In 1961 the Israeli government tried Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the holocaust, for crimes against humanity. The trial was broadcast by all the worlds major news stations live and the world tuned in en masse to see what had to be one of the most monstrous humans receive justice. However, rather than revealing a demon the trial revealed a man. Eichmann did not deny any of the facts of the case or the holocaust but insisted repeatedly again and again that he was merely following orders and signing paper work. “Just following orders” has become known as the Eichmann defense and it brings up disturbing questions about what humans might be capable of under the right conditions. Was it possible that the monster in Eichmann is in all of us?
This question was put to the test in 1963 by Stanley Milgram in the now infamous Milgram's obedience study. Milgram was a social psychologist at Yale who wanted to explore more deeply the implications of the Eichmann defense. A series of randomly selected subjects were instructed in administrating a basic learning task to another participant. The task included giving a progressively more severe shock for wrong answers.
The subject was under the impression a real electric shock was given each time. But in reality no shock was ever administered. Instead an audio clip was played that gave more and more distraught responses. The participant that was suppose to be receiving the shocks was behind a screen and was actually a member of the research team. They would, after a few shocks, pound on the wall and complain about a heart condition. Then a few shocks later they would cease all communications.
Many people when they first hear about the experiment predict few people will proceed to the maximum voltage. In fact, Milgram asked a group of psychology majors before the experiment what they thought would happen. It was predicted that barely over one percent would go all the way.
The results are often surprising the first time you see them: 26 out of the 40 participants (65 percent) administered the full shock, and not a single subject stopped before 300 volts. All the subjects, at one point at least, expressed concern, many offering to give back their compensation if they could quit, but with the single sentence prod from the researcher they continued. Of the subjects that did stop early, none checked on the learner, or inquired about their welfare.
Milgram's work forces us to realize that Eichmann is human just like any of us, and all of us are capable of horrific acts when following those we see as authority figures. But how is this possible? What is the psychology that allows people to perform these heinous acts? I had personally never been in a situation like the subjects of Milgram's experiment and so any of my guesses were academic. Enter the waterboarding experiment.
There are clearly differences in the circumstances of what I did and the others that I have illustrated but there are also strong similarities. When all the planning was done and everything setup I stood above one of my best friends prepared to administer what has been labeled again and again as psychological torture. What were my thoughts? What was the internal conflict this produced? Not much to tell the truth. I simply switched gears into what I call a procedural mode. I had things to monitor, such as water level, flow rate, response of my friend, etc. The in-the-moment needs to measure and manipulate the situation allowed me to completely divorce myself from any of the higher questions and problems about what I was going to do. I had no major internal struggle because I wasn't focused on the questions or issues that would create it. I found it very easy to switch into this psychological state. Humans are animals and animals are primarily designed to be able to accomplish goal-directed tasks. While we maybe capable of setting up a much wider variety of goals once they are set we just fall back into getting from point A to point B.
Ever driven home after a long day arriving in your driveway with no real memory about how you got there? All of us should be able to come up with examples of using procedural goal-directed behavior that is relatively divorced from any sort of higher order moral or ethical element of our psyche. When I decided that the goal was to administer the waterboarding treatment for the video camera I was able to move smoothly into my goal-directed neural pathways and didn't have to worry about the wider questions until the goal was accomplished. The subjects of Milgram's experiment, while occasionally expressing concern over what they were doing, were essentially just headed towards an assigned goal and moving through motions and actions needed to get there. Perhaps this is what Eichmann faced. Every day he woke up and had to perform a series of actions to accomplish a set goal. Rather than tapping into a dark evil psychological state Eichmann was simply using the same part of the brain that allows us to drive through a yellow light without an intense moral debate about whether we should have stopped or not.
These same questions of what we are as humans has come forward once again as questions arise about treatment of prisoners in the war on terror and the war in Iraq. In 1971 Philip Zimbardo from Stanford did an experiment where a group of randomly selected undergraduates were split into groups of prisoners and prison guards. For several weeks the basement of the psychology department was to be a prison while Zimbardo studied the psychological dynamics of what occurred. Instead the experiment revealed how quickly out of control humans can get in the right circumstances. Zimbardo has created a great on-line resource to study just how bad things got but suffice it to say that the experiment was halted early and once more it was demonstrated how easily we as humans can fall into the traps of committing heinous acts in the our goal-directed behavior. Zimbardo's work hit the forefront of attention once more after the Abu Ghraib prison disaster. Abu Ghraib is not an isolated incident it is the by-product of our basic human nature.
What is the take home message from all of this? I have learned through my studies and now first hand experience that the psychology that allows us to do terrible things is not the exception but the rule. Rather than needing just the right circumstances, or some terrible random act, each of us is inclined to fall back on it rather than rise above it. But I also know that most of us manage to live our lives as good people. We are perfectly capable of rising above our evil but we can give ourselves no excuse and no lee way. The question of whether waterboarding is torture misses the point. Maybe it is a gray area maybe it is not, but if we allow ourselves this one exception we will loose control of ourselves. We must stand firm and give no opportunity for the monster in each of us to emerge. We must always be the better person we must always be prepared to rise above. Rather then seeing how far we can push things till we become the next Nazi Germany and finding the line to walk between war crimes and interrogation we should push ourselves to be more humane than ever. We as a people must stand up and say that things like waterboarding will not be tolerated there is no gray area in torture.
On June 1st 1962 Adolf Eichmann was executed by hanging. His ashes were spread over international water so that no nation could build a monument to his passing. No tears will be wept as the man clearly exemplified the horror that we are capable of as humans. But that's the lesson, as much as we would wish to deny it, Eichmann was human and each of us must choose not to be like him. Each of us must actively work to rise above the inner monster or it will win and what happens next I don't want to know.