June 5th 2004, 10:12 PM #1
Becoming Evil: a book review relating to Iraqi prisons
Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing
by James Waller
$29.95; 336 pages; Oxford University Press; June 2002
The Problem of Evil
Rumsfeld says they are a handful of very sick people. A few bad apples. Psychopaths. They don't look much different from the good apples. They look like kids. How did the girl next door end up leading a naked Iraqi man around on a leash?
Social psychologist James Waller also authored Prejudice Across America and Face to Face: The Changing State of Racism Across America. His research and writing on racial prejudice, collective violence and social injustice has drawn international attention. In Becoming Evil, 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: the slaughter of Native Americans by Europeans, the destruction of Armenians by Turks, the mass murder by Germans in the Soviet, Indonesian genocide in Timor, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Guatemalan armies scorched-earth campaign against the native Mayans, the tragic cycle of genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, mass killing of Muslims by Serbs in Bosnia. For the history alone, this would be a valuable book.
There is a difference in scale between the holocausts and the prison abuse in Iraq. There is a difference in scale between the prison abuse by Americans of Iraqis and Afghanis and the rape rooms and mass graves of Saddam Hussein. But there are common roots to all "crimes against humanity," the kind of cruelty of human to human that morally revolts us and makes us want to disown it. As Samantha Powers demonstrates in her own Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, America has publicly disowned genocide a number of times – but has also a number of times failed to act against it. To be a "moral leader of the free world", we must do better.
Waller argues that we must neither disown those who do evil, nor excuse them. We must hold those who do evil accountable for their own crimes, but we must learn the roots of such evil, in ourselves and in our social groups, in order to prevent future crimes. He demonstrates much that we can learn of ordinary human cruelties by studying the extremes of human cruelty.
Waller examines previous explanations of extraordinary human evil – including individual psychopathy, ideological fanaticism, and mob psychology – and their limitations, and then proposes his own explanatory model. Up front, he addresses the concern that explaining evil may amount to excusing it, and points out that whatever we learn of the influences upon us, we are still individually accountable for how we respond to those influences. Social pressures exist, but they are not deterministic. There were Hutus who did not kill Tutsis and Tutsis who did not kill Hutus. By learning more about human behavior and societies, we may be able to increase the number who do not kill, and decrease the number who kill. But 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 either encourages empathy or cruelty.
Tools for Action
One of the most important tests of an explanatory model is whether it is useful. An effective explanation for human cruelty would be one that helps us increase human kindness. Waller's explanations do give us things to do, immediate things that we as individuals can do in our own lives, as well as in social policy, to increase human kindness. Like the poor, evil will always be with us. But when Jesus said, "The poor will always be with you," He did not mean that we are to be fatalistic about letting people stay poor; He meant that we would always have the responsibility to help those who are poor. Evil will always be with us. That does not mean we should be fatalistic about evil. It means that we will always be responsible for addressing it. Becoming Evil gives us some tools with which to do that.
Waller's model includes four main influences.
He 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.
Social forces help prepare the people who can commit genocide. One is cultural beliefs, like nationalism, racism, or “manifest destiny”. Another is disengaging morality from conduct by such things as :
- displacing responsibility (“I was only following orders”)
- euphemism (“collateral damage”)
- moral justification (it is “for a good end,” “for the good of the state,” “for the protection of democracy”)
- advantageous comparison (“we have done some bad things, but look at what they did”)
- distancing from the consequences, minimizing or distorting the consequences (not broadcasting images of the war, or the concentration camps, or the mass killing; calling torture “abuse” or even a “fraternity prank”; calling the destruction of a village “liberation”)
The level of importance that a society gives to self-interest over the common good is also an influence toward justifying evil done to others.
A Culture of Cruelty
Creating a “culture of cruelty” in which humans can do evil to other humans includes merging self-identity with one’s role in a group, group loyalty and cohesion, and social conditioning. When one’s entire identity is wrapped up in being a prison guard; when the messages of your social group are that brutality is not only acceptable but is 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.
The Social Death of the Victim
The social death of the victims is critical: denying them status among those to whom you are morally obligated, and making them responsible for their own suffering. “We are the forces of good and they are the forces of evil.” “The crimes that these people have done are inhuman.” “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.
Studying extreme cases of evil, like genocide, can reveal principles applicable to understanding lesser cases of evil, like the torture of prisoners by “a handful” of prison guards. Becoming Evil helps illuminate what “a systemic problem” means. And a fuller understanding of a problem provides more effective ways to fix it.
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