The Banality of Evil, Part II

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

We started this conversation last week with our first show on Hannah Arendt and the “banality of evil.” An hour wasn’t enough. Now it’s time for part two.

Arendt resisted making an explicitly psychological analysis of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann in her lengthy report of his 1961 trial. Her assessment was that Eichmann’s ability to do evil came from his inability to think from others’ points of view, or to have an internal dialogue with himself. Evil itself was banal, she said, in that it was “thought-defying.”

All of the court psychologists who examined Eichmann pronounced him “normal.”

And yet, one wonders. What was going through his head? How is it that this seemingly normal German bureaucrat could be swept up in the tide of Nazism to become one of history’s most perplexing criminals? What explains the participation of thousands of ordinary Germans just like him, concentration camp guards and civilians alike? These questions broaden to become both more personal and more universal. What would I do if faced with these circumstances? Would I act for good, or would I succumb to evil?

Inmates in the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Stanford Prison Experiment “inmates.” [Philip Zimbardo]

Probably nobody is more qualified to answer these questions than Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. His true to life experiments have asked these questions and tested our shared notions about the boundaries between good and evil to shocking and edifying conclusions.

In his most famous experiment, the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, 24 normal, healthy, well-adjusted, college-age males were randomly divided into “guards” and “prisoners.” The “prisoners” were arrested and put in “jail,” and the guards were given custody over them. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks. But by day two all hell broke loose; the guards were behaving sadistically and the prisoners were rebelling and having mental breakdowns.

The prisoners even nicknamed the most macho and brutal guard in our study ‘John Wayne.’ Later, we learned that the most notorious guard in a Nazi prison near Buchenwald was named ‘Tom Mix’ — the John Wayne of an earlier generation — because of his ‘Wild West’ cowboy macho image in abusing camp inmates.

Where had our ‘John Wayne’ learned to become such a guard? How could he and others move so readily into that role? How could intelligent, mentally healthy, ‘ordinary’ men become perpetrators of evil so quickly? These were questions we were forced to ask.

Philip Zimbardo, The Stanford Prison Experiment, 1999

Zimbardo stopped the experiment by day six.

Scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib prison.

A few bad apples or a poisoned barrel? [Dennis Dunleavy / Flickr. Originally secured by FOIA request, The New Yorker.]

Since that time he has dedicated his career to examining how ordinary people become capable of deplorable acts, and perhaps more importantly, how situational circumstances – the barrel, if you will – can poison the apples. He may also know more than anyone else about the monstrous realities of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, after serving as an expert witness for of one of the guards tried. (The defense asked Zimbardo to testify that the guard was not innately evil or sadistic. Rather, it was structural mismanagement and horrendous working conditions at the prison, including 12-hour shifts for 40 straight days and no oversight, that contributed to the guard’s actions.)

Dr. Zimbardo has a new book out; he’ll join us for part two of our look at the banality of evil, and inject his own new thoughts about the flip-side of the banality of evil, what he calls the banality of heroism.

We want your answers to the big questions we’ve been tackling the last few weeks (including how empathy plays into all this), but we also want to hear your stories. Have you or someone you know been faced with an opportunity for wrong-doing or heroism? How did you react, and what was going through your head?

Philip Zimbardo

Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Stanford University

Author, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Related Content

  • nother

    “If only it were all so simple!” “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

    -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “The Gulag Archipelago” (Found the quote in E.O. Wilson’s book “On Human Nature.”)

  • I served a an MP in Vietnam for 4 months before I transfered to aviation for the next 16 months. Nobody can tell me that these were rogue MP’s. I think one has to look at where our military intelligence was getting ‘how to break a Arab’ orders. Those individuals were employed outside civilian contractors that have skipped country to avoid criminal charges. So to avoid a mess, blame the grunts on the bottom, our hands are clean. Just look at the My Lai prosecutions the real perps got away Scott free, the lack of accountability destroyed so many lives,but who cares. The bastards that allowed it to happen and covered it up, and got promoted.

  • You ask about herisom versus evil.I think it would be helpful to discuss what defines a “heroism”. Is a footbal player who makes a great play, leading his team to a win a “hero”? We throw this word around. How do we mean it here?

    There was a young woman who went to Guatemala City, sold all of her belongings and moved into the city dump to start Safe Passage – an organization to provide the thousands living there with the resources to get an education. ( ) In my mind, she epitomizes heroism. People willig to sacrifice for the sake of others demonstrate heroism.

    Oprah, who spens a pittance of her wealth to create school in her own name, may be a philanthropist – it could be argued that she’s not; that she does this as part of a marketing strategy to make even more money – but she is not a hero, to my mind.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever been heroic. Kind. Yes. Strong for another? Yes. Heroic. Can’t think of an instance.

  • Potter

    “24 normal, healthy, well-adjusted, college-age males”

    In our previous discussion Nick brought up the issue of testosterone. The above mentioned experiment does not seem to have been controlled for that ( and it was done so long ago). I wonder, for instance, how would 24 well-adjusted college-age females have behaved in such a situation? As it has ever been, young normal healthy testosterone loaded males are the ones we send into battle. They are just made for that it would seem.

    Anyway as this piece reminds- we have to be careful. (I fell into the stereotype instantly.)

    Biology, Empathy and Science Journalism

  • Our current conversation about evil and the nature of evil reminds me of a debate a decade ago surrounding the books “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen) and “Ordinary Men” (by Christopher Browning). My experience of these books was that they offered me a sort of litmus test on questions such as: what is the nature of evil, how do we explain the presence of evil, and why does evil persist?

    Browning’s explanation, in short, is that there is no uniquely German evil that can explain the Holocaust; rather, evil and our ability to act evil is always present in all of us—it is part of the human condition. Goldhagen’s explanation is much more sociological—it hinges on what he identifies as a uniquely German ideology. Living with such an ideology predisposed Germans to willingly participate, to varying degrees, in the mass extermination of Jews.

    It is interesting to note that both authors use the word “ordinary” in their titles (Goldhagen’s subtitle is “Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” and is partially intended as a response to Browning’s book) despite offering radically different definitions of what constitutes “ordinary.” And this seems to be Arendt’s point, too (if I’m drawing an inaccurate conclusion, please do tell): that Eichmann was ordinary. Arendt’s notion of ordinary has much more in common with Browning’s in that ideology doesn’t matter on the personal level. Arendt’s Eichmann is incapable of hearing himself just as Browning’s ordinary men are incapable of questioning orders—just as Zimbardo’s students were incapable of stepping outside of their roles as guards and prisoners.

    Can anyone point out the relationship, for Arendt, between power (as opposed to violence) and the ability to question oneself or think self-critically? Does Arendt speak to the role of education? What is her pedagogy? I believe I read somewhere (probably at that one-stop shopping of online sources, Wikipedia) that Arendt had “polis envy,” meaning she longed for the Greek forum and its democratic ideals. Perhaps this is the missing piece: can anyone put this puzzle together for me?

  • mynocturama

    Last I checked, Oprah has made the cover of every single edition of O magazine. That’s quite an accomplishment, you have to admit. So she must be doing something right, right?

  • enhabit


    spectacular opening volley!


    look at what happened to hugh thompson (too many people don’t even know who he is)…now there’s a courageous man!


    with you 95%! “hero” is a term used all too “genius”. its liberal application dilutes the term. additionally, as you point out, it is relative. there are those who are regional “heroes” who would make most of our skins crawl. my heros are also those that work with poverty. people like Somsook Boonyabancha, Jockin Arputham, Bindeshwar Pathak, Muhammed Yunus..and those that help to make their visions work.

    as for that 5% i for one will take oprah’s generosity whatever the motivation. although i do feel, as appearently you do, that charity is at its best when given anonymously..fewer strings.


    am i reading you right in that, when applied to humanity, the term “normal” simply doesn’t work as a term. what the heck is normal? acceptable? average? typical? ordinary? only a genuine empath could begin to make such a calculation…and my guess would be that an empath would tell you that there is no such thing.

    as nother and Solzhenitsyn point out brilliantly; only by knowing what we are can we recognise our dark side when it shows up. this requires some unpleasant honesty.

    when God built our brains, she couldn’t just replace the old one with a new one. she had to build on what was already there. those primeval lizard brain pieces, adapted to life in the ooze, couldn’t just be discarded.

    Andrew Kinney:

    your last point/question. i think that you are on to something there….a life of reason demands unfettered debate. all assumptions must be must do one’s homework and show the details of its construction. even an erroneous conclusion drawn from a correct process is productive and useful in an enlightened public forum…just as sophists have their place in getting a point clarified.

  • enhabit

    btw it’s Muhammad Yunus how did i ever get an “a” in high school typing?

  • enhabit

    i have long wondered why it is that orangutans..of all the great apes..are the most like humans in their reproductive cycles. they are solitary private creatures. enigmatically intimate in their brief relationships. resentful of hierarchy.

    The Red Ape: orangutans and human origins By Jeffrey H. Schwartz

    why have our systems evolved in a similar way when so many depend on estrus? what is it that coincides here?

    are we over-estimating our social nature? does our private inner life conflict with our public one to so great a degree that, when pocessed by power over others, when social convention recedes, that dark behaviors present themselves?

    one need look no further than a ride on the interstate to find this strange resentment of “the other” presenting itself.

  • enhabit

    i site the book but do not quote from it

  • nother: That’s a great quote. Here is an excerpt from a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. that addresses the “civil war” within us. Its best of course heard in his voice with the call & response from the congregation. The topic also brings to mind that ultimate battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader where Darth urges Luke to get in touch with his “Dark side”.

    Whenever you set out to build a creative temple, whatever it may be, you must face the fact that there is a tension at the heart of the universe between good and evil. It’s there: a tension at the heart of the universe between good and evil.

    Now not only is that struggle structured out somewhere in the external forces of the universe, it’s structured in our own lives.

    And in every one of us this morning, there’s a war going on. (Yes, sir) It’s a civil war. (Yes, sir) I don’t care who you are, I don’t care where you live, there is a civil war going on in your life.

    Every time you set out to love, something keeps pulling on you, trying to get you to hate.

    There’s a tension at the heart of human nature. (Oh yeah) And whenever we set out to dream our dreams and to build our temples, we must be honest enough to recognize it.

  • nother

    (yes, mam) keep it up Peggysue, I love it!

  • loki

    Zen Master Bernie Glassman recommends becomeing one with the homeless as an antidote to the banality of evil. Each year he offers street retreats with homeless around the world. Each year he visits Auschwitz to reclaim the killing grounds as sacred ground.

  • enhabit

    astonishing peggysue!

  • nother

    “Omnes! omnes! let others ignore what they may,

    I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also,

    I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is–and I say

    there is in fact no evil,

    (Or if there is I say it is just as important to you, to the land or

    to me, as any thing else.)”

    -Passage from “Leaves of Grass”

    “I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also. 
What blurt is this about virtue and about vice? 
Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me, 
I stand indifferent, 
My gait is no fault-finder’s or rejecter’s gait, 
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.”

    -Passage from “Song of Myself”

    “Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,

    I am he who knew what it was to be evil,

    I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,

    Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,

    Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,

    Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,

    The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,

    The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,

    Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,”

    -Passage from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

  • enhabit

    -It says nothing against the ripeness of a spirit that it has a few worms.

    Friedrich Nietzsche

    i think walt would have liked that one

    more “nihilisms” from old F-N

    (i always found him to be more optimistic than most)

    -All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses.

    -Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.

    -Fanatics are picturesque, mankind would rather see gestures than listen to reasons.

    -Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions.

    -The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

    Friedrich Nietzsche

  • Nick

    I opened the earlier Arendt thread wondering if empathy-deficiency is a – or the – primary cause of “man’s inhumanity to man” (‘evil’). Participating in that thread taught me a bunch, and stimulated further thoughts. Moreover, it sparked an exchange with my sister, with whom, I indicated elsewhere, I share an empathetic link that began in my infancy, when she was but a two-year-old. Our link was formed at least in part by having to suffer the abuses meted out by the same two pairs of emotionally troubled adults. We both eventually escaped the abusers; but, unlike me, she fled from our childhood hell into an adult one: a vile, violent, and manipulative first husband. Of course she survived it, and, better yet – and heroically – emerged stronger: as a volunteer for the hazardous duty of counseling the many victims of her region’s women’s shelter. There she learned a lifetime’s worth of wisdom concerning abuse, abusers, and their prey.

    I mentioned to her the example of ‘empathetic’ wolves, who scent the fear of their food-prey, and who then attack all the more fiercely for it. I asked her, “Is it possible that abusers aren’t empathetically stunted, but (counter-intuitively) sensitive? Do they sense rather easily the emotions of their victims?”

    She pondered very briefly, and said, “Yes.”

    (Needless to say, I’ve had to cease my casual conflation of empathy with compassion.)

    So here’s our conjecture: perhaps abusers are more conscience-deficient than empathy-deficient. Perhaps their own personal emotional histories typically include childhood abuse or a dearth of sufficient love, leaving them deadened in conscience, yet hungry with emotional vampirism. Perhaps this explains the cycles of manipulation they instigate: loving at first, then threatening, then violent, then forgiving, which includes relief and, ideally, renewed love. Of course, the victim’s damaged trust of the abuser can’t help but compromise any renewal of love, which likely re-stimulates the cycle of internal needs projected onto victims.

    Abusers seem to me to share an uncomfortable commonality with video-gamers: both appear to take pleasure from controlling the behaviors of their manipulatees. In video games, no conscience is necessary since the manipulatees are little more than pixel-hallucinations, and the gamers know it. In life, however, stunted conscience creates real, not hallucinatory, suffering.

    I don’t compare these two in order to divert this thread toward the amoral realm of video-games – that would be frivolous and please let’s not discuss such things. I want only to give an example we’re all likely familiar with of the pleasure humans can take from manipulating others. Video games are the ‘cartoon’ manifestation of this; while abuse—the sort of unconscionable sort of abuse that fills women’s shelters—isn’t cartoonish but real. Yet, in both instances, the manipulators are feeding an emotional hunger. Perhaps a similar hunger.

    It’s conventional wisdom that abusers find their soon-to-be victims by sensing those more likely to be caring and selfless—the compassionate qualities that can tragically leave one emotionally malleable. That, if accurate, requires empathy. Not compassion.

    This leads to my concluding question: is Arendt’s ‘thoughtlessness’ simply her word for the concept called ‘conscienceless’? Are ‘compassionless’ and ‘conscienceless’ functionally synonymous?

    If so, can we together brainstorm a treatment for consciencelessness?

  • enhabit

    sorry for writing so much, my free time is limited to these off-hours these days.


    perhaps there is a link between one’s need to be needed in this case. this so-called “enabling” paradox. the abused has known little other than abuse..the abuser has known little other as well. there has been damage to the basic trust from infancy that could (under better circumstances) form the basis for a fulfilling relationship. the conscience seems to be absent in this case because the participants are playing out the only way to be needed that they know.

    as you seem to point out, that dark side of our nature has been unlinked from commpassion..does it arise from self-loathing? children seem to be so ready to blame THEMSELVES for anything bad that happens to them. i’m not sure that religion is much help on that one.

    i’m not sure that such behavior can easily be consciously controled by the abuser. it has become impulsive. those who don’t resist or withdraw are drawn into the entanglment.

    even so, i suspect that the conscience is still in there anyway, unwittingly feeding the cycle of self-loathing…and absent basic longer capable of feeding compassion.

    my heart aches to think of a child living with such fear..not knowing what’s coming next or just as bad if not worse..knowing it, but not when. sanctuary is sought but where is it found? creative places to be sure.

  • Nick

    enhabit, your 3:05 PM reminds me that I’ve a serious objection to the common notion that victims are complicit in their suffering. Allow me to explain.

    ‘Victim’ is a concept with several variants. On the one hand we have ‘tsunami victims’, ‘famine victims’, ‘plague victims’ – victims of natural forces whose emergence is not a function of consciencelessness (well, unless ‘God’ is the agent of the calamity, which ought to cause any thoughtful person to question the entire premise). On the other hand we have ‘abuse victims’ – victims who some people think are responsible for poorly selecting their intimates.

    But there’s a broad middle in this continuum, populated by people we class as ‘rape victims’ and ‘sniper victims’ – victims ‘guilty’ only of crossing paths with conscience-stunted men (and yeah, it’s mostly men).

    What’s the commonality of these variants? Happenstance, for one thing: what human would choose to drown in a tsunami, or be shot by a John Allen Muhammad, or to find that a prospective lover is Jack the Ripper or Jeffery Dahmer?

    A more important commonality: power differential. In the case of earthquake, the differential is stark. Similarly, a hidden man with a scoped rifle holds an obvious terrible power over his victims.

    Less obvious are the power differentials between women and men in patriarchies. More obvious than that, yet perhaps nonetheless under-appreciated, are the vast power differences between parents and children. Parents, to children of my generation, held a nearly god-like power over their offspring. Some still do, even in this more recent age of laws intended to protect children from abuse.

    For a human to be complicit in her victimization would require no power imbalance – which effectively renders the concept ‘victim’ void of meaning, or, at least, inappropriate for the relationship. If a woman asks a man, “Will you rape and murder me?”, and he says “Yes,” then she is complicit for the subsequent ‘victimization’. She is not complicit otherwise.

    The instant a more powerful individual initiates a personal violation or other suffering in a weaker person, the entire onus sits on the initiator. The victim is not complicit. (Well, apart from perhaps some vacuous metaphysical silliness that mystically links my consciousness with yours and both of ours with rocks.)

    When an abuser initiates abuse, the victim, if alive, reacts. Defensive reaction is not complicity. It is not “enablement,” it is defensive reaction. Even in domestic abuse.

    Otherwise, drowning in a tsunami or having skin thin enough to admit a sniper’s bullet is “enablement”. Just because so many common social power differentials are less obvious than the two examples in the previous sentence doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

    Ignoring power differentials, and ignoring the difference between initiator and reactor is a serious, conscienceless disservice to victims. Assigning “complicity” to victims only works to strengthen the position of the powerful.

    We can’t stop earthquakes or droughts. We can, however, work to ameliorate the power inequities that abusers must have as a prerequisite for their abuse. Earthquakes are environmental. So are social crimes like rapes and domestic violence – but that’s an environment we can change.

    And we can start by ceasing this disingenuous travesty of blaming victims. The onus, always and entirely, sits on the initiator.

  • enhabit

    The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

    Fyodor Dostoyevsky

  • Potter

    Nick, enhabit.

    Judith Lewis Herman, M.D. speaks about this in her book Trauma and Recovery: the aftermath of violence- from domestic abuse to political terror. (I have asked if she could be a guest as have others on the suggestion thread). This is not a hard book to read. It opened up a world of understanding and compassion and I go back to it. One astonishing thing I learned that helped tremendously- the abused re-enact the original abuse in other relationships. As enhabit says” the participants are playing out”.

  • Nick

    PS: enhabit, Potter, nother, Allison, peggysue, loki, and anyone I’m forgetting: great stuff so far!

    One fave (of several) “-Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.”

    Couldn’t have said it better meself — and I’ve tried!!!

  • Potter

    “traumatic events, by definition, thwart initiative and overwhelm individual competence. No matter how brave and resourceful the victim may have been, her actions were insufficient to ward off disaster. In the aftermath of traumatic events as survivors review and judge their own conduct, feelings of guilt and inferiority are practically universal…..Rape produces essentially the same effect: it is the victims, not the perpetrators, who feel guilty. Guilt may be understood as some useful lesson from disaster and to regain some sense of power and control. To imagine that one could have done better may be more tolerable than to face the reality of utter helplessness” …. J. Herman “Trauma” pages 53-54

    All reason to the contrary nowithstanding- this I feel and know to be true.

  • enhabit


    i have a real problem with the term “victim” in this case as well…anyone who has ever tried to break one of these relationships up knows how irrational it seems to the outsider…this power that both parties have over each other…it can seem so sureal..this perverse yin and yang thing going on..opposite psychic poles devouring each other..hard to separate…tragic and maddening! psychology tries to apply digestable terms to it all…codependency for example. i suppose that we need to name things for purposes of discussion but human mental mechanics are never so simple..

    power diferential is an excellent term here. two kinds of power are at play. the feminine side has its own kind of energy to contribute to the situation. the sea may yield to the touch but will prevail against rock. an imperfect metaphor….in reality human flesh and feelings do not follow the same equation. i am happier for you sister than you could know!

    i know that you are wary of digressing into the video game comment…it’s much too rich to ignore. was eichman so detached? george patton, of all people, warned against the emerging push button detachment of war. i worry about what appetites we are encouraging.

  • enhabit

    beautiful potter..there is good reason for applying the term “violated” to rape. can you imagine? there are places in this world where “justice” is metted out by gang raping a member of the “offending” group….what arouses these men in such a situation? there’s that primal lizard brain again.

  • Nick

    enhabit & Potter: I understand the concept ‘codependency’—but I mistrust it. It is perhaps useful for trying to explain the dynamics within abusive relationships, but I tend to think its utility is limited. I hope another more sharply focused concept will presently supercede it.

    Whenever an abuser promises his victim, “I’ve changed. I’ll never hit you again,” he has tried to remake the social/power environment of the relationship. The victim’s choice to believe him doesn’t make her complicit when his promise turns out to be fantasy. He has in effect sworn himself to equality in the power-dynamic – and the instant he breaks that oath, the onus once again sits squarely on him.

    Not her.

    Not ever.

  • Nick

    enhabit, it’s mighty tempting to view Hitler’s hatred of Jews and Slavs as similar to a video gamer’s rising ire at the pixel-hallucinations who keep ‘slaying’ his avatar. I’m not sure how fully comparable they are, though. They might share some distant commonality…or not.

    Still…are video-games ways of venting ‘conscienceless’ urges toward violence in a safe way — a way not available to Hitler’s generation?

    I dunno.

    I do know this: I’m mighty interested to see the inevitable scientific studies of violence and attitudes toward violence in the first generation of gamers now beginning to reach middle adulthood. The findings might surprise us…or not.

  • enhabit

    i can’t stand these terms either. one can’t wrap all this up into one neat little package. i mentioned “codependency” it in that spirit. everything is fluid in human inter-relations no matter how entrenched the situation may seem. it’s like “closure”; who can ever completely close a traumatic aftermath really!

    to psycology’s credit there are many in that field who try to avoid labels as well. DSM III which, we studied in school, is clearly unfomfortable about this and made such an effort (don’t know a thing about DSM IV) but clinicians do need to make notes and peer review doesn’t always have access to the actual individuals in question. even this paragraph seems to objectify people. i’ve never been comfortable with any of it…never entered the field after all that study.

    but as far as the abused is concerned…they can be so very difficult to extract from these situations. is it that the only other people that they have ever fully loved, ie. their parents, were also abusive? is there an association here that is tough to disconnect? having seen some of this up close…one relationship that has lasted longer than my lifetime…i simply don’t have an answer other than to be happy that your sister has broken the chain. nobody deserves to live that way..absolutely nobody!

  • Nick

    Oh! I just remembered the example of ‘complicity’ from the first Arendt hour: the Jewish councils the Nazis used to identify any region’s Jews.

    They were not ‘complicit’ — they were powerless.

    Nothing irks me more that this sort of conflation. The Nazis own the onus. Not the Jewish community leaders.

  • enhabit


    i don’t think that of the detachment of the video gamer in such a way other than that it objectifies virtually. to an immature mind..that homeless person sleeping it off in the alley may become a non-person to be messed with. varied “experiences” detached fromreality become the objective of free time. developing the ability to easily objectify a person, virtual or not, can’t be good for the soul.

    j. bronowski in his work “the ascent of man” steps into the pond at auschwitz and picks up the saturated ash…

    quoting now

    “It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods”

  • hug

    I am hoping that Prof. Zimbardo shares his view, ideally in some detail, of empathy and the relationship(s) between a deficit in empathy and patterns of behavior that we often call evil.

    If, by “empathy”, we mean the mostly automatic subconscious tendency to sense and share, emotionally, the feelings of others, via our “mirror neurons”, then a substantial deficit in that ability can clearly lead to the harmful treatment of others, and, in extreme cases, a pattern of evil. Substantial deficits in empathy of this kind are associated with antisocial personality disorder (sociopaths) and other psychological disorders.

    Of course, “thinking” and emotion are highly interrelated, so the difference between one’s ability to cognitively (by purposeful thinking) place him/herself in someone else’s shoes, versus the automatic, emotional, empathic capacity to feel someone else’s feelings, deserves careful discussion. Ideally, a person can not only share someone else’s feelings via empathy, to a degree, but also purposefully try to place himself in the other person’s shoes. If responsible cognition and empathy work together in a situation, that is often a good safeguard against behavior that is harmful toward others (other factors being equal). When empathy is absent and cognition is selfish, watch out! When a person’s empathy and a person’s cognition send him different signals, then the brain has to work things out.

    As someone suggested on the first show, The Banality of Evil, Part I, is a person’s belief that he/she can actually feel someone else’s feelings “arrogant”? Well, I suppose that depends. It seems to me that true, healthy empathy is not at all arrogant. Scientists see empathy as a cornerstone of responsible behavior and, indeed, of our ability to live with each other at all. On the other hand, if an individual has too much faith, and perhaps misplaced faith, in his own ability to know what others are feeling, and on that basis disregards other people, or presumes to make decisions for them, or harms them, that certainly would be arrogant. Another example: I wouldn’t think that any male can (or should) ever claim that he knows what it feels like to have a baby. I don’t think that someone can “know” what it feels like to lose a loved one, unless someone has lost a loved one. That said, a person with a healthy degree of empathy can know (and feel) what it is to be deeply sad, when they see another human who is deeply sad. In short, I don’t think that empathy is arrogance; I think that arrogance is arrogance. And I think that false claims can sometimes reflect arrogance.

    One thing that few people seem to understand, I believe, is that humans have a wide variety of levels of empathy. Many people seem to assume that, when it comes to empathy, more or less, other people are pretty much like them. The truth seems to be that some people have much less empathy than others have, on average, and some people have much greater levels of empathy. This is important to understand, especially in our modern environment. I would be very interested in Prof. Zimbardo’s view on this. Indeed, some people are very good at SEEMING to have empathy, even in large degree, as long as your interests are in line with their goals, but when their goals diverge from your rights or interests, watch out. Psychologists understand that many sociopaths (antisocial personality disorder) and extreme narcissists (narcissistic personality disorder) often seem to be very charming, and normal, until something happens and everyone is surprised, at least at first. Our normal ASSUMPTION that other people have the same level of empathy that we might have sometimes gets in the way of seeing and dealing with those who have little or no empathy, once their behavior gets extreme and harmful.

    Some excellent books on the subject are People Of The Lie (by M. Scott Peck, M.D.), Defying Hitler, A Memoir (by Sebastian Haffner, and (a movie) Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (Sony Pictures Classics), which is an in-depth interview with Hitler’s secretary before she died several years ago.

  • enhabit

    wow “blind spot” sounds fascinating!

  • enhabit

    magnificent contribution hug. this really helps me…the b.o.e. (part I) thread was far too much to digest without having days and days to read and think. better to be in the thick of it. i never felt well oriented to the empathy issues.

  • Lumière

    blind spot” sounds fascinating!

    Downfall (German: Der Untergang)


    Most of the events are depicted from the perspective of Hitler’s young personal secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara)

  • Nick

    “‘Complicity’ can only be shared by agents who share equal power.”

    —Nick, March 14th, 2007

    Coupling ‘complicity’ with ‘powerlessness’ is as oxymoronic as ‘fragmentary wholeness’ or ‘dark sunshine.’

    enhabit, I love your 6:01 PM.

  • enhabit says: “as for that 5% i for one will take oprah’s generosity whatever the motivation. although i do feel, as appearently you do, that charity is at its best when given anonymously..fewer strings.”

    I did say she was a philanthropist. That is generosity. Though, i do believe, given the way she self-promotes the event – in her mag, on her tv show, filming her own documentary – that it is really a calculated marketing move. But since she does donate the funds, I’ll call it philanthropy and any philanthropy is better than no philanthropy. But I would never call her a hero.

    Yes, mynocturama, she’s made every cover! Imagine the esteem from your fellow man that this unique accomplishment must represent. (wink, wink)

  • Lumière

    as oxymoronic as …… ‘dark sunshine.’

    File under: Dark Star,Grateful Dead, jumbo shrimp

  • “my heart aches to think of a child living with such fear..not knowing what’s coming next or just as bad if not worse..knowing it, but not when. sanctuary is sought but where is it found? creative places to be sure.”

    Most of us who survive and reach any level of emotional health can tell you that sanctuary is found through a metal detachment mechanism. We cognitively escape to a better place. Mine was literally a sanctuary. A beautifully pruned topiary-fence-enclosed space where I was alone, but for the hand thant brought me manna and elixir. Hands that took care of me. As solitary as I thought I wanted to be, my inner psyche knew that the wounding had come at the hands of another and so would the healing. We heal in relationship.

    Nick, I’m thinking about the question of abusers and empathy. The most manipulative of abuser certainly have some mechanism that allows them to know just what buttons to push. I’m not sure it’s empathy, as much a keenly studied sense of observation. You must recall being keenly aware of every move and the patterns that get established. This allows you to exit the scene when you can, brace yourself when you can’t. You can know the state of the other person without necessarily engaging empathy.

    Also, the wolf smells pheromones. Fear is a strong one. So, I’m not sure she empathizes.

    Not sure how we could ever determine any of this. It’s fun to consider the possibilities.

  • Nick, while i’m with on the victim thing – the initiator of violence must take full responsibility for doing so – I also think that it is difficult for the victim to extricate because she is addicted to the emotional cycle. Emotions generate chemicals and when we produce them our body learns to want that chemical. So, out of addiction, we create more of the chemical for the body.

    For the victim to get out of the cycle she needs to accept that she may be addicted to it and the work she must do is to end the addiction. Now, anybody who has tried to stop smoking, drinking, doing heroin, or eating refined sugar, can tell you that this feels like a death-defying act. So, it can literally feel like risking death to leave the dynamic. But this is what one has to face. In the best of worlds, every victim would face this with all the right support systems to keep her safe while she goes through withdrawal and rebuilds a new body chemistry. But in this respect, she is the only one who can be responsible for making this change and exiting the cycle of abuse. This is the one power she does have – to fight her addiction – so when she does not claim that power, she is enabling the abuser. And even if you locked this abuser away, she would seek out another – albeit “unconcsiously”. The first step in empowering the victim is to let her know that she has power and not to define her as completely powerless – which, by the way, feeds into her original psychic imprint.

  • enhabit


    my only point is that with more than one-billion people living on this planet on less than a dollar a day..we may need more self-promoters of this kind (however nauseating). with our gov’t spending @ $160 billion a year on war..could you just imagine the effect of spending $160 a year on each of those billion slumdwellers? oprah the hero? no, i doubt that she thinks so either. but it’s well past time for us to take care of these people for everybody’s sake. perspective: in 1950..the world population was @ 2.5 billion.

    as for your sanctuary, i just tucked the kids in…really beautiful. you have a

    survivor’s soul.

    thanx for the kind words nick.

    good night all.

  • Nick

    Allison, I love your posts…but must question the applicability of your 9:52 PM to all but some rare cases. Perhaps some women unconsciously crave abuse. Perhaps — but it feels to me counterintuitive. Because I can promise you that neither my sister nor I had anything but dread for the violence and torment we experienced as mere children. It was utterly beyond our control — until offered escape (from a judge) — which we took.

    To me, the much larger issue is that our preoccupation with ‘victim complicity’ distracts us from this: “the initiator of violence must take full responsibility for doing so“. For me, that’s the issue.

    My sister, I’m pretty confident, would agree. She didn’t counsel the women at her shelter to focus on their own complicity but to understand the neediness of the manipulators who used violence to sustain and augment their emotional vampirism. This, she has told me, this focus on the pathologies of the perpetrators, did more to break the manipulator’s grip on his emotional-sustance-provider than the alternative focus on ‘addiction’ severance.

    But even with my sister’s input, I’m terribly ignorant of all this.

    You know, if it weren’t such a horrible topic, I’d almost want to hear a ROS show on it. I know very little about it, yet feel that I should know everything available. It’s as close to everyday ‘banal evil’ as anything I can imagine.

    Anyway, thanks again…especially for the distinction between pheromone scenting and what we call empathy. I wonder though…

    You know the “empath” from Star Trek/Next Generation? Did it ever strike you as odd that she could “sense” the emotions of beings in ships many miles distant in space just by watching a TV screen?

    Do you think your daughter could have sensed your friend’s grief without having been in her physical presence?

    What if what we might call ‘direct empathy’ in humans is pheremonal?

    Obviously, our other senses augment the olfactory: we can regularly sense emotions by perceiving nearly imperceptible facial twitches. But scent is the one human sense were almost ‘blind’ to! It might be more important to empathy than we think.

  • mynocturama

    Nick – are you questioning the professional integrity of counselor Deanna Troi? Don’t even go there Nick, don’t even go there…

  • hug

    Although all or many senses may be involved, humans are certainly very visual when it comes to empathy. A sad crying face, present or in a photo or movie, can easily cause sadness and tears in someone who has a healthy degree of empathy, including healthy mirror neurons. Even without scents, or sounds, or other senses engaged.

    One of the difficulties in truly understanding other people, and their depth/strength of empathy, is that the same types of behaviors can be driven by very different capacities and motivations. Someone who gets you a cup of coffee every morning with a smile could be doing it because he or she truly knows that you like coffee and truly wants to make you happy, or could be doing so because he or she NEEDS your admiration, sexual cooperation, or other things from you and has learned, typically in childhood, that doing certain things is (sometimes) the best way to get other things in direct return. A sociopath’s charm and attention may SEEM the same as an empathetic person’s genuine care and attention, until goals diverge. One of the best differentiating factors between the two situations is honesty. That’s one of the reasons that M. Scott Peck’s great book on the subject is called People Of The Lie.

    Consider Hitler. According to his secty (see the movie-interview “Blind Spot”), he was (or at least seemed) kind and caring with his main secretaries, and he had or played with pets (if my memory is correct), and so forth, but there were certain topics he did not discuss at all with his secretaries or most other people, and there were certain topics that were completely forbidden. Even as he had millions of people killed, nobody who felt that they needed or wanted to have any sort of positive relationship with him (for example, his secretary) could dare bring up the subject or challenge him on it, or even ask him about it. The one thing that people with NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) hate the most, usually, and react to most aggressively, is to have their actions, competence, or IMAGE challenged. They need admiration, and they hate critique.

  • Hey Nick, I don’t doubt that the vast majority of victims of abuse dread the violence. As children, it is beyond our control. And, of course, we do want out. I’m talking about the chemistry that gets created in our body when we’ve been subjected to certain systems for such a long time. The reason so many of us don’t know how to break the cycle – which to an outsider seems so simple, “Just leave!” – is that our body chemistry literally traps us. There is scientifice evidence to support this. I’m not good at citing these things, so I’ll see if I can find the info.

    I don’t discuss this to let the initiator off the hook in any way shape or form. And I’m not at all stating that women should be counseled for their complicity. You are missing me completely to read that into my writings. What I am saying, is that to break the cycle, to get out, we have to reconnect to the only power we have – the power over ourselves. This takes support and a lot of inner strength. But, ultimately one piece of the self-empowerment is recognizing this “addiction” and fighting to change it. If you take away this piece of power, you leave the victim with no hope of a better life unless someone else does something about it. A lot of the victim’s inability to get out is the belief that she is 100% powerless to control her life. Funny, this is exactly how alcoholics feel……

    It does, of course, help to see the perpetrator as having a weakness. It levels the playing field of power. It’s a starting point. It allows the victim to crawl up from the bottom of the totem pole, the part buried in the sand. I have found that in all of my work for my own healing and, then in my studies to become a therapist and then in my practice seeking support systems for my clients, that two very key factors to real healing missing: recognizing our own attachment to the destructive dynamic and forgiveness. (I speak hear of forgiving as the act of giving it back, not the act of forgetting.) I have even seen it written that forgiveness is not necessary for healing. And, certainly, it is not even considerable in the early part of the healing process. But ultimately, to get beyond survival and move towards thriving you have build a new emotional body chemistry and you have to give the wounds back to the perpetrator. Let the perpetrator own all of it – the pain, the guilt, the responsibility. By forgiving, you cleanse yourself. Gradually, of course. For most of us, this is a spiraling process that continues for a lifetime.

    I’m not sure where all of this fits into the empathy/heroism, non-empathy/evil discussion.

    As for pheromones, it’s a good question about humans. My daughter certainly seemed to have her empathy triggered by being in the presence of a person. But, not always aware that they were there. So, is it just a pheromonal scent? Possibly, my daughter turns out to be a super-taster. So, perhaps she’s just got a more finely tuned sensory capacity than the rest of us. Can any of do what Deanna did on ST/TNG? Don’t know. Pehaps we do it without realizing where the source of our feelings comes from? Perhaps we only recognize what’s going on when we have the visual cue to help us identify it. Perhaps it’s only smell. I don’t know how we would figure that out.

  • Nick

    Allison, thanks for your thougtful reply. As I said, I’m much too ignorant, and you’re helping me out of it. Also, talking about empathy is a favorite topic of mine, so thank you and thank you huq, too. Your posts (both of you) are wonderfully insightful.

    The supertaster thing really jibes with my (mere) speculations about the scent factor. Hopefully this part of brain science won’t remain uninvestigated forever.

    mynocturma: Troi (even though her name had slipped the sieve I call my mind) is one of my all time favorite fictional characters. Sadly, she’s fiction — albeit some creator’s brilliant fantasy. Inspirational? Hell yes. But a mere fantasia all the same. Sigh…

    Anyway, I’m working on that ‘belief’ post I promised you in the previous thread, and will post a link to it here sometime tomorrow (time permitting).

  • katemcshane

    Andrew Kinney — I see the people being taught, first by adults in their families and then at school, to look outside of themselves for authority, to obey. Arendt believed in “thinking” according to Kant — looking inside yourself for answers, asking if you can live with yourself if you make or support a particular choice (in society’s case, a particular policy). I haven’t read enough of Arendt to say too much about this. Sometimes it seems to me that the more comfortable your childhood has been the more likely you are to go along with what is presented in society as policy, whereas the harsher your childhood has been, the less likely you are to go along with anything — there have been so few, if any, supports for what you need, feel, think, believe, want, that you question the state-of-things very early. Of course, by now the culture provides so much more in the way of anaesthesia, just in case people get out of hand the way they did in the late fifties and sixties. That cannot be tolerated. Conscience cannot develop when someone has been taught to go along with an authority figure’s beliefs, and never develop a connection with her/his own soul.

    peggysue — I always think of the way racism and expressions of hate became more prevalent and virulent from about 1980. I remember feeling the backlash in the seventies, but after Reagan/Bush got in, hate crimes doubled each year and people I knew who had been very decent began to make racist and antisemitic remarks, often acting as if they had been forced to be quiet about these beliefs for years and now they could let go. I always think that it’s all out there, in the air, and if you’re not alert, you can find yourself having thoughts you really hate yourself for having. Someone who has believed in decency for two decades, for example, during a time when the civil rights movement has been active and wonderful, gradually lets go during a time when real estate, money market accounts, and cocaine are the “thing.”

    Nick — you ARE an unusual man. On the last Arendt thread, I meant to tell you how amazing it was when you first brought up empathy and misogyny. I share a similar background with you and your sister, and I’ve done similar work. Remember the term “blaming the victim” — something that is “natural” for human beings? If you figure out why the victim is at fault, it’s easier to believe that it will never happen to you. When I worked at a child abuse hotline, there were people who wanted women to have their children “removed” by the State for “allowing” themselves to be battered — the women were charged with neglect. (Of course, the same people believed that lesbian mothers should lose their children.) One of the things that happens often in programs that address abuse/trauma, is that the staff play out an abuse dynamic among themselves and the clients. If you bring up the idea of a power differential among staff, people are horrified that you would suggest that anyone on the staff is intimidating anyone else — i.e. everyone who does this work is a wonderful, dedicated, superior person and you are suggesting that they’re doing the same thing the clients are doing. We all know, don’t we, that the clients are inferior to the staff. People do not like to talk about power, because an acknowledgement of it brings up their own experience of helplessness. Of course, if we didn’t teach obedience to authority, those feelings of helplessness might not be as powerful and nightmarish. Also, about complicity — I once had a therapist who told me repeatedly that if I didn’t show my coworkers that I was vulnerable, I wouldn’t be abused by them, or if I never told them anything about myself, I wouldn’t be abused. I listened to this for years and I thought that everyone was going to be abusive unless I figured out how to do everything right. It was probably 5 years after I walked out on her before I realized that everyone did not take advantage of openness and vulnerability. Also, it took going from a child abuse hotline to a workplace that was primarily made up of artists: at the former workplace, my boss could put a fist up to my face and scream threats and the staff would deny that anything had happened. When I worked with (mainly) artists, a customer could make a withering remark and your coworkers immediately provided support.

    I agree with Potter that Judith Herman’s TRAUMA AND RECOVERY has enough insight to explain every question asked on these threads about power. Also, I recommend A CHORUS OF STONES: THE PRIVATE LIFE OF WAR by Susan Griffin, another truly great book that looks at the continuum of aggression from individual/family to the public sphere. She specifically examines Nazi Germany, personally, Himmler.

    hug — thanks for your description of people with various degrees of empathy. I agree wholeheartedly. People develop in different ways even in the same families. I once read research (I can’t remember where it was) about abusive families which suggested that the abuser would target the most sensitive kid in the family for most of the abuse and for the most serious abuse. Most of the kids, though abused as well, would largely deny what was going on, grow up and be likely to marry someone who abused the kids they had together. Usually, one kid in the original family would “identify with the aggressor” and become a perpetrator. The most sensitive kid in the family was the least likely to become abusive as an adult, and would also be the most empathic. Also, thanks for your description of narcissists — not only do they hate critique, but they will seek revenge against you repeatedly for one minor comment. Just as people assume that empathy is the same for everyone, they also assume that hurt feelings are the same everywhere, but “narcissistic injury” is all-consuming and eternal.

  • enhabit

    here is more from Jacob Bronowski including the FULL Auschwitz text that I was trying to insert while cooking dinner. (March 14th, 2007 at 6:01 pm)

    -There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilisation, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

    -We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power…that distance can only be…closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.”

    -We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex.

    -It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

    Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

    I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

  • Nick

    Gems (as I subjectively internalize ‘em) from the two posts above:

    “Conscience cannot develop when someone has been taught to go along with an authority figure’s beliefs…” (Kate M.)

    “…the assertion of dogma…closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilisation, into a regiment of…obedient ghosts…” (Last night’s ROS discussion regarding ideology exemplifies this.)

    “It’s (falsely) said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers… Auschwitz… is where people were turned into numbers…the ashes of some four million people…that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave…

    “Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known… Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible… ‘Think it possible you may be mistaken.’”

    Brilliant. Thank you Kate & enhabit. The rest of your contributions were awesome too, but I’m always gratified to read evidence that my mistrust of ‘belief’ isn’t just one strangely thinking man’s ridiculous craziness.

    (PS to Kate: the only thing ‘unusual’ about me – I promise – is my amazing sister, who taught me boundless love in the midst of our shared hell. Thank you for restating –and artfully articulating – the importance of power differentials, and the problem of assigning complicity to victims. I expect Phillip Zimbardo will have something important to say about that too.)

  • hug

    I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this yet, but to understand the role of what you could call (in some cases) push-back, or avoidance of complicity, or self-defense, or the role of each able person in a society to help other people in the society (i.e., to protect each other from harms, unfairness, etc.), you may want to read the classic (and not very long) book, The Evolution Of Cooperation, by Robert Axelrod.

  • Ben

    The Stanford Experiment was and is still amazing. In his experiences does Dr. Zimbardo find evidence in acts stemming from these cruel vestiges of early species dominance over one another for resource control to have an equal, greater, or lesser counterpoint in cooperative and positive reinforcement behaviors?

  • Nick

    mynocturama, I’ve posted my latest thoughts on belief here: Meanings, differentiations, comparisons, and beliefs.

    I’m not fully satisfied with it, but I’m not feeling well enough today to re-edit it.

    Also, you mentioned previously that scientific writings often use the word ‘belief’. I don’t dispute that…but I suspect that scientists would prefer a newer, more accurate concept than ‘belief’ to express their relative strengths-of-certainty, and have posted another bunch of thoughts on that here: What do scientists REALLY mean when they use the word ‘belief’?

    (And I’m not satisfied with that one, either!)

    Forgive me if any of this new stuff is redundant (or if you already read the second one).

  • jamesdylangoldstein

    I posted this towards the end of the last podcast thread that was just closed:

    I thought the podcast was fantastic, but I don’t think it delved into an area that needs to be delved into: our mercenary Army and how we inculcate obedience above all else into our soldiers. We pay them to obey; we ask them not to think, to be moral. I would love to hear more from the Arendt experts, the people who’ve read a lot of her, about what she has to say about this. I’m unsure if I believe there is a great distinction in the amoral obedience of Nazi soldiers and our soldiers. I’ve got some more thoughts on my blog; and hopefully the Zimbardo segment delves into this further.

    Someone mentioned insubordination clauses in the UCMJ:

    Technically the UCMJ does outline reasons for one to be insubordinate. But that’s not reality. Bush has and continues to argue that he can violate the UCMJ. He has also violated the War Crimes Act, a US statute. And he continues, as Sy Hersh reports, to order black operations outside of congressional oversight. Such operations have, and probably, continue to involve techniques that violate military and US statutes. Bush insists that he is the top chain of command, that he can violate US law and have soldiers due so also, to “protect our nation.” The soldiers have, and will most likely continue, to obey Bush’s immoral and unlawful orders. Occasionally when the media cries out, some grunts are fired. And then there is the issue of violating the law, getting called on it — and told you are a War Criminal by the Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld — and responding by changing the law. When torture occurs, Dear Leader Bush can deem you an unlawful enemy combatant, and then you are outside of the law.

    And, forgetting Bush, what about all of the instances when the U.S. has ordered soldiers to commit immoral actions — toppling democratic governments, executing leaders, taking the side of one fascist against another fascist, etc. Such actions are lawful according to the UCMJ, and immoral. The President often goes behind the back of congress to order such actions and yet the soldiers never seem to desert (UCMJ: desertion in a time of war is punishable by death).

    So what about the not-so theoretical issues that befall us?

  • saifedean

    I would be really interested in hearing what the guests think of Hannah Arendt’s view on Zionism and how she would look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflilct today.

    While she was initially a Zionist, she became increasingly disillusioned with Zionism, and some would say even an anti-Zionist by the end of her life.

    In 1948, she cosigned a letter with Einstein and others labeling Menahim Begin a Fascist. On the 1948 war she said: “Liberals in all countries were horrified at

    the callousness, the haughty dismissal of humanitarian considerations

    by a government whose representatives, only one year ago, had pleaded

    their own cause on purely humanitarian grounds…”

    As Amos Elon put it: “[Her writings] spelt out a conviction… that like other nineteenth-century nationalisms, Zionism had already outlived the conditions from which it emerged and ran the risk of becoming, as Arendt once put it, a ‘living ghost amid the ruins of our times.'”

    I can only imagine how she would feel today, when the Israeli Army kills innocent children with total immunity, and the whole structure of the army does nothing to prevent these crimes. Case in Point: the murder of 13 year-old Iman Al-Hams with 17 bullets at point-blank range, for which the self-confessed murderer was pardoned and recieved compensation from the state for being dragged to court over this trivial affair.,2763,1643573,00.html

  • hurley

    The brilliant Perry Anderson writing about Kofi Annan in the current edition of The Nation:

    A year later, in January 1994, he received an urgent cable from Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian lieutenant general in charge of the UN force in Rwanda, warning him of impending slaughter of the Tutsi population in the country and explaining he planned to intervene by raiding Hutu arms caches. Not only did Annan refuse to allow any measures to be taken to stop the unleashing of genocide; he insured that the fax informing him of what was in store did not reach the Security Council. Approximately 800,000 Tutsis died in the ensuing massacre. Measured by consequences, the culpability of Kurt Waldheim, exposed for concealing his service as a Nazi intelligence officer in the Balkans, was puny by comparison. Annan remained quite unmoved until it became too impolitic to deny any remorse. The extent of his contrition is summed up by all he would say to Traub, after a long pause, about his part in the fate of Rwanda: “In retrospect, and this is also the culture of the house, we should have used the media more aggressively, and exposed the situation for them to see. Of course, at that time this organization was media-shy.” Read: Don’t blame me, I’m the one who became media-friendly. As banalizations go, Arendt might have had some words for it.

  • rc21

    Dallaire was Belgian I think. Also what do you think of the Clinton response to the slaughter. They could not decide if what was actually happening was genocide. M Albright had some rather bizzare statements to make. She wasnt quite sure of the definition of genocide therfore the Clinton admin could not act.

    If only she had possesion of a websters dictionary. we could have saved thousands.

    Is that evil?

  • hurley

    rc21: Dallaire born in Holland to a Canadian father and Dutch mother, then raised in Canada (this courtesy of Wikipedia). I’ve never quite been able to square what I think about “humanitarian interventions” in general, so evaluate each on what I think to be its merits, not to be pompous about it. See David Rieff’s change of heart on the matter. Clinton’s rhetoric re Rwanda (in my fading memory) hardly jibed with his actions, but I think Anderson is laying the blame directly with the UN, with the US seen to be pulling strings in the background. You ask a good question. I’d be curious as to your answer.

  • enhabit

    the way that clinton et al handled the rwandan situation was a dark chapter. western governments (the UN as well) have come to fear using the “G” word to describe mass murder. absolute cowardice! it means that they actually have to do something about it. darfur is no different.

    was there a pinch of racism there as well? if white colonials, rwandan passport and all, were being slaughtered would the response have been the same? hard to say but i suspect not.

  • Lumière

    Did you miss this from silvio’s pitch:

  • rc21

    enhabit; Your question was answered during the 1940’s. Race doesnt really matter People are afraid to do the right thing. It’s just like when a women gets stabbed in the streets of a major city and people walk on by with their heads down trying not to notice anything happening. Same thing just a smaller version.

  • Potter

    The New Republic sent me a free issue (we unsubscribed after their pro-war stance). Steven Pinker has an article in it “ A History of Violence” in which he makes a case ( a short article) that, when one looks forward from far back in history to today, there is a trend towards less and less violence, especially beginning post the Age of Reason to the present (this is percentage-wise).

    At the end of the article in which he lays his case out, he considers possible theories as to why this is so. One reason is that life is not as cheap as it used to be. We live longer healthier lives and so we like living. We don’t have to think about an early death.

    Centralized states have a monopoly on violence and can inflict penalties on those who are violent and law breakers ( anti-social) thereby deterring or pre-empting violence.

    A third theory- Robert Wright’s theory, is of non-zero-sum games: ””in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate…. sharing the peace dividends that comes from laying down their arms”. This incentive “steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead”.

    Then Pinker brings in Peter Singer’s theory. “Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people’s moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation,both sexes, other races, and even animals. [yeah!- potter] The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, a la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interest over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station more palpable [my bold],- the feeling that “there but for fortune go I”

    1) Would either Steven Pinker and/or Peter Singer be good guest on this show or on a part 3 “On Violence” ( also in connection with Arendt’s work)? 2) Should I re-subscribe to The New Republic? ( They lost a lot of us….)

  • rc21

    Hurley, I watched ghosts of Rwanda. ( That is where I got the Belgian connection with the UN peacekeepers) Produced by Frontline for PBS. They seem to lay the majority of the blame at the doorstep of the UN. But Clinton and Albright and the rest of theUSdelegation to the UN were also singled out for much blame.

    My take is this The UN and the Clinton admin clearly let the slaughter of 800 thousand people occur without so much as lifting a finger. They actually went out of their way to not help. (This is where the Clinton comments about the definition of genocide come into play) The Clinton admin said if there was actual genocide taking place they would have stepped in, but they just wern’t sure if what was taking place met the definition of genocide. I kid you not . they actually show Clinton aides talking in this double speak.

    I’m sure if Clinton had been a republican and the UN was not one of the medias little darlings we would have heard much more about this sickining event. I knew next to nothing about it until I saw this show. Remember Frontline usually leans to the left so this was not a hatchet job.

    The whole sad thing is that a force of about 50 men could have stopped this whole thing. In one case a man was able to stop some of the murders just by yelling to the perpatrators to stop.

    I have always had a big problem with these types of things. We say as a civilized world we will never let what happened in WW2 happen again. Then we just let it happen over and over. This is why I was originally for going to war to take out S.H. It would have been the first time in history that a nation said we are taking you out of power because of your inhumanity to man. You are a butcher, a sadist, and you slaughter thousands of innocents. Bush should have said this is why we are going to war and left all the other crap out. How much support from the right or the left do you think he would have gotten if he used a noble true reason to eliminate S. H.? You want the answer Zero support thats how much.

    Dafur seems to just be a repeat of the past. If we had more humanitarian interventions we would have less brutal dictatorships cropping up,and if they did they would be short lived. But look at how people react. Remember when Israel bombed Iraqs secret sites they were condemned world wide for their action. But you know what, in the long run they probably saved thousands if not millions of people.

    Events like this along with others have gone a long way in changing my politacal views from one time hard core liberal, into a person who now tends to side with conservatives on most issues.

  • Potter

    By the way-this was an unforgettable interview. Terri Gross with Romeo Daillaire on the occasion of his book “The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda” from May 2004.

  • hurley

    Thanks for your answer, rc21. Much to ponder there.

  • Nick DeMarco

    Situational obedience is a really fascinating aspect of humanity. It really highlights our innate tribal tendencies. We have such a desire to be part of a group, be it based on a religion, class, or hatred of other groups.

  • Potter

    RC21: How much support from the right or the left do you think he would have gotten if he used a noble true reason to eliminate S. H.? You want the answer Zero support thats how much…………Events like this along with others have gone a long way in changing my politacal views from one time hard core liberal, into a person who now tends to side with conservatives on most issues.

    RC21: You can say and think what you want of course but to me it seems you are giving an irrational justification as well as a straw man argument for supporting an ideology that lead us to arguably the worst US foreigh policy disaster everf (we have yet to know the consequences), if not since Viet Nam. And I mean this in terms of human suffering, not geopolitics although that most likely will be true too in retrospect.

    As I remember it, Clinton dithered an excruciatingly long time, at least in part hoping that the Euros would take the lead. Shame on the Euros as well.

    I, call me a “hard core liberal”, was for the ending of Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror somehow if we could. I wanted that nobility of cause, not Bush/Cheney lies about Saddam and 9/11 and fear-promoting visions of mushroom clouds, I doubt ANY humanitarian, left or right, would have been against a true well-considered ( from all angles) multi-lateral action,even one US led OR continuing to squeeze Saddam harder, continuing UN inspections, improving the humanitarian aid program, supporting opposition, perhaps aiding an internally lead pinpont operation. Instead GWB had to show the world that we could “shock and awe”.

    How many Iraq’s are looking back, four years later, and wish for the calm of SH’s regime? How many terrorists have we been giving incentive and training against us?

    The “conservatives” (heady with righteousness and hubris about their foreign policy wisdom) were hell-bent on re-shaping the region without even understanding it. They had cotton in their ears for any warnings. Conservatives easily sent and supported sending patriotic young men and women into this impossible battle to be maimed for life or, to give their lives, while conservatives in the White House and the Congress preside over a humanitarian horror show in which there is no good way out.

    I don’t read the NYtimes articles every day ( I just can’t) but I can’t avoid the front page pictures of the ongoing horror.

    Nice switch RC21.

  • enhabit

    thanx potter…thoughtful as usual

  • Potter

    Sorry RC21- Clinton dithered over the Balkans waiting for the Euros. You are quite right about Clinton vis a vis Rwanda ( which btw had nothing to do with liberalism) Most countries did not speak out against it either- other than possibly humanitarian, they had no interests in Rwanda:,12271,1182431,00.html

    The administration did not want to repeat the fiasco of US intervention in Somalia, where US troops became sucked into fighting. It also felt the US had no interests in Rwanda, a small central African country with no minerals or strategic value.

    William Ferroggiaro, of the National Security Archive, said the system had worked. “Diplomats, intelligence agencies, defence and military officials – even aid workers – provided timely information up the chain,” he said.

    “That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda.”

    Many analysts and historians fault Washington and other western capitals not just for failing to support the token force of overwhelmed UN peacekeepers but for failing to speak out more forcefully during the slaughter.

    Some of the Hutu extremists orchestrating events might have heeded such warnings, they have suggested.

    Mr Clinton has apologised for those failures but the declassified documents undermine his defence of ignorance. “The level of US intelligence is really amazing,” said Mr Ferroggiaro. “A vast array of information was available.”

    On a visit to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, in 1998 Mr Clinton apologised for not acting quickly enough or immediately calling the crimes genocide.

    In what was widely seen as an attempt to diminish his responsibility, he said: “It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”

  • Potter

    So if one blames liberals for turning away from Rwanda, shouldn’t conservatives get blamed for not only unleashing Iraq’s horrors but for allowing the slaughter in Darfur to go on?

  • enhabit

    as i recall..madeline was pretty actively playing down use of the “genocide” term..probably because it sends agreed to “never again” actions into be fair..this was only @ two years after the somalia mess…still smarting

    this binary politik of “liberals”..once again what liberals?…and “conservatives”…it’s more like “not conservative enough for some” and “too conservative for some”.

    we focus on the differences so very much that we lose sight of the similarities…

    our country, our system, our culture, turned its back (shamefully) on rwanda but also went to somalia.. the iraq and afghanistan…

  • Potter

    enhabit I agree- this is beyond “Liberal vs. Conservative”


    Blumenthal, a Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory U. presents a paper ( link below) his book’s theme which he calls “The Banality of Good and Evil” describing the problem of evil in relation to the Holocaust (man’s inhumanity to man) from a religious perspective and then broadening to all of humanity on a secular level ( Where was God? Where was humanity?)


    Blumenthal: The key question about humanity, then, is: why did so many tens of millions of people go along with the Shoah [ the Holocaust]? How did the nazi regime persuade the overwhelming masses of Europe to remain bystanders? to accept passively, if not actively, the extermination of the Jews? Terror was certainly a factor but it is not a sufficient answer.

    An equally puzzling question is posed by those who rescued Jews: Why did they rescue? How did the rescuers manage to resist the persuasion of the nazi regime such that they defied it? If obedience characterized the masses, what describes the resistors and rescuers?

    …..Where did moral and religious education founder? Why did the teaching of good and evil in organized societal and religious institutions fail to prevent the Shoah?

    Then he says: …………A word about the term “banality”: The concept of “the banality of evil” is a very powerful analytic tool. Used originally by Hannah Arendt, the term has been construed to mean three things: (1) evil which is normal, prosaic, or matter-of-fact; (2) evil which is rationalized as good because it is obedient or because it serves a larger purpose; and (3) evil which is trite, hackneyed, or stale. The last implies that evil is not immoral or grossly wrong. Arendt never meant to imply that nazi evil was trite and hence not immoral. Rather, Arendt meant to say that nazi evil was “banal” both in being matter-of-fact and in being so because it was rationalized as good. I follow Arendt in this usage. In this sense, even abusiveness can be “banal,” that is, normal, prosaic, matter-of-fact, and rationalized as a greater good. Indeed, as Alice Miller has pointed out, Hitler was a role model for abusiveness precisely because his actions were very close to the everyday reality of middle-European family life

    (Alice Miller wrote the enlightening “Prisoners of Childhood: How Narcissistic Parents Form and Deform the Emotional Lives of Their Talented Children” and “For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Childrearing and the Roots of Violence” In the latter is a long chapter “Adolph Hitler’s Childhood: From Hidden to Manifest Horror”, also essential reading imo in trying to fathom Hitler.)

    The Blumenthal article is worth reading for it’s analysis and prescription: the hints we have about the origins or foundations of evil-doing in society, and conversely, what nurtures. promotes the good, the pro-social, altruism. Blumenthal speaks of separate psychological experiments: “obedience experiments” and altruism experiments” and the need for a “unified theory”. He concludes that much has to do with social hierarchy, authority. See The Milgram experiments which lead to this conclusion- ie that “the demand of a legitimate authority within a social hierarchy (the experimenter) was sufficient to allow, even to compel, the subject to do precisely the act he or she knew was wrong”.

    Blumenthal: The ability of legitimate authority to rationalize wrong action for the subject also facilitates the doing of evil and conversely, the ability of legitimate authority to rationalize why the doing of good is necessary also facilitates the doing of good.

    Ref also: The Banality of Good and Evil, Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition by David R. Blumenthal

  • enhabit

    incredible how these threads overlap potter…this question of “( Where was God? Where was humanity?)” gets to the crux of a great debate. the appearant absence of divine intervention in such circumstances is frequently used by aetheists as evidence in favour of their position…demonstrating a misunderstanding of faith.

    as though faith is some sort of a spiritual hedge fund or something…mr. bean as the devil sending the aetheists off to eternal discomfort with (paraphrase) “bet you feel stupid now don’t you?”

    if there is a God then she has demonstrated..strongly..that she is not a micromanager..old testiment aside..we are on our own as far as managing our own affairs are concerned…if there is a meaning to life..that may well be it…succeed and advance…fail and regress..uh oh there’s that evolution thing again better stop right there.

    where was humanity? we are the ones on the hook here.

    (thanx for the homework assignment btw)

  • rc21

    Potter, My change in political thinking has come from several events not just Rwanda. and I don’t belive genocide or ambivalence towards same is just a liberal problem.

    But looking back through RECENT history the mass slaughter of innocents tend to be led by left leaning governmentsIE socialist/communist. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot. All were such govts and in the case of WW2 it was a left leaning N.Chamberlin that allowed Hitler to begin his reighn of terror.

    Why this is I’m not sure. I have my own ideas. There are many theories and each situation presents it’s own questions and answers.

    As to Iraq I don’t want to get off topic. I’ve stated before that I believe rational defensible arguments can be made both for and against the war. I would not say Bush intentionally lied to go to war, if he had he would have been brought up for impeachment by now. What I really think happened is they thought Iraq presented a threat. They took all the intelligence they could find to support their position and disregarded information that showed otherwise.

    Was this smart? No. Was it illegal and a lie? I don’t think so. We should be a bit more careful with statements like these.

    I would also like to remind you that it is not the US that is causing the violence and killing innocents. It is the insurgents, crimminals, terrorists and waring religous factions that are responsible for the majority of the killing. So lets be fair.

    Who really knows what will happen in 1 year,5 years or 10 years. Sometimes it can take hundreds of years. Remember history plays itself out on a daily basis.

    I think a strong case can be made for Bush not doing enough in Dafur. I would like to see a force sent there and bring hell to the people who are practicing genocide.

    I always wonder where is the liberal progressive Europeans are when these things occur.

    Remember it was the US who had to intervene in Europes own back yard to end the killing in the Balkins. I supported Clinton on this. He did the right thing.

  • enhabit

    left leaning perhaps but not democratic even if it started that way. hitler was anti-communist..the face that he put on his raison d’etre..he also wanted to “conserve” a nostalgically distorted view of germanic culture.

    somoza was conservative and a was pinochet.

    is this kind of tit for tat really productive? all extremes have examples of sins..and goodness as does the middle ground.

    ghandi was liberal..churchill was conservative…both effective

    i was proud of how americans stepped in on the balkin situation..europe was stalling shamefully

    i re-quote Jacob Bronowski from above:

    -There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilisation, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

    -We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power…that distance can only be…closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.”

    imo human decision making does pretty well when full disclosure is provided..

    left..right..two values on a canvas..both are human and both are capable of compassion and reason

  • rc21

    Enhabit; Just a few points about Hitler. Make no mistake, Hitler was a man of the left. Research tells us much. He was a socialist. He wished to avoid the pitfalls that he saw in Russia but his political and moral philosophy was definitely leftist.

    Its uncanny how much he had incommon with todays left leaning progressive. Everything from his favoring gun control to his belief that selfish individualism was endemic to modern western society.

    He was considered a bit of a bohemian he loved the arts and was a minor painter and we know of his writing skills.

    His sexual proclivities are much more accepted today than in his time. He had many friends who were homosexual and bi-sexual. He rejected what he regarded as petty burgeoius moral hangups. living out of wedlock with his girl friend for many years.He was even anti smoking, and a vegetarian.

    He also regarded capitalist societies as brutal and unjust.Hitler also advocated euthenasia for the incurably ill.He admired FDRs new deal, especially the taking of large-scale economic decision making out of private hands and placing into those of government planning agencies.

    Hitler himself was an atheist but used religon in a pragmatic way. He actually admired the muslim religon more than christianity. He and his followers even believed a return to a form of paganism may be best for Germany.He and his followers also embraced a form of moral relativism. This I believe helped make the mass murders more palitable to their concience or lack thereof.

    An interesting guy. but definitely left of center. And with todays leftist assault on Israel, He makes for the perfect member of or any other radical left-wing group. You could almost call him a precursor to the hippie generation.The similarities are quite stunning.

    I liked the rest of your post and I agree that mass slaughter, or evil is not just confined to those on the left. I knew you would bring up pinochet,most liberals do. But look at the difference in the shere numbers. Millions and millions compared to a few thousand.

    The difference as I see it and this is only my personal opinion . Dictators on the right want to secure power and keep it. They don’t neccesarilly believe that their political beliefs and vision of the world is the be-all and end-all. They are more concerned with power.

    The communist/socialists enjoy power also, But it is the spreading of their philosophy and ideas that is of more importance. To this anything that stands in the way must be destroyed. So if you cant be re-educated you are sent to the gulag or are just executed.

    As others have posted when a group mentalitiy exists it is easier for evil to take place. As the Zimbardo experiment and others like it have shown. Group mentality and communism/socialism are closely linked in my opinion. This is why we see these mass slaughters usually for political reasons happening in leftist countries.

    A conservative Govt leans more on individualism and independence making a coming togeather of the minds a bit more difficult. This does not preclude the existance of evil people taking power however,as you so rightly noted.

    I know Im generalizing quite a bit, but I think you get the point. I have to keep things as short as possible. I’m to tired to correct spelling and errors of grammer. Forgive me.

  • enhabit

    whew! this is chasing our tails a bit…fun though.

    and many verifiable leftists felt unwelcome in the reich.

    walter gropius

    bertolt brecht

    max ernst

    andre breton

    even thomas mann morphing leftward and out.

    and yet..this nominally conservative bush administration beginning to remind some people of the reich…suspence of habius corpus (yeah yeah lincoln too) on some maybe, maybe not pow’s held in cuba.

    clear abuse of privacy rights

    real snuffing of opposition after 911..i was astonished at the absence of debate.

    i could go on but there are so many sites to be found in this thread alone.

    imo this is far and away the worst presidential administration in my lifetime and that is really saying something. this is a serious regression. if THIS be conservatism you can have it..if hitler be a liberal, to hell with that too.

    people matter here more than dogma..but i’ll lay a little on the line anyway.

    everybody fed

    everybody housed

    everbody given access to sanitary facilities

    everybody given access to medical care

    nobody silenced

    nobody locked up without due process and cause

    everybody given access to education

    everybody given a chance to prosper

    basic it what you want i don’t care..but no peace without it

  • rc21

    That sounds like heaven on earth. It doesn’t exist.The USA is about as close as it gets. I think it fills most of your needs as stated above.

    Most presidents terms in office can’t acurately be judged until several decades have passed. You have a concern for what you think Bush has done in the order of suspending civil rights. POWs in Cuba. I dont disregard your concerns, but I would call them terrorists not pows.

    What would you call FDR’s interning of American citizens during WW2 they were actually innocent and American as opposed to guilty and not citizens. FDRs actions were far more brutal and illegal by any sane persons thought process.

    Chasing our tails again, as you put it. I must go now talk to later.

    Your right many leftists felt quite uncomfortable in Nazi Germany. My guess is that feleing was rather wide spread throughout Germany, regardless of political leanings, because right or left one thing Hitler surely was is evil. Thats enough to make anyone scared.

  • enhabit

    i hope that you realize that i appreciate this sparring.

    the FDR incident..utterly shameful..

    are “terrorists” “criminals”?… or having been captured, prisoners of war..important distinction under the US constitution.

    we and our constitution are as close as my list gets..we have a very long way to go for the rest of the world..everybody needs to get busy..this should be on the front burner.

    as for nazi germany..BINGO..intelligence and honor come in many textures as does insanity….and from many directions right left up down whatever.

  • enhabit

    little hurried last night..about my list..sweden is WAY ahead of us on that one. pretty high taxes too..

  • Nick

    enhabit: the ‘Warming Up’ box (Bullpen) can hold ‘x’ number of shows, but only the top ten of ‘x’ can be visible. Look for the ‘Morality’ thread to again rise above the horizon onto the Bullpen’s bottom rung just as soon as only 9 other shows are lined up before it. (The Morality thread is one of the best ROS has. I’ve been meaning to respond to manning for four months now…)

    When it’s not visible, you can continue to access it by making a bookmark for it in your browser.

    Anyway, ROS must be thrilled that a writer for The Colbert Report occasionally offers insights on the leftiness of fascists…;-)

  • enhabit

    nick, i would have done so had i was starting to revive. hate to see it die down because of indexing protocols.

    he’s fun to spar with btw..most of the time

  • enhabit

    here’s that link and thanx for the tip

  • rc21

    Enhabit, Speaking of Sweeden. You do know that the Center Right party won the last election. The socialist had driven the economy down and unemployment is estimated at 15%. It would be worse but Sweeden created a new catagory called Early retired. These people don’t show up in the stats, although many are under the age of 30.

    Also they do not allow anywhere near the free speech protections as the USA does. (Thank god for the first ammendment). But It is still a nice country with great looking women and good hockey teams.

    Your terrorist question is a good one. I’m not sure exactly what catagory they fall under. Looking at the geneva convention they almost fit the role of spies to some extent. I’m not sure what rights they should be afforded.Or even if they should have rights. I’ll have to think a bit on that.

    One final thought. Don’t you think treating them as criminal defendents is somewhat unrealistic. It would be impossible to hold a criminal trial for these guys. Convictions would be next to impossible. Chain of evidence, Right to defense witnesses, crime scene reports all that stuff. No matter what the solution, it needs to be more realistic than what many on the far left are proposing.

  • enhabit

    it is complicated to say the least.

    as for sweden..the bbc did a poll there on this subject not too long ago..see if i can dig it up..their socially conscious society w/ its high taxes was roundly considered to be more than worthwhile.

    when i was in banda aceh after the tsunami i was impressed with the number of scandinavians that i met there..particuarily danes…hardly a scientific survey, of course..germany had quite a presence as well…lots of medical staff

    hats off to the international red cross and oxfam btw..

    the swedes (and the canadians) are very much ahead of most of the pack re: participation in int’l humanitarian aid, from a human resource pov…this really matters to them…i should mention that the us navy did a spectacular job of cleaning up immediately after..but were eventually shown the door.

  • rc21

    I like Sweeden don’t get me wrong. I am part Scandanavian. But it has problems like most countries. By the way do you know what their immigration policy is? I don’t but I will to do some research.

    One must remember The Scandanavian countries don’t have the crime, poverty,and social problems of the US due to the fact that the population is very homogeneous. For better or worse this saves them tons of money on welfare, crime prevention, and a myriad of other social programs we must endure here in the states.

    The red cross generally does good work as does Oxfam. and you can always count on the Navy.

  • enhabit

    NOTHING is perfect..but they do try

  • Ben

    RC21 your posts are often well thought out, critical, astute, and even infuriating in good way. On March 18th, 2007 at 6:31 pm – if I follow your post here – you mean to say that socialist, leftist, artist, atheist, homosexuals beget national racism, militarism, dictatorship, mass murder, and slavery. Does it follow by extension that you mean gay painters for high taxes and social programs are somehow responsible for the deaths of millions and a threat likely to resurface as the underpinnings of totalitarian regimes?

    Hitler was thrown out of art school. A easy to find documentary is out on Paragraph 175 (which predated Nazis and was in effect into the 1960s) which Hitler morphed into another tentacle of his unprecedented exterminations – resulting in the murder of homosexuals in camps in the hundred thousand numbers. There was a move well underway to create a National church that never fully materialized beyond sketches. He easily feared communism as much as he feared lassez faire capitalism.

    In short he, as most other politicians or political leaders, was more the opportunist than any kind of idealist and used what was already present and available in the public psyche to his advantage.

  • rc21

    Ben, No Hitlers hippie/leftist type background didn’t have much to do with the rise of Nazi Germany. I just thought it was interesting that he had so much incommon with todays radical left, But one does not beget the other.

    The traits that he had that I would call leftist and might have played a part in the rise of Nazism are these.

    His belief in a type of moral relativism and his belief in all for the glory of the state.

    I figured someone would get upset at that post. Of course if I had a dollar for every post I read on here that ticks me off I’d be a rich man by now.

  • Ben

    heh. you succeeded rc. It is interesting how quickly and easily one can draw parallels from many horrible acts and actors of the past into current signifiers of polarized identities in order to suit our own present needs of dehumanization required to reinforce contemporary myths. Whether Bush is Hitler or Moveon are Nazis, the othering makes quick work of throwing a wrench into and derailing critical thought and interjecting wild leaps into reasoning. It’s funny how using different labels, both extreme ends of the American pathos engineer unfounded fear of the same monolithic evil entity, but it has been mainly the many small followers of any despot who have willingly carried out policies into largely nonresistant populations that cause the most destruction. I’ll submit that this dehumanizing irrational fear of a pervasive ‘evil other’ contributes heavily to an otherwise ordinary person’s motivation to visit sadistic abuses on their neighbors.

    I find it equally interesting how many American right demagogues have consistently demonized and dismissed the ‘liberal arts’ and in particular it’s academic practitioners and that this behavior appears to echo totalitarian regimes of the past that engaged in the cultural revolutions, re-educations, and purges.

  • rc21

    I think I can agree with pretty much all that you stated. Good post.Extremists on both sides usually end up commiting the same acts.

    I guess my point was it seems to come from the left more than the right and the cost in human lives is far more devestating when the dictator is a leftist.

    But I agree with you on the whole. As to the last part. Maybe the right comes down hard on the arts. But you must admit it is usually conservative values that tend to be the target.( christianity and Jesus seem to be a common theme) I’m not justifying just trying to give an explanation.

    Here is one for you to think about. Last week Tufts invited former Harvard prez L.Summers to speak on campus. A group of leftist proffesors along with some student groups organized a boycott. They did not want him to touch foot on campus. The leader of the boycott a prof said Summers did not represent the views of the students or teachers at Tufts.

    I did not know this proffesor knew the views of everyone on campus. Does this not smack of 1936 Germany. So much for freedom of speech.

  • Ben

    I don’t think it smacks of 1936 Germany as much as it smacks of a growing inability in our overall culture to cope with dissenting views or conflicting data. Though it’s not exactly encouraging to have students spending a ton on an education and have it poorly defended by an act like a boycott rather than a direct challenge to the views in question. Now, if local authorities found a reason to to stop Summers and jail him or run him out of town… or if these leftist professors had security rough him up while he was visiting…

  • rc21

    Ok agreed.

  • enhabit

    thank you ben!

  • Ben

    My hat’s off to you and rc both for starting and sticking with a sticky one.

  • rc21

    Good night.

  • loki

    More than 30 years ago, at the behest of Epsicopal Canon Ed Rodman, I spent

    several weeks in Walpole State Prison during its Prison Crises as an Observer.

    Some might remember the prisoners had taken over the prison. Civilian Observeres were asked to enter the Prison to be a line of non-violent witness between guards and prisoners. I am grateful to you for exploring this topic more fully.

  • hurley

    Years ago there was a survey of famous people asking after the most momentous events in a period and place that more or less approximated to the US in the 60s. I thought back to the Stanford Prison Experiments, and the murder of Kitty Genovese that preceded them in 1964, which gave us the Bad Samaritan Complex, otherwise known as the Bystander Effect. Seems to me they — the experiments and the complex — mirror and feed each other in important ways. I’d be curious to hear what Zimbardo might have to say about this.

  • enhabit

    what does happen to people when they have such power and control over others? it’s good to bring up the bystander effect..i remember when it happened clear as day…there is a connection knows this intuitively…i’ll enjoy meditating on it.

    i once had an argument with a boss about something that everybody in the office felt strongly about….no one backed me up..the silence in the room was downright toxic…

    guess he had the power and i didn’t…

  • enhabit

    what power did the captain of klm flight 4805 have over his crew as he threw the 747 into full thrust on the runway without authorization…in fog…with another 747 known to be struggling to find its way…probably in the way, as it was. what force held their tounges..we’re talking mass death here! death that would include themselves.

    pbs has a documentary on jonestown coming up..can’t bear to watch..what force started that momentum..that would cause a mother to bring a poisoned drink to her child’s trusting lips..i can hardly bring myself to write such a thing! the crowd’s own momentum began to further the mass suicide behavior directed by the rev. jones…how many were forced i wonder? makes you want to weep!

  • enhabit

    you’re so right hurley these “power over others” and “deference to power” scenarios seem to have a common thread..lots to think about here.

    this thread got into an intense discussion of both sides of this power equation early on..this expands the field a little imo

  • Robin, thanks for the link above to The Banality of Heroism article by Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo, from the current issue of Greater Good magazine.

  • hurley

    Thanks for the nod, enhabit.

    Shiva Naipaul (a better writer than his brother) wrote a remarkable book about the Jonestown massacre, Journey to Nowhere. I think you’d bring a lot to it, take a lot from it:

  • nother

    Let’s not let ourselves off the hook here. For me, this thread is about looking in the mirror and recognizing the prison guard staring back.

    We’ve been asking the questions, did Eichmann lack the ability to feel or was it to think from another’s perspective – but aren’t these the wrong questions? When we search for something Eichmann lacked, aren’t we attempting to distance ourselves from him – make him the “other?” None of us would stand up and say, “Oh, I lack the ability to think from another’s perspective, just like Eichmann.”

    So, the question we should be asking ourselves is what fateful trait did Eichmann possess that we all possess?

    E.O. Wilson has an answer. Eichmann was exhibiting hard-core altruism. Deep down Eichmann felt he was selflessly protecting his tribe (his “in group) in the same way most of us would protect our immediate kin.

    Wilson writes in his Pulitzer winning book that we possess two types of altruism, soft-core and hard-core. Soft-core altruism is ultimately selfish and is based on an expectation of reciprocation – all of which makes it healthier for the society construct. Hard-core altruism on the other hand “expresses no desire for equal return” and is likely to have evolved through kin selection or natural selection operation on entire, competing family or tribal units.

    Luckily, most of us engage in soft-core altruism, “Reciprocation among distantly related or unrelated individual is the key to human society. The perfection of the social contract has broken the ancient vertebrate constraints imposed by rigid kin selection.”

    Guys like Eichman are still stuck in our “ancient vertebrate constraint of rigid kin selection.” As Mr. Wilson writes, “so long as the altruistic impulse is so powerful, it is fortunate that it is also mostly soft. If it were hard, history might be one great hymenopterans intrigue of nepotism and racism, and the future bleak beyond endurance. Human beings would be eager, literally and horribly, to sacrifice themselves for their blood kin. Instead, there is in us a flawed capacity for a social contract, mammalian in its limitations, combined with a perpetually renewing, optimistic cynicism with which rational people can accomplish a great deal.”

    This speaks to me because I’ve been struggling with the question of why people I respect so much, people with a ton of compassion, people like my mother; why did they support this war and why don’t they feel awful about that decision, even today. I had been struggling with that question, but now it’s clear to me; they are engaging in hard-core altruism. My mother, and my folk singer friend (who has 6 kids) simply want to protect their tribe.

    I will end with a quote from his chapter on altruism. “My own estimate of the relative proportions of hard-core and soft-core altruism in human behavior is optimistic. Human beings appear to be sufficiently selfish and calculating to be capable of indefinitely greater harmony and social harmony.”

  • nother

    whoops, the last quote should finish, “greater harmony and social homeostasis.”

  • enhabit

    things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

    mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

    the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

    the ceremony of innocence is drowned;

    the best lack all conviction, while the worst

    are full of passionate intensity.


  • rc21

    Nother, good post . This gets back to what we were talking about earlier. You spoke of your mother and how you could not understand her support of the war.

    Let me ask you this in relation to the topic of evil. If you had a dictator who was torturing and murdering innocents by the thousands. Where women were being dragged off the streets and raped, where children were murdered on a whim,where gas was used to slaughter thousands. and you had the power and the legal authority to stop it, yet you did nothing,could this also not be considered evil.

    I don’t have an answer just asking the question.

  • Lumière

    I’m not following this logic:

    if unsupervised, the good apples go bad?

  • Lumière

    unchecked power goes bad, instead of good?

    Who is checking the checkers?

  • DreadfulBastard

    Who is checking the checkers? The ad hoc deity du jour.

  • Rycke Brown

    I have been in jail and prisons in Arizona and in jail in Oregon. I would agree the behavior of guards starts from the top down, and those places were pretty well run compared to some states I’ve heard of. The guards were generally courteous, and those who abused their power were disciplined. The culture of those states demands decent treatment.

    Culture is everything, both the one you were raised in, the one you are thrust into by circumstance, and the one that has changed around you. A culture can encourage both villainy and heroism in individuals. But individuals can also have an influence on culture, by the villainy they allow or the courtesy they exhibit.

    An excellent article on the differences between cultures and the power of common courtesy is “Twenty Observations on Liberty and Society” by Jayant Bhandari, in Liberty Magazine, March 2007, available at

    Live Free and Prosper

  • Sara J

    This topic is chilling, but at the same time I find a hopeful message: a person who has done evil can also refrain from doing evil again, given the right circumstances and enabled by his/her surroundings to do good instead. I apologize for the simplistic language and formulation, but it seems to me that people are, after all, capable of rehabilitation.


  • ChefGreg79

    The idea that evil is in all of us is not a new idea. Especially in the sociology field. Philip Zombardo has basically just recycled a book done back in 1995 by Howard Bloom. Instead of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Blooms title was The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into The Forces Of History.

    The quote read on air in the introduction to Philip Zombardo is actually at the begining of The Lucifer Principle, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

    It was a well done story, but the information seemed a little stale…..12 years to be exact.

  • Lumière

    I think he shouldn’t say: good apple ( i.e. apple= good)

    Apple = nothing


    Apple = deity du jour


    Apple = situation

    This coincides with Arendt who says: apple = non-thinking

    apple = banality?

  • DreadfulBastard
  • hurley

    Good show, particularly toward the end where Chris’ Emersonian bona fides converged with Zimbardo’s social-scientific endorsement of non-conformism as one remedy against evil (to capitalize or not to capitalize?). My concession to conformism to be polite about not conforming. Question authority, administer it lightly when you have to, etc.

  • chena

    I can’t wait to hear the podcast. I remember coming across by accident with Zimbardo’s PBS program on psychology. Once I allowed myself to see beyond his Mandrake the Magician persona (to my very own shame, I know…I’m working on it) I saw him for the brilliant pedagogue he is.

  • Lumière


  • Lumière

    apple = bananality

  • DreadfulBastard

    apple = bananality Needed to be repeated and acknowledged for completeness. This would probably meet the Gilligan’s Island Standard, the first Stanford Prison Experiment, especially if coconuts were factored into the experiment.

  • Lumière

    Mafioso goes to church every morning, donates to Untied Way, church – coaches little league – widowed mother lives with him wife and children good husband & father

    – he is a good apple

    It is only his job to cheat, filch, and murder – If only law enforcement would watch more closely, huh?

    apple + bananality = fruit salad

    Note to self: write book encouraging blame as substitute for taking responsibility for one’s actions and make $$

  • enhabit

    “string him up! it’ll teach him a lesson!”

  • Lumière

    This didn’t strike you as revisionist?

    Zimbardo got caught up in playing a role and he had to find a way out.

    So he uses social constructs as a way to determine good and then blames bad on social constructs. The individual has no control- it definitely leads you to a good and just God, no?

    Isn’t this the opposite of what Arendt wanted to teach us?

    Funny he quoted CS Lewis, who thought that it was a matter for individual will to force up the love of thy neighbor.

  • Rick York

    I’d like to note a couple of things about both the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt observed it and the problem of evil, which Mr. Zimabrdo discussed the second part.

    First, current trends in the neurosciences contradict what Mr. Kohn and Ms. Young-Bruehl had to say about “empathy”. The discovery of what are called Mirror Neurons seem to indicate that we may be “hard-wired” for empathy. See

    for an explanation.

    Mirror Neurons fire when a primate views another person experiencing the kind of pain which the first person experienced. Briefly, when I burn my finger, a certain set of neurons fire. The truly fascinating thing is, when I observe another person getting a burn, the same neurons fire! Just think of the implications of that morally, culturally and socially.

    Mr. Zimbardo created a society in which there were very sharp differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. In this case the having or not having was not money, but power. In the last century, totalitarian regimes developed in two countries which first, had histories of autocratic rule (the Kaiser and the Tsar) and second, at the time totalitarianisms rose, were undergoing extreme economic pressures.

    This is not to say that the two conditions mentioned above are sufficient to cause totalitarianism to rise,. But, history seems to indicate that they are necessary. Remember, the U.S, the U.K. and France dallied with totalitarianism in various forms. They all were experiencing the same extreme economic pressures as Germany and Russia, but did not succumb.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that my own personal belief that goos, charity and empathy are at the root of our natures, seems to be true. What, Mr. Zombardo demonstrated is that, under the right set of circumstances, that inherent empathy can be blocked. Hannah Arendt established the most monstrous evil does not require only its creators, but people (not always a majority) whose inner senses of of empathy have been compromised.

    As the neurosciences continue to explore the most basic elements of who we are, we may begin to open windows to shed light on those processes in our heads which lead us to behave morally or immorally.

    But, no amount of research can obviate the necessity of inner reflection. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. The Buddha pretty much said the same thing about suffering.

  • Pingback: Zimbardo on Daily Show - Tonight! « The Situationist()

  • Pingback: My Four Walls » Blog Archive » The Banality of Evil()

  • Pingback: Banality of Heroism « Disparate()

  • enhabit
  • Pingback: Pie and Coffee » Response: part 2 of 3()

  • Pingback: The roots of evil - can they grow in you? at Lindsay Patterson()

  • Pingback: » Ishmael Beah: Boy Soldier()

  • Potter
  • Potter

    An album of astonishing photos has recently surfaced. This is the article: In the Shadow of Horror, SS Guards Frolic

    Linked there is a multimedia slide show of the photos.

    As well Roger Cohen wrote this piece on it: Down Time from Murder

  • Pingback: Snortblog » Banality of Evil()

  • Pingback: Spiritual Recovery From Narcissistic Abu. |

  • beaver

    I wander why her friends ostracized her… She didn’t mean to excuse the hangmen. She just said to them “you did monstrous things but you are not monsters, you’re just a piece of shit.” Not every villain can be Richard III.

  • Pingback: 360MC Lecture – 28/10/10 « Charlotte Rowley's Media Production 3rd Year()

  • IT WAS 40-YRS AGO TODAY… join Dr. Zimbardo in an intimate and exclusive retelling of the Stanford Prison Experiment across the course of the next six days at

  • Cambridge Forecast

    Claude Lanzmann is the French Jew (Simone de Beauvoir’s multi-year boyfriend) who made the 1985 9-hour masterpiece “Shoah” depicting the Holocaust in a semi-Godardlike-several-crosscutting-stories-at-the-same-time format which is quite shattering.

    In 1975 this same Claude Lanzmann interviewed Benjamin Murmelstein in Rome for many hours. Murmelstein was the sole “Jewish Elder” who survived Theresienstadt “Model” Camp near Prague and Murmelstien through many accidents of history knew and worked with Adolph Eichmann all through the 1938-1945 -period, first as one of the Chief Rabbis of Vienna and then in Theresienstadt Camp which served as Hitler’s “Potemkin Village” to deceive the Red Cross and the world including Germans and Jews both.

    Murmelstein, who along with another “Elder” of Theresiestadt, Paul Eppstein, is discussed by Hannah Arendt in her most famous book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” (1963).

    Recently, Lanzmann released his multihour 1975 Murmelstein interview in Rome and the tapes were made into a DVD called “The Last of the Unjust” which title is a “pun” on the famous Holocaust classic novel by Andre Schwartz-Bart, “Le Dernier des Justes”, ie “The Last of the Just.”

    In this rivetting DVD, Murmelstein who knew Eichmann for many years and met with him constantly says outright that Hannah Arendt’s idea that he, Eichmann, was a banality-driven obedience cog in a killing machine he didn’t quite envision, is totally false and that Eichmann was a totally demonic and absolutely evil person who loved his work, was always eager to torment, kill, loot and inflict suffering and degradation and was a profoundly “sado-neurotic” personality and neither banal nor crazy but crazed with Nazism.

    Arendt was a great scholar but had a blind spot: she saw the world as a kind of intellectual seminar and if you didn’t shine, you were written off as banal. In this sense, Eichmann gets a lousy grade since his performance in the scholastic seminar in Arendt’s mind, was a failing one and thus merits a bad grade. This is what she decided in the audience in the Eichmann trial in Israel evaluating Eichmann as a very mediocrte student, so to speak. The trial was a seminar and he didn’t come off as brilliant but as a rigid dullard. All of this was Arendtian professorial blindness.

    You get a much clearer sense of Eichmann’s “non-banality” and enterpreneurial murderousness and evil in the DVD just mentioned, Claude Lnazmann’s “The Last of the Unjust” based on his Murmelstein interviews. Hannah Arendt, for all her genius was blind in the same degree that her lover, the genius Heidegger, was also blind. One would need a theory of blindness–call it blindology–to really grasp this more deeply.

    Richard Melson