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Dr. James Waller Discusses Why Ordinary People Commit Genocide

Hakop Tataryan
Staff Writer


April is the month for commemorating the Armenian Genocide and it was only fitting that Dr. James Waller gave a lecture on the psychology of mass murder and genocide, during this month. At 7:30 pm on April 10, the Department of Psychology joined with the Armenian Studies Program and the Armenian Students Organization in presenting Dr. Waller. The Center for the Study of Consciousness, Spirituality, and Culture of the University of California, San Francisco-Fresno Medical Education Program, the Eli Lilly Company, and Whitworth College also co-sponsored the event.


More than 175 people showed up to hear Dr. Waller discuss his recently published book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Can Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Dr. Waller is Edward B. Lindaman Chair and Professor of Psychology at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington.


Waller is a widely recognized scholar in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies and has held international fellowships in Europe and the United States. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and his academic specialization includes experimental social psychology and the history of psychology and science.


The word “genocide” as adopted by the United Nations in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, December 9, 1948, refers to the planned and systematic annihilation of a “national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” Waller began with a brief chronology of events in the twentieth century that have come to be known as “genocide.” First he discussed the killings in Rwanda, where in 1994, eight hundred thousand people were killed in a span of one hundred days. He then spoke of the ever-infamous Holocaust, where some six million Jews were slaughtered. And he discussed the Armenian genocide of 1915, in which one and a half million Armenians were murdered.


“Perpetrators of genocide come in three forms,” said Dr. Waller. “First there are those who come up with the notion that permits or advocates the murders; the leaders. Second there are the bureaucrats, who are concerned with how the implementation will take place and the aftermath, and thirdly are those who carry out the actual murder.”


Many of us could not imagine ever killing or even harming another human being, but Waller stated “humans are the weapons of genocide.” Anytime there is a mass killing, it requires that one person kill another. Waller’s book is mainly concerned with the psychological state of a person who murders or demands the murder of other human beings.


The architects, who order the annihilation of some group, never actually kill hands-on; rather it is the hands of the “pawns” and the “rank and file” that do the killing. Much of the killings of the Armenians was done with farm equipment and weapons that require excessive energy on behalf of the perpetrator; one can only imagine the motivation necessary to repeatedly strike someone to death. It is Dr. Waller’s premise that “each and everyone of us has the capacity to commit murder,” and most people, given the circumstances, are capable of mass killing.
But how can this be? What is it that invokes evil in human beings that leads to such malevolence? Dr. Waller suggests that all of the atrocities that have taken place have had some common characteristics: involvement of deep-seated ideologies, extraordinary statesmen, and the comfort of being in a mob.

However, it is virtually impossible to predict the occurrence of genocide by seeking these characteristics in governments or leaders. Because genocides are usually multi-causal, it is also hard to curb future attempts. The one remedy in curtailing genocide in the future may be in how we as a society learn and deal with it. “We must analyze and understand those who advocate the annihilation of a group,” states Dr. Waller.


The Armenians and the Jews were citizens in Turkey and in Germany respectively. But it didn’t take much for ordinary Turks to hop on the bandwagon and ostracize the Armenians from humanity, in preparation for the genocide. Similarly, in Germany, there was a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment. Dr. Waller suggests the notion that all human beings are inherently for “their own kind,” and are skeptical of all others, which ultimate may lead to hatred.


The Armenian Genocide of 1915 was the first of the twentieth century. However, because justice was not meted out to the perpetrators, the Holocaust, and other genocides soon followed.


“After all, who to this day remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” was Hitler’s quote when considering the consequences of annihilating the Jews and others in Poland. Although scholars all around the world have recognized the Armenian Genocide, we as a society must properly address prior incidents in order to prevent future atrocities. If the Ottoman Turkish government had been properly dealt with for their actions, future attempts of genocide would be rare, for fear of punishment. Quite possibly the Holocaust and future genocides would have been avoided.


In the month of April the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide are commemorated. Dr. Waller’s book takes an in-depth look at the psychological state of a person willing to commit mass killings and participate in genocide.


We as a society must work hard to curtail future genocide. And a good place to start is by recognizing the Armenian Genocide and making it a national day of commemoration.