In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks to Dr. James Waller, Academic Programs Director for the Auschwitz Institute, as well as Curriculum Coordinator and Instructor for the institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention. He currently holds the position of Cohen Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State Collge. In 2002, he published the first edition of Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing and he is now working on his next book, titled Genocide: Ever Again? anticipated for publication in 2014. He has conducted fieldwork in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Argentina.
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Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. So far in these podcasts we’ve spoken with individuals doing amazing things in the field of genocide prevention. Today I’m taking a look inward at the Auschwitz Institute itself. Why it’s here, what it does in the field of genocide prevention, and how it uses the tools available to effect positive impacts. Speaking with me is Dr. James Waller, author of the book Becoming Evil, coordinator for the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, and the Academic Programs Director for the Auschwitz Institute. Thanks for talking to me today, Jim. It’s good to have you with us.
Thanks, Jared, it’s great to be with you. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity.
So how was it, Jim, that you first got involved with the Auschwitz Institute?
My first connection with the institute came in 2007. I was at a conference of the International Association of Genocide Scholars in Sarajevo, and before the conference Fred Schwartz had sent out a note to everyone who was going to participate at the conference, explaining a little bit about his vision for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. And it happened that Fred and his wife, Allyne, came to a presentation where I gave a talk on my work on perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocity, and immediately after my talk Fred came up, and Allyne, and asked me to join them for dinner that evening with John Evans, and Deborah Lipstadt, and Tibi Galis, and a few other people, and at the dinner Fred talked a bit more about his vision for the institute.
And in some subsequent conversations over the next few months, he and I chatted about my work, and how it might fit within the institute itself. And I think really, for me, Fred opened up the next chapter for my work in perpetrator behavior, to think about it from a standpoint of how it might apply itself to prevention. And at the inaugural seminar, the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention we had in May 2008, I was honored to be one of several different instructors of that seminar. And since that time I’ve been able to participate in every single seminar we’ve had, with kind of increasing responsibilities that today have led up to the position of academic programs director.
So it sounds like, in starting with the institute, it changed you as much as a person as it changed your work.
Yeah, I think it did very much. I think I really had not made a connection of what I did with issues of prevention. I think in my courses I talked about the need to make “never again” a reality, but I really didn’t know what that meant in practice, or even in theory. And so I think Fred’s great challenge, and I think really the genius of the institute, is to say that we have to marry all of the great work being done in academic research, with fieldwork, and policymaking, policy implementation, that we need to get this information outside of academia to the people who matter more than academics in this area, and that’s people who make policy and implement policy at governmental levels. And Fred’s push, and I think really the institute’s push to have that cross-boundary conversation, has really been the key to the success of the institute to this point.
What sorts of things has the institute done so far, in that sort of respect, in fieldwork and in effecting policy change. What has it done so far, do you think, that has contributed most to preventing genocide?
You know our legacy to this point, just about five years into it, is pretty remarkable in terms of the couple of hundred policymakers that we’ve trained through the Raphael Lemkin Seminars for Genocide Prevention, the several dozen U.S. military personnel that we’ve trained through the Fort Leavenworth program that has come through Auschwitz as well, I believe in three different seminars. So I think what we’ve done is bring to people who might not otherwise have had access to this information, some of the cutting-edge information on genocide prevention. And really, what I think broadly about what we’ve tried to accomplish at these seminars, it really is trying to help people understand what genocide and mass atrocity crimes are, from a legal perspective, from a ground perspective.
Secondly, trying to help them understand what the risk factors are for genocide and mass atrocity prevention. And thirdly, and this is most important whether it’s military or policymakers, trying to help them understand what leverage and responsibility they have in their unique positions, where they can make a difference in the face of this. And I think we’ve built a network of people who have some really fairly nuanced understanding of the challenges of genocide and mass atrocity prevention, who I think draw on each other for information as much as they draw on us. And I look at the development even of our Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, which developed from one of the participants in our very first seminar, who went back and recognized that the strength of what genocide prevention could be, would lie really in strong regional efforts. And the opportunity we have to work on that in Latin America, and now in an emerging program in Africa, to build capacity for regions, and states within regions, to make a difference here. I think that’s really been the legacy, an incredible legacy, of just the five years of this institute.
What do you think the biggest challenges are in achieving those missions as we currently define them?
Jared, I think the biggest challenge is that prevention isn’t as appealing as intervention. Intervention kind of has a heroic “something’s going on, we come in, we stop it.” Clear, concrete stuff that you can use for a newscast or a video clip. I mean it’s just something, for lack of a better word, heroic, about that kind of heroic, about that type of intervention that makes news. Prevention doesn’t have that same focus. When we do good prevention, people never hear about it. People never know about it because we’ve prevented something from occurring, or we’ve prevented a conflict from escalating into genocide and mass atrocity. So it doesn’t quite capture peoples’ imagination as much, simply because we’ve stopped something from occurring, as opposed to something like intervention.
So I think our challenge is trying to rise above that and say that the costs of prevention are so much less, in every way, than the costs of intervention. And while prevention may not seem quite as heroic an effort as intervention, that it just makes economic sense, it makes sense in terms of life and loss of life, it makes sense on every level for us to invest in prevention, rather than stepping in to stop conflict, once it’s escalated to this point.
Do you think that as a society, and especially as a Western society, we run up against the same sorts of hurdles, where we understand that it’s better to educate than to imprison, it’s better to have nutrition than to have open heart surgery. Do you think that we’re going to run up into those same issues where we just don’t want to think about the hard work that has to be done beforehand, and we prefer to just wait and see?
Yeah, no, I think you’re exactly right. I think with some of the biggest problems, for instance, facing American society, we tend to focus on them once they become a problem, and we want to somehow stop the problem with some direct intervention, when much of the groundwork could have been done ahead of time. But again, it just isn’t easy if you’re a politician to get funding, for instance, to do things that are preventive. It’s easier to get funding to do things that intervene and stop a problem as it’s ongoing. But the question is, can we have a longer-range vision to help us understand the tremendous benefits of preventing these problems before they start, rather than responding to them once they’re in place. And I think we’re seeing changes in that. I think we’re seeing changes certainly at the UN level, and understanding issues of genocide prevention. Certainly in the U.S. with the Atrocities Prevention Board, that’s a positive step forward as it starts to develop. Other regions, other countries have started to take prevention seriously. So I think we’ve got to the point where people are starting to get the message. We just now need to keep reinforcing what do prevention policies and practices look like.
So if we could overcome all of the challenges, and if you could imagine the best possible outcome in five years, where would the Auschwitz Institute be, and what might it achieve?
That’s a great question. I think that for anyone that works in the field of genocide studies or genocide prevention, part of your hope is that one day your field is obsolete, it’s no longer needed. I guess in some ways I think about that when I think about the work of the institute. I hope one day this institute’s not needed any longer, because we simply aren’t facing this problem. I don’t think we sit anywhere close to a world, though, where that’s a reality. I mean the pressing population growth, scarcity of resources, the increase in number of nation-states and contested boundaries, all of these things just lead us, unfortunately, to some pretty dire predictions about what the world will be like and continue to be like in terms of conflict, and also in terms of escalation into genocide and mass atrocities. So I think unfortunately the work of the institute is absolutely still going to be needed five years from now.
I think, for me, our greatest successes will be what capacities have we built for regions and nation-states. In other words, our seminars that they get involved in are meant to empower them to go back and make differences in their own communities and in their own regions. The more that we can enable people to do that work, rather than people coming to us for that work, or coming to the UN for that work, the more that states can build the capacity to do this work in their own state, I think the better off we’d be. So it is, for me, that would be a great point for us to be at five years from now, is to continue to point to programs like in Latin America, like in Africa, where we’ve built capacities for states and regions to engage in genocide and mass atrocity prevention.
You wrote a book called Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that book, and about the next book you’re working on?
Yeah, sure. Becoming Evil was first published in 2002 and a second edition in 2007, and basically the central thesis of the book is that it’s ordinary people like you and me who commit the vast majority of genocide and mass killing. And what I’m trying to look at there is how is it that ordinary people become transformed into people capable of committing these atrocities. And I argue in this book that very few perpetrators are born.
In other words, we don’t have people waiting to perpetrate these atrocities just as soon as they’re given permission. I think these are people who, by and large, could never envision themselves committing the type of atrocities we see in genocide and mass killing, but over time become involved by their own choice, by some limited circumstances, in situations that begin to transform their view of the other, the target group, begin to transform their sense of responsibility to their society. Begin to transform their view of the worth and sanctity of human life. And over time they come to think that it’s not just right to do the killing they do, but that it’s wrong to not do the killing. And so as a psychologist I try to understand, or lay out a model, for what are the forces that kind of transform, and influence, and shape people in this direction. While at the same time absolutely saying that these people still hold personal, legal, moral, philosophical accountability for the crimes they’ve committed.
So that’s the work in Becoming Evil. The next book I have contracted with Oxford University Press is a book on partly the history of genocide, but also a thematic book on themes like justice, truth, memory. There’ll be a large chapter on genocide and mass atrocity prevention, that’s part of the book as well. So really it’s a book to introduce educated readers, policymakers, college or university students, to what genocide has looked like historically, and then from that very specific picture to step back and say, what does the study of genocide tell us about justice, how a society rebuilds itself, about the role of truth in rebuilding, about the role of memory? What does it push us to to understanding prevention? And really it’s a book that, had I not been involved with the Auschwitz Institute, I don’t think I would have had that broad a view of understanding genocide, so really it’s in large part my work with the institute that’s led to this book, in many ways.
Do you think that it’s more helpful and more useful, when dealing with that sort of thing, to focus more on the beliefs and the ideological factors that come from things like ethnicity or ethno-symbolic identification, or do you find it’s more effective in finding the roots and causes to focus on economic and political factors?
Yeah, you know I’m going to follow in this book what I followed in Becoming Evil, which is to say that I’m very suspicious of monocausal explanations, or explanations that focus on one thing particularly, or maybe two things. I think in anything as complex as this there’s a variety of explanations, and the question is how do they go together, how do they influence each other? Is ideology a part of it? Absolutely so. I mean, belief systems, worldviews, cultural models are incredibly important to perpetrator behavior and understanding the outbreak of genocide and mass atrocity. But I do think there are other structural factors that put societies at risk that we need to understand, poverty being one of those, one of many of those factors. So I’m not wanting to reduce it to say that this is it, there’s just one or two things here we need to focus on. I’m really wanting to understand that multiplicity of factors, and then how those factors interact in these societies. And part of that is understanding that there are a lot of societies on the verge, possibly of genocide and mass atrocity, that don’t take that step. That don’t have that trigger that brings a society into that type of large-scale atrocity. So understanding the things that put a break on genocide and mass atrocity, I think, can be just as important as understanding the things that start to compel a society to think this is their only possible political, social, economic solution, is to exterminate a large group of its population.
Well, I think you’ve given us a lot of reasons for optimism. I hope you’ll come back soon and share a few more.
Thanks Jared, very much appreciate it.