Dr. James Waller Discusses Why Ordinary People
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. Wallers book is mainly concerned with the psychological
state of a person who murders or demands the murder of other human
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. Wallers 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 didnt 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 Hitlers 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. Wallers 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.