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Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing [Hardcover]

James Waller
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 15 2002 0195148681 978-0195148688 1
Political or social groups wanting to commit mass murder on the basis of racial, ethnic or religious differences are never hindered by a lack of willing executioners. In Becoming Evil, social psychologist James Waller uncovers the internal and external factors that can lead ordinary people to commit extraordinary acts of evil. Waller debunks the common explanations for genocide- group think, psychopathology, unique cultures- and offers a more sophisticated and comprehensive psychological view of how anyone can potentially participate in heinous crimes against humanity. He outlines the evolutionary forces that shape human nature, the individual dispositions that are more likely to engage in acts of evil, and the context of cruelty in which these extraordinary acts can emerge. Illustrative eyewitness accounts are presented at the end of each chapter. An important new look at how evil develops, Becoming Evil will help us understand such tragedies as the Holocaust and recent terrorist events. Waller argues that by becoming more aware of the things that lead to extraordinary evil, we will be less likely to be surprised by it and less likely to be unwitting accomplices through our passivity.

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From Publishers Weekly

From the Turks' massacre of Armenians in 1915 through the Serbians' slaughter of Bosnian and Albanian Muslims during the 1990s, the 20th century was an era of mass killing. Social psychologist Waller (Face to Face: The Changing State of Racism Across America) develops a four-layered theory of how everyday citizens became involved. First considering factors in evolutionary psychology such as humans' instinctive xenophobia and desire for social dominance Waller examines psychosocial influences on the killers, from people's willingness to obey authority even when causing others physical pain (the famous Milgram experiments of the early 1960s play a role here) to elements of rational self-interest (subscribing to, or at least not dissenting from, the norms of a military or other group). Waller's third element focuses on how some groups can create a "culture of cruelty," in which initially reluctant individuals ultimately commit heinous acts. In his last and most interesting section, Waller shows 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. There is no new research here, and Waller's theory is quite complex. But he clearly and effectively synthesizes a wide range of studies to develop an original and persuasive model of the processes by which people can become evil.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and, of course, the Holocaust these are but a few examples of mass killing and attempted genocide. When such events come to light, civilized people are revolted, comforting themselves by believing that the perpetrators must have been insane. Yet later examinations of these atrocities frequently reveal the agents to be perfectly ordinary human beings, leaving the following question unanswered: what could possibly turn normal citizens into mass murderers? In this important synthesis of social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and historiography, Waller (psychology, Whitworth Coll., Washington; Prejudice Across America) draws on the work of Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, and other theorists to examine this question, arguing that only when we are fully aware of why such evils take place will we be less likely to allow them to happen again. Combining eyewitness accounts with his own scholarly but accessible analysis of atrocities from the past century, Waller studies the common traits among mass killers, the social contexts of several killings, and the targets against whom such violence has been perpetrated. Out of this examination he creates a paradigm for analyzing mass homicide that will generate considerable reflection and discussion. Highly recommended for every academic library. Christopher Brennan, SUNY at Brockport
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
While a visiting professor at the Catholic University in Eichstatt, Germany, I took a Saturday train from nearby Munich to the small Austrian town of Mauthausen, an idyllic market community that lies just fourteen miles east of Linz and nuzzles peacefully along the north bank of the Danube. Read the first page
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5.0 out of 5 stars Profound book Feb. 19 2004
Format:Hardcover
This work shows why explorations of the nature of human nature are not just the stuff of ivory towers. It adds an evolutionary psychology element to previous discussions of genocide with good effect. So one gets some of the ideas of Tooby, Cosmides, Sober and Wilson's "Unto others", Pinker, etc. in the picture. It is also well written and engages the reader emotionally. The evolutionary psychology, though, is only one fundamental factor among many. The author's point is to show all of the various factors that influence a potential actor in genocide, and the situational influences dealt with by social psychology loom large.
Nevertheless, there is an interesting lack of self-awareness of the use of a repeated concept. It is very common to refer to someone who commits an evil act as being inhuman. That dehumanizes the perpetrator. But as Mr. Waller so beautifully explains, it is well within ordinary human nature to have the potential to commit acts of extraordinary evil. So it may be evil, but it is not inhuman. Furthermore, the book explains that dehumanizing others is part of the process that can lead to genocide. In trying to characterize these evil acts, the author uses some of the same dehumanizing mental constructs that lead to such evil acts. Ironic, no?
But that is a minor point. It is quite customary to refer to evil acts as being inhuman. The book is excellent, if sobering.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended July 24 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
The editorial reviews above and the publisher's description are accurate about the content. I want to add that this book is well worth reading. The author covers a great deal of research on the topic of man's inhumanity to man and presents the various theories and arguments with an elegance and precision that make this comprehensive book easy, and were it not for the subject matter, pleasurable to read. For anyone interested in the challenge of explaining violence in all its 20th century awfulness, this is an excellent place to start.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Impressive. Feb. 9 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This book explains all the communication and psycological strategies used by terrorists. Knowing them, a state can create a set of laws that stops them, and therefore limit the capacity of progress of terror. The work of Mr. Waller is just impressive.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  28 reviews
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profound book Feb. 19 2004
By Herbert V. Leighton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This work shows why explorations of the nature of human nature are not just the stuff of ivory towers. It adds an evolutionary psychology element to previous discussions of genocide with good effect. So one gets some of the ideas of Tooby, Cosmides, Sober and Wilson's "Unto others", Pinker, etc. in the picture. It is also well written and engages the reader emotionally. The evolutionary psychology, though, is only one fundamental factor among many. The author's point is to show all of the various factors that influence a potential actor in genocide, and the situational influences dealt with by social psychology loom large.
Nevertheless, there is an interesting lack of self-awareness of the use of a repeated concept. It is very common to refer to someone who commits an evil act as being inhuman. That dehumanizes the perpetrator. But as Mr. Waller so beautifully explains, it is well within ordinary human nature to have the potential to commit acts of extraordinary evil. So it may be evil, but it is not inhuman. Furthermore, the book explains that dehumanizing others is part of the process that can lead to genocide. In trying to characterize these evil acts, the author uses some of the same dehumanizing mental constructs that lead to such evil acts. Ironic, no?
But that is a minor point. It is quite customary to refer to evil acts as being inhuman. The book is excellent, if sobering.
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent for Teaching and Self-Exploration June 16 2005
By M. R. Zink - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Robert Waller has written an exceptional explanation of how every human is tempted and entrapped by situations, people, attitudes and personality traits that leads one to commit evil. It is these small acts of evil that can build, distract and cumulate in the horrors we see on the news and respond "not me!"

I have used Becoming Evil as an additional book in my Social Psychology class for three years and students always walk out talking about it. Other professors are constantly asking me to see this book saying students are talking about in their classes, in sororities/fraternities and other organizations. One student told me that after reading this book suddenly she understood how pledging a sorority should be changed. Another student wrote me from military training and said how he was beginning to understanding how easy it was to create a mindset of destruction and killing without looking back. One mother in my class told me that the book has deeply impacted how she parents her children.

I deeply believe this is an extremely valuable book. Very organized, easy to understand, and rooted in compelling real life examples of extraordinary evil committed by individuals that we begin to realize look, act and who were just like us.

I have had a hard time finding another book to use in my class that has touched students to the depth of Becoming Evil. I hope others find it equally soul touching and reflective.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting/informative, but... Oct. 24 2009
By Kaleb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I purchased this book because it was a requirement for a Political Psychology college course I'm taking this semester. In the last month or so, our class has analyzed and discussed this book thoroughly. Waller provides a four-part conceptual model in order to explain why he believes genocide and mass killing occur. He also writes about specific case examples at the end of each chapter in order to further articulate his feelings. Anyway, Waller seems to believe very strongly in one "ultimate influence" in order to explain our behavior--evolutionary biology/psychology precede and precipitate his other three "proximate influences," which are social construction of cruelty, cultural construction of worldview, and psychological construction of "the other." He contends that we, as humans, are programmed to committ evil as a result of natural selection; that is, our ancestors survived because of their ability to defeat potential enemies within a scarce realm. Academic stuff aside, this book is very easy to read, incredibly interesting, and is a great start for those who would like to delve into this fascinating subject.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended July 24 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The editorial reviews above and the publisher's description are accurate about the content. I want to add that this book is well worth reading. The author covers a great deal of research on the topic of man's inhumanity to man and presents the various theories and arguments with an elegance and precision that make this comprehensive book easy, and were it not for the subject matter, pleasurable to read. For anyone interested in the challenge of explaining violence in all its 20th century awfulness, this is an excellent place to start.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It Could Happen to You April 12 2006
By wahzoh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
After buying this book and reading it myself, I loaned it to my brother and then gave it to my local library where I hope it will be read by many others.

Mr. Waller undertakes a difficult topic -- how it is that ordinary, moral, "law-abiding" human beings can change into perpetrators of genocide. The idea that something like this could happen to any one of us is frightening, indeed, but the best way to protect ourselves is to understand the process. Waller explains this clearly and helps us to understand that the Nazis and other genocidal groups were not insane or monstrous - they were normal people who had undergone a transformation which could occur to anyone in the "right" (i.e., "wrong") circumstances.

This book would be an important addition to libraries everywhere, and I also hope that it will be used in colleges, universities and even high schools.
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