Whitworth Communications

For Immediate Release

July 9, 2002

Whitworth Professor's New Book a Timely Analysis of How Ordinary People Can Commit Acts of Extraordinary Evil

The 20th century, dubbed the "Age of Genocide" by some historians, saw more than 60 million people fall victim to state-sponsored terrorism, with ethnic cleansings and other horrific purges in countries such as Germany, Ukraine, Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia.

The litany of atrocities continues into the 21st century. To date, more than 2 million people have been killed in Sudan's decades-long civil war and an additional 4.5 million have been driven from their homes; and the September 11 terrorist attacks on American soil that claimed approximately 2,830 lives are a painful reminder of the destruction that can be waged by individuals motivated by ideologies or grievances against an existing state.

As the worldwide death toll rises, it is more critical than ever to understand the psychological roots of evil that can lead to mass murder. In his new book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford University Press), social psychologist and Whitworth psychology professor James Waller draws from seven years of research to mount an original argument for understanding why political, social and religious groups wanting to commit mass murder are never hindered by a lack of willing executioners.

Philip Zimbardo, president of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at Stanford University, asserts that "government leaders and the public would be well served to learn some of the many valuable lessons effectively presented throughout James Waller's original perspective on the psychological processes involved in the transformation of ordinary people into perpetrators of evil deeds."

Written for both scholars and laypeople and drawing on eyewitness accounts from perpetrators, victims and bystanders, Waller's Becoming Evil refutes many of the standard explanations for antisocial behavior and presents four ingredients that lead ordinary people to commit acts of extraordinary evil. Waller contends that being aware of our own capacity for inhumane cruelty, and knowing how to cultivate the moral sensibilities that curb that capacity, are the best safeguards we can have against future genocide and mass killing.

"To offer a psychological explanation for the atrocities committed by perpetrators is not to forgive, justify or condone their behavior," Waller states in his preface. "Instead, the explanation simply allows us to understand the conditions under which many of us could be transformed into killing machines. When we understand the ordinariness of extraordinary evil, we will be less surprised by evil, less likely to be unwitting contributors to evil, and perhaps better equipped to forestall evil."

A July 1, 2002 review in Publishers Weekly praises Waller for "clearly and effectively synthesizing a wide range of studies to develop an original and persuasive model of the processes by which people can become evil...Because Waller provides a broad overview and a summery of the current research, [Becoming Evil] is an excellent choice for readers just beginning to investigate the phenomenon."

Experts in the fields of psychology and genocide studies agree that Becoming Evil makes a significant contribution toward our efforts to understand human nature and to circumvent future mass killing.

"By challenging some of the traditional theories, Waller paves the way for a new model for understanding human behavior and human nature itself. Becoming Evil is an astute and perceptive look at a haunting phenomenon," says Holocaust historian Victoria J. Barnett, author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler and Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust.

In the book's foreword, Christopher Browning, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, and author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, predicts that Becoming Evil is "destined to be one of the foundations upon which further scholarship is based."

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing is currently available for purchase online at www.barnesandnoble.com, and will be available for purchase in August at Auntie's Bookstore and other bookstores in Spokane, and online at www.amazon.com.

In addition to his research and writing on the psychology of evil, Waller chairs the Department of Psychology at Whitworth College, where he created the Prejudice Across America tour six years ago to give students firsthand exposure to the corrosive effects of racism and the work being done by individuals and groups to bring about racial reconciliation.

The 1996 tour drew national media attention and the 1998 tour was recognized by then-President Clinton's Initiative on Race as one of the nation's "100 Promising Practices to Promote Racial Reconciliation." Waller's book Prejudice Across America (University Press of Mississippi, 2000) chronicles the 1998 tour and was a finalist for a 2001 Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Program for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America. Waller and Whitworth students will again be making the cross-country trip in January 2003.

Waller joined the Whitworth faculty in 1989 and has been recognized for outstanding teaching and research in the areas of social psychology, racism, and Holocaust and genocide studies. He has written more than 30 articles in refereed professional journals and six chapters in edited books.

In addition to Prejudice Across America and Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, Waller is author of Face to Face: The Changing State of Racism Across America (Perseus Books, 1998).

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private, liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The college enrolls more than 2,100 students in 50 undergraduate and graduate programs.


James Waller, professor of psychology, Whitworth College, (509) 777-4424, office; (509) 467-0118, home; (509) 475-9011, cell phone; or jwaller@whitworth.edu.

Julie Riddle, public information specialist, Whitworth College, (509) 777-3729 or jriddle@whitworth.edu.

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