Sunday, November 6, 2011

On the Banality of Evil

It’s odd I’m writing this on the 50th anniversary of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution.  When captured by the Israelis and put on trial, his defense was simply was that he was just following orders, which was also the defense of many other Nazis put on trial since the war. Ultimately, this defense was deemed unacceptable. Personal moral responsibility said the court, trumped orders.

At the time, writer Hannah Arendt, a journalist observing the trial and more importantly, Eichmann, coined the phrase, “the banality of evil.” And Eichmann was just that – banal. He was an ordinary, balding, bespectacled, aging, little man. So what would drive an otherwise ordinary little man to participate in one of history’s most unspeakable crimes? 

In writing War Plan Crimson, I also began wondering what would drive otherwise ordinary folk to commit unspeakable acts. What about the guards of Stalin’s gulags, Mao’s “cultural revolutionaries,” those who participated in Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the ‘70s , the ethnic cleansings in the Balkans or the Rwandan Genocide of the ‘90s and in other places and times?

So then perhaps you’ve heard of psychologist Stanley Milgram. Dr. Milgram, too wanted to find out,"Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?"  In other words, what made him do it?

Dr. Milgram developed an experiment to find out. In the experiment, a volunteer was told by a white lab-coated doctor to sit at a desk and to ask questions to a person in another room and administer progressively higher electrical shocks if he answered wrong. Fortunately, everything about the experiment was a fake – the “doctor” and the person in the other room were actors and the “shock box” didn’t work.  However, the volunteer believed he or she was administering shocks under a doctor’s orders. 

In other words, the volunteers were being tested for their willingness to follow orders from an authority figure.  In most cases, Milgram found that the volunteers followed orders – while some demonstrated qualms – almost to the point where the other person would’ve died had the experiment been real. The video is chilling to watch.

Observed Dr. Milgram: "With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter's definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority."

We owe Stanley Milgram a debt of gratitude for this. It shows that evil doesn’t have to wear jackboots or carry a gun. It is a warning that almost anyone of us has the potential for evil inside us.

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