The Nature of Extraordinary
When we have overcome absence with phone calls, winglessness with airplanes, summer heat with air conditioning—when we have overcome all these and much more besides, then there will abide two things with which we must cope: the evil in our hearts and death.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
IT IS EASY TO DETACH OURSELVES FROM perpetrators of extraordinary human evil and their victims. Most of us know nothing—in an experiential sense—about the perpetration of extraordinary evil. We have not been through anything in our personal lives that remotely compares to the atrocities inflicted on millions of victims of extraordinary evil across the globe. Each of us is, though, the surviving heir of catastrophes and destruction that we never experienced. As such, we are called to find meaning where there appears to be none.
We have, due to the considerable efforts of scholars in Holocaust and genocide studies, an incredibly exhaustive account of the inhumanity we perpetrate on each other. The opening of archives throughout Eastern Europe, the emergence of primary source materials from Cambodia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, and the cultivation of oral collections from victims and perpetrators of extraordinary evil around the world continue to yield even more documentation to be translated, sorted, and analyzed.
After all of that, though, we are still left with the “big questions.” One of the most urgent is why ordinary people commit extraordinary evil. Historian Saul Friedlander, who divides his time between professorships at Tel Aviv University and at UCLA, suggests that we now need the lens of psychology to bring some focus to the “incomprehensibility” of extraordinary human evil that scholars continue to document. 1 Questions of motive and the social environment in which evil is practiced must be addressed if we