Addressing the Question of “Becoming Evil”: Dr. James Waller lectures at the William and Mary School of Law


Wednesday, Oct. 5, the William and Mary School of Law hosted Dr. James Waller, professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College and the director of academic programs with the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities. Waller is a widely published author of six books, most notably his award winning “Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing” and “Confronting Evil: Engaging Our Responsibility to Prevent Genocide”. 

Waller is also the curriculum developer and lead instructor for the Raphael Lemkin seminars on genocide prevention at the Auschwitz Institute. The Raphael Lemkin seminars have trained over 5000 governmental officials and security systems officials all over the world. 

Waller has lectured at multiple universities and institutions, including the Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies at the Appalachian State University, which hosted a discussion in commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz by a division of the Red Army’s First Ukranian Front in January of 1945.

“Prof. Waller widely researches, teaches and consults for memorials, research centers, universities, government, and non-governmental institutions around the world,” the Center said in an online description.     

Waller was introduced by Dr. Nancy Combs — a Robert E. and Elizabeth S. Scott research professor, Ernest W. Goodrich professor of law and director of the Human Security Law Center. 

“This is the inaugural Human Security Law Center event, and I suspect it is the inaugural Criminal Law Society event for this year. In any event, we are very happy to partner with the Criminal Law Society and I’m very grateful to the student board, to both groups, for all the assistance they’ve provided in bringing your speaker today, who is Dr. James Waller,” Combs said. 

Waller began his lecture by prompting attendants to shift their lens of focus from a legal perspective to a psychological one in order to address the lecture’s central question: How is it that ordinary people come to commit genocide and mass atrocity?

“To do that, I’m well aware that most everyone in this room is coming to this with a legal lens, and I need you to turn that off for the next 45 minutes,” Waller said. “You can turn it back on when class starts. But I need you to join me in thinking about this through a psychological lens. I am a trained social psychologist whose interests over 30 years have skewed towards psychology of large scale mass violence, typically in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.” 

Waller then showed attendants a brief video with no sound that was from Liepāja, Latvia in 1941-42 and explained the contextual history behind it. 

“In 1941 to 42, as the Holocaust was unfolding throughout the east, German armies went through these territories,” Waller said. “They conquered villages, towns and cities, and behind them came one of four groups, operational units called Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen’s job was to round up all the opponents in the village, mostly Jews, but also Communists, people they suspected were not being sympathy to Nazi practices, to round them up and tell them that they were being transported elsewhere for their own safety and security, only to find out that the transportation was just a couple of kilometers outside of town, to a ditch, to a ravine, to a grave that had been dug the night before.”

The execution of individuals in this face-to-face manner claimed the lives of over 1.25 million, most of which were Jewish, prior to the construction and opening of any of the death camps in the East. There is a significant amount of photographic evidence of these executions, as well as one video that was filmed during one such round of executions and shown during Waller’s lecture. 

“On this day of Yom Kippur, which is holiest day in the Jewish tradition, we remember the 6 million Jews who weren’t lost, who were killed in the Holocaust, who weren’t misplaced, they were actively killed,” Waller said. “And here, we remember 1.25-1.5 million who were killed in this way, this face-to-face, very intimate way of killing.”’

Waller then asked what questions a psychologist might ask when watching a clip of such an atrocity and explained that as a psychologist, the discussion ranges from the human behaviors of victims, rescuers, bystanders and perpetrators. 

“We’re also talking about the behavior of perpetrators,” Waller said. “How did the perpetrators come to understand that what they’re doing in their mindset is the right thing to do? To not do it would be the wrong thing to do. What are they thinking? How are they justifying their own actions?”’ 

In the past 30 years, Waller has been working to answer questions such as this. Waller began teaching in Berlin, Germany, and worked with archival material like videos, photographs, trial and interrogation testimonies and bystander accounts and perpetrator accounts. Due to the psychological aspect of his work, Waller was inclined to begin conducting his own interviews in order to gain further insight into the thoughts and experiences of perpetrators, as well as survivors, witnesses and bystanders. 

Waller has done face-to-face interviews with over 225 alleged or convicted perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in areas throughout Latin America, Africa and Bosnia-Herzegovinia. 

“When I do those interviews, I also take the time to speak with survivors, witnesses and bystanders, because I want to hear from them ‘How do you think someone came to commit these types of atrocities?’ because many times the people who committed the atrocities are people they knew,” Waller said. 

 When addressing the question of the mindset of a perpetrator, Waller told the story of interviewing a perpetrator of the massacre of over 5000 individuals at the Nyamata Parish Catholic Church in Ntarama outside of the capital city of Kigali during the Rwandan genocide. 

“The first time I visited Rwanda was four years after the genocide and at most of the churches, the bodies just laid where they had fallen,” Waller said. “Today, Rwanda has reclaimed most of those physical remains and they’ve left the clothing here, displayed in various ways, throughout these places of memory.”’ 

Most of those killed in the massacre were children and women. The church was converted to a memorial in April of 1997 and now houses many articles of clothing of victims, as well as execution instruments and skeletal remains. 

“I was back in Rwanda, in a prison, interviewing a perpetrator and I didn’t get his charge sheet before he came out,” Waller said. “We started the interview cold, and a couple minutes into it he said something that triggered something for me in memory. A couple minutes later, I knew exactly what it was, just by coincidence. I was interviewing the person who was responsible for organizing this massacre in Ntarama.”

During this discussion, Waller asked attendants to describe what they believed the perpetrator to be, both physically and intellectually. Attendants described the imagined perpetrators as young and fairly intelligent, though Waller noted that most people would imagine a perpetrator to be far from “ordinary.”’ 

Waller told attendants that this particular perpetrator was from Ntarama and that the massacre occurred where he had grown up. He had been a member at the church and was the equivalent of a grade school teacher in the village. 

“When we asked him the question, ‘How did you come to do this?’ He just kept repeating in Kinyarwanda, ‘I’ve lost myself. I did not know who I was. I lost myself. I did not know who I was,’” Waller said. “And that very well is a coping mechanism for him. But as a psychologist, it also testifies to the fact that he made a series of choices here, that there was a transformation in him, that he could probably honestly say he lost himself. He could never have pictured himself doing this.”

Waller’s commitment to investigating the psychology of the perpetrators extends into his work with government policy makers to prevent mass violence. 

“This is the danger,” Waller said. “We absolutely want to understand this. I want to understand it because the work I do with government policy makers is about prevention. If we don’t understand how the people come to commit these crimes, how can we work with policymakers to help them understand the ways we can unpack prevention to prevent this type of activity from happening?” 

In Waller’s line of work, examining the psychology behind perpetrator behavior involves acknowledging that there is a strict difference between understanding the behavior and excusing the behavior. 

“Sometimes, I come really close to this line of excusing, forgiving, apologizing for, and it’s never at all what I’ve meant to do with this work, nor do any of us who work in perpetrator behavior, that’s not what we’re trying to do. Understanding is completely different from excusing and apologizing is certainly different from forgiving the behavior.”’ 

“Sometimes, I come really close to this line of excusing, forgiving, apologizing for, and it’s never at all what I’ve meant to do with this work, nor do any of us who work in perpetrator behavior, that’s not what we’re trying to do,” Waller said. “Understanding is completely different from excusing and apologizing is certainly different from forgiving the behavior.”’ 

The work of psychologists like Waller in relation to the investigation of perpetrator behavior involves the psychological phenomena of understanding the complexity of cognitive dissonance. 

“What they’ve done is so horrendous that psychologists will tell us that people can’t live with the cognitive dissonance of, ‘I’ve killed 60 people but I still think I’m a good person,’” Waller said. “They have to somehow reduce and reconcile that dissonance. And they have to develop lies that they tell themselves… So I want to understand what lies they told themselves.”

Waller closed the discussion by acknowledging prior work done in psychology to address the causes behind the behavior of perpetrators, addressing studies of IQ and the Rorschach testing done at the Nuremberg trials conducted under psychiatrist Douglas M. Kelley and psychologist Gustave Gilbert. When studying the intelligence levels of perpetrators, Waller points out that the public generally expects a lower IQ. 

“If it’s low intelligence, most importantly, we can fix low intelligence,” Waller said. “That’s what education is for. That’s what school is for. So that’s what we’re hoping to see. What do we see? We see that these men at Nuremberg were very bright. They were above average intelligence, 110, 120. Some at the genius level, 130 to 140. So it wasn’t intelligence that was an issue. So if it’s not low intelligence, then maybe it is pathology, some type of mental or emotional disorder. Our test for that was the Rorschach test.” 

The Rorschach test is a pathological test conducted using a series of 10 ink blots that are purposefully ambiguous. A person trained in Rorschach methodology can read into an individual’s responses and particular insecurities projected into responses.
Perpetrators at the Nuremberg trial, all with one exception being Julius Streicher, tested mentally healthy in terms of the Rorschach test. 

“If you see an extraordinary behavior, you assume an extraordinary cause. And very simply, what I’m asking you to do is separate those two. Can we see something extraordinary evil and say it has ordinary causes to it?”’

“If you see an extraordinary behavior, you assume an extraordinary cause,” Waller said. “And very simply, what I’m asking you to do is separate those two. Can we see something extraordinary evil and say it has ordinary causes to it?”’

After working to grapple with these issues for many years, Waller has been met with many questions about what it means to sit down with individuals and garner impressions of those who have committed mass atrocities. He told attendants that he has previously been asked what it is like to sit down with such perpetrators. 

“I know what they’re getting at, that there is something like a television show where they’re stuck with someone, and evil kind of radiates from them,” Waller said. “I just have never had that experience. I mean, everyone I’ve sat with has had that spark of ordinariness to them… These are people who have made decisions over a period of time, who have undergone changes, who have used their agency in ways that are terribly destructive. And what I’ve wanted to figure out is, ‘How does this happen? If ordinary people do it, how does it occur?”’ 

Waller told attendants that evil does not brew in an individual overnight. The perpetrators he has interviewed have described a sense of escalating commitments to killing, thus leading to their eventual transformation. When addressing perpetrator behavior, Waller considers the cultural construction of worldview in terms of group-based identity, authority orientation, and social dominance. Additionally, he addresses the psychological construction of the “other” and the question of moral orientation and the social construction of cruelty. 

When asked about his work in the realm of the prevention of mass atrocities, Waller informed attendants of his work at the Auschwitz Institute, which has involved the education of over 9000 government policy makers and security specter personnel in over 92 countries around the globe. The discussion that is given is meant to remove, particularly from Western countries, the sense of, “This could never happen here.” 

“Part of what we’re pushing to them is to say, if you understand the ordinariness of the people who commit this, and if you understand that no country is immune to it, then genocide prevention is also domestic policy issue, not simply foreign policy,” Waller said.


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