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James Waller on Human Nature and Pessimism

"Ordinary People, Extraordinary Evil", (August 2002).

My own pessimism comes more from understanding human nature and the relative ease with which ordinary people can come to commit extraordinary evil. Until we fully understand and appreciate that, we’re kind of at a loss to try and stop it. It seems to me that some of our discussion still revolves around the idea that perpetrators of genocide are very much on the fringe, and that there aren’t a lot of these people. But when we recognize how relatively easy it is for ordinary people to become involved in this, that just takes the discussion to a different place… It’s easier for me to sleep at night if I think that perpetrators of genocide and mass killing are lunatics or insane or only found in cultures like Germany. I don’t blame people for jumping to those explanations. But for me it begins with the issue of numbers. We know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, but very seldom do we step back and ask the question: How many people does it take to kill 6 million people? We know that 800,000 Rwandans died in 100 days, but again, how many people does it take to kill 800,000 people? If you want to say that the only people who do this are lunatics or insecure, then I just don’t know if you can round up that many people like that in a given society to commit the scale of atrocity that we see in genocide. You simply can’t rely on the fringes of society to do that. A lot of ordinary people are going to have to be recruited into that effort as well.