Although the initial planning for this book occurred in the spring of 2001, the attacks on September 11, 2001, have lent a special urgency to its primary focus. Social psychologists have been preoccupied with aggressive or harmful as well as prosocial behaviors for many decades. The events of 9/ 11—the vivid depictions of death and suffering on a massive scale, and the displays of helping behaviors on the part of so many individuals—have made the issues of good and evil particularly salient to everyone, not just researchers. The attackers were immediately labeled by President Bush and countless media analysts as “evil,” or “the evildoers,” and the term “hero” was used with equal fervor to describe the many helpers who not only aided victims but, in some instances, were destined to join their ranks. The media coverage has been nonabating as well, with innumerable attempts on the part of journalists, historians, behavioral and political scientists, and others to discuss every conceivable facet of the attacks and their impact on our society.
These reactions are, of course, not unusual. Atrocities and tragedies— whether it be the Holocaust, the Oklahoma City bombing, inactive witnesses to the murder of Kitty Genovese, the enslavement of millions of African citizens in the United States, or countless acts of torture and terrorism throughout the world—have always prompted the asking of difficult questions: How could people do these things to other people? Why would they do them? Is it something about particular individuals, about culture or society, about unique circumstances, perhaps their complex interaction, that is responsible? Will these horrific events happen again? Can they be prevented? How can we reconcile these terrible acts with the demonstrable kindness and decency of so many people? Is there such a thing as human nature? Are people basically good, evil, both, or neither? This book will certainly not answer all of these questions, or perhaps any of them, in any truly satisfactory manner. They are fair questions to ask, however, and their answers should be sought.