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Conversations with evil men

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

Japanese troops march into Nanking, capital of China, after the city’s capture in 1937.Bettmann/Corbis

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.

The men are now elderly, but as Dawes listened to their stories, he felt he was being given, as he puts it, a “guided tour of hell.” As we reel from the bombing and try to understand the human impulses Boston encountered that day, Dawes’s confrontation with people who have committed evil offers some insight. The biggest challenge, Dawes said, was coming to terms with the fact that in front of him sat normal human beings, not monsters who could simply be dismissed as maniacs or sociopaths. Without forgiving them for what they had done, Dawes says he came closer to understanding how the capacity for evil can grow in anyone’s heart.

Dawes spoke to Ideas from his home in St. Paul.


James Dawes, professor at Macalester College and author of “Evil Men.”handout

IDEAS: Both the bombers and the war criminals you interviewed were able to set aside basic moral impulses in order to do what they did. Is that the first step to committing evil?

DAWES: In some ways working with these war criminals was hopeful, because it was clear the more I talked to them that it took a lot of work to make them into who they became. This idea that we are wolves just waiting to be unleashed upon each other just isn’t true. It just doesn’t ring true when you see what people like this have been through. Cultures have to do a lot of work beforehand.


That being said, given the right circumstances, it’s easy to deconstruct any person. That’s one of the remarkably astonishing facts we’ve learned in the 20th century. We can deconstruct personalities easily, and especially young people. And when you separate people from a complex noisy democratic culture with many viewpoints, and separate them from the normal reference points that we’re surrounded by, you teach men to see the world as binary, as us versus them, safe versus unsafe, pure versus impure. You teach them that there are simple and final solutions, not complicated ones, and then you add to that physical fatigue, abuse, harsh punishments, things that inculcate a sense of helplessness. And it’s always incremental. It’s a step-by-step process. So the first time they are taught to slap or verbally abuse someone in a village, it’s hard. The second time, it’s easy. It’s a matter of escalating commitments so that by the end there’s this long process of adaptation. You find yourself doing monstrous things as if they were normal.

IDEAS: Some of the men you spoke to do seem to have had their own ethical guidelines. Even as they are committing atrocities, they have red lines they will not cross, like killing children.

DAWES: That was again both hopeful and despairing. For most of the men I spoke with, it was the story of killing children that was the hardest, the hardest to remember, the hardest to get them to talk about. So that was hopeful, that there did seem to be red lines. What was depressing was that it was the opposite when it came to women. Violence against women would come very quickly.


IDEAS: What was it about killing children?

DAWES: It’s the one thing we’ve all been. We have not all been women. We have not all been Japanese. We have not all been soldiers. But we have all been children. One of the primary bulwarks against evil is that knowledge of otherness.

IDEAS: With the Tsarnaev brothers, there are some people willing to look more sympathetically at Dzhokhar because he’s young, and seems to have been influenced by his older brother. Are young men more easily pushed into evil acts?

DAWES: Herman Melville once said that all wars are boyish and we deliberately send boys to war because it’s easy to take them apart and rebuild them. They are much more malleable.

IDEAS: I’m curious how you dealt with developing any feelings of sympathy with the war criminals you were interviewing.

DAWES: I’ve done human rights work for a while and I didn’t expect to find this a difficult experience. But if I had to find a word to describe it, it would be vertigo. There is a kind of vertigo to intimacy with evil. And it’s different. We read the newspaper and we see the awful things that happened in Boston, and we all know the awful things that people do to each other. History is ­really a tale of carnage. We mostly know this as a matter of ideas. And it’s definitely different when one gets closer, physically face to face, touching people, getting to know them. It changes the experiences of it.


I have this idea in my head that if people had watched me and the photographer and interpreter talking with these old men and the sound was turned off, it would have looked like we were visiting and talking to them about their grandchildren. We were smiling sometimes, sharing meals and gifts, and meeting their grandchildren. But instead we were talking about how they had killed other people’s grandchildren. And it was vertiginous.

IDEAS: Was there any one moment that brought on a crisis for you?

DAWES: The moments that strike me are the ones where I felt most compassion for them. And so there was one day when I was talking to a man who had done some really awful things. I was haunted by the stories he told me. At some point I just asked him about his mother and his relationship to his mother in the hopes of getting past a mere parade of shock. And he talked about coming back home from the war and seeing her. And she’d become ill and lost an eye and she was near death. And she thought he was a ghost. She was afraid he was a ghost. He had come home with this hope that he would see mom again, and she’d made him his favorite meal. And in talking about this and that moment when she wasn’t sure if he was a ghost and she had to touch him to see if it was true, he began to cry. And it was this moment when I wanted to touch him and put my hand on his shoulder, and tell him it was going to be OK. Which is a completely bizarre and strange moment. Because two minutes before we had been talking about him dropping a woman into a well and throwing a grenade at her child. Moments like that, I still don’t know what to do with. They are real moments of existential doubt and confusion.


IDEAS: But what’s the limit of that kind of sympathy and understanding? Can’t it be taken to an extreme?

DAWES: Sympathy and understanding can coexist with the fullest punishments we are able to mete out as a culture. I don’t think they have to be opposed. And sympathy doesn’t have to mean forgiveness.

IDEAS: Isn’t the question of “evil” better left to religion or philosophers?

DAWES: I think the notion of evil for a long time seemed antiquated. It seemed simple, and there was a kind of scholarship that didn’t take it particularly seriously. That’s changed. These things go through cycles, and this happened in the United States when, over the past decade, very shocking things that we had previously been able to ignore became impossible to ignore. And we were confronted again with the idea that there are actions that aren’t just bad, not just wicked, but that you need a different philosophical vocabulary for understanding them. And the word we have is evil. And so I think as a culture we are trying to understand at a level that’s deeper than just dismissing evil men as being beyond human. The only way to do that is to include everybody in the conversation.

Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post in 2010, and has been released in paperback.