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Monday, June 12, 2006

Why Good People Kill - by Rosa Brooks

Are Americans good people?
 
After Vietnam — after My Lai, after the free-fire zones — many Americans were no longer sure.
 
After Haditha, the same question is again beginning to haunt us. We're supposed to be a virtuous nation; our troops are supposed to be the good guys. If it turns out that Marines murdered 24 civilians, including children and infants, how could that have happened?
 
In response to Haditha, U.S. government officials quickly reverted to the "bad apple" theory.
 
It's a tempting theory, and not just for the Bush administration. It suggests a vast and reassuring divide between "us" (the virtuous majority, who would never, under any circumstances, commit coldblooded murder) and "them" (the sociopathic, bad-apple minority). It allows us to hold on to our belief in our collective goodness. If we can just toss the few rotten Americans out of the barrel quickly enough, the rot won't spread.
 
The problem with this theory is that it rests on a false assumption about the relationship between character and deeds. Yes, sociopaths exist, but ordinary, "good" people are also perfectly capable of committing atrocities.
 
In 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment. He told subjects to administer electric shocks to other people, ostensibly to assess the effect of physical punishment on learning. In fact, Milgram wanted to "test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist."
 
Quite a lot of pain, it turned out. Most of Milgram's subjects continued to administer what they believed to be severe and agonizing shocks even when their "victims" (actually Milgram's assistants) screamed and begged them to stop.
 
Milgram's subjects weren't sociopaths. On the contrary, most expressed extreme distress about administering progressively more severe shocks. But almost all of them did it anyway.
 
Milgram's basic findings have been extended and confirmed since the 1960s. Depressingly, experimental evidence and historical experience suggest that even the gentlest people can usually be induced to inflict or ignore suffering.
 
There are several key factors that lead "good people" to do terrible things. The first, as the Milgram experiments powerfully demonstrated, is authority: Most ordinary people readily allow the dictates of "authorities" to trump their own moral instincts.
 
The second is conformity. Few people have the courage to go against the crowd.
 
The third is dehumanization of the victims. The Nazis routinely depicted Jews as "vermin" in need of extermination, for instance. Similarly, forcing victims to wear distinctive clothing (yellow stars, prison uniforms), shave their heads and so on can powerfully contribute to their dehumanization.
 
Orders, peer expectations and dehumanization need not be explicit to have a powerful effect. In adversarial settings such as prisons or conflict zones, subtle cues and omissions — the simple failure of authorities to send frequent, clear and consistent messages about appropriate behavior, for instance — can be as powerful as direct orders.
 
Against this backdrop, is it really surprising that ordinary, decent Marines may have committed atrocities in Haditha? All the key ingredients were present in one form or another: intense pressure from authorities to capture or kill insurgents; intense pressure from peers to seem tough and to avenge the deaths of comrades; the almost inevitable dehumanization that occurs when two groups look different, speak different languages, live apart and are separated by a chasm of mistrust.
 
Add in the discomfort, the fear, the constant uncertainty about the identity and location of the enemy and the relative youth of so many of our soldiers, and you have a recipe for atrocities committed not by "bad apples" but by ordinary people little different, and probably no worse, than most of us.
 
Of course, individuals still make their own choices. Most of Milgram's experimental subjects administered severe electric shocks — but a few refused. If Marines are proved to have massacred civilians at Haditha, they should be punished accordingly.
 
But let's not let the Bush administration off the hook. It's the duty of the government that sends troops to war to create a context that enables and rewards compassion and courage rather than callousness and cruelty. This administration has done just the opposite.
 
Our troops were sent to fight an unnecessary war, without adequate resources or training for the challenges they faced. At the same time, senior members of the administration made clear their disdain for the Geneva Convention's rules on war and for the principles and traditions of the military. Belated and halfhearted investigations into earlier abuses sent the message that brutality would be winked at — unless the media noticed, in which case a few bad apples would be ceremoniously ejected from the barrel, while higher-ups would go unpunished.
 
If we're talking about apples, we should also keep another old proverb in mind: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
 
Rosa Brooks is a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Her experience includes service as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as a consultant for the Open Society Institute and Human Rights Watch, as a board member of Amnesty International USA, and as a lecturer at Yale Law School. Brooks has authored articles on international law, human rights, and the law of war, and her book, "Can Might Make Rights? The Rule of Law After Military Interventions" (with Jane Stromseth and David Wippman), will be published in 2006 by Cambridge University Press.
 
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
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