for social scientists and others to begin explaining how everyday citizens become involved in mass killing, based on the work of many scholars since World War II. These studies considered such factors as xenophobia and the desire for social dominance; the willingness to obey authority even when causing others physical pain—such as in a military organization; how some groups can create a “culture of cruelty,” in which initially reluctant individuals ultimately commit heinous acts; and, finally, how a perpetrator learns to see his victim as a less-than-human “other,” so that, in some cases, the victim is even blamed for his or her death.

Waller was working on final revisions of the book on September 11, 2001, when about 2,830 defenseless victims died in the terrorist attacks now attributed to Osama bin Laden. “This is an example of terrorism ‘from below,’ that is, violence motivated by grievances against, or ideologies opposed to, an existing state. Generally, however, it is terrorism ‘from above’—state-directed terrorism imposed on its own citizens that is the larger contributor to human suffering.”

Waller writes that the greatest catastrophes occur when the distinctions between war and crime fade; when there is “a dissolution of the boundaries between military and criminal conduct, between civility and barbarity; and when political, social or religious groups embrace collective violence against a defenseless victim group as warfare or, perhaps worse yet, as ‘progress.’ Such acts are human evil writ large.”

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