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The Boston Globe

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Q&A

Conversations with evil men

James Dawes’s interviews with people who committed acts of atrocity were like “a guided tour of hell.”

As soon as clear photos emerged of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, people everywhere stared into their eyes and asked themselves a very old question: Is this what evil looks like? The curiosity only increased as we learned about their lives and saw more photos, including pictures of the accused bombers as babies and small children. Who could kill an 8-year-old? What happened to their conscience, to the moral compass that all humans presumably share?

James Dawes, director of the program in human rights and humanitarianism at Macalester College, has attempted to answer these sadly timeless questions in a new book, “Evil Men.” To wrestle with the problem of why people commit atrocious acts, Dawes spent time with a group who had committed many: convicted Japanese war criminals who fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War, which lasted from 1937 to 1945. These men did unspeakable things, rampaging through villages, torturing, raping and killing civilians. Dawes sat across from them, face to face, and asked questions through an interpreter.

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