25 June 2012

Murder and torture: who can do this?

Murder and torture are as old as man himself, but it still shocks and angers, and makes people ask themselves, could I do that? Well, could you?


Two accused appeared in court today in connection with the murders of actor Brett Goldin and fasion designer Richard Bloom earlier this year.

Goldin and Bloom's naked bodies were found alongside Cape Town's M5 freeway on April 17, each shot once in the back of the head. They were found lying naked on their stomachs. Each had a bullet wound to the back of the head.

The gruesome murders were greeted with revulsion around the country. Murder and torture are as old as man himself, but it still shocks and angers, and makes people ask themselves, could I do that? Well, could you?

Simply following orders?
It also raises old questions about man’s capacity for evil. Much of the modern thinking about what makes people commit atrocities has been steered by a number of experiments where people who felt a diminished sense of responsibility simply followed orders and carried out acts of cruelty.

In one experiment carried out at Yale University by Stanley Milgram, students were ordered by someone wearing a white coat to give electric shocks to each other. They obeyed, despite cries of pain from the other person with whom they were paired.

It was reasoned that taking orders from someone in a white coat – which carries some authority – made you less responsible for your actions.

Another experiment, carried out by Philip Zimbardo at a prison in Stanford in 1971 concluded that students who were assigned the role of guard soon became abusive and sadistic towards other students acting as prisoners.

What is our capacity for evil?
The conclusion from these experiments was that all humans have lurking beneath their veneer of civility the capacity for evil. It’s a concept proposed by Hannah Arendt, who remarked after meeting Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann that he looked normal. The phrase “the banality of evil” was coined. During the TRC hearings in South Africa it was again used to describe Eugene De Kock, who ran an institution called Vlakplaas, which became synonymous with murder and torture.

But not everyone agrees with this conclusion: psychologists Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam, writing for the BBC’s Magazine website, describe it as “bad psychology and bad ethics”.

They write, “It is bad psychology because it suggests we can explain human behaviour without needing to scrutinise the wider culture in which it is located. It is bad ethics because it absolves everyone from any responsibility for events – the perpetrators, ourselves as constituents of the wider society, and the leaders of that society.”

Groups behaving badly
It seems humans are less shocked when groups behave badly than when individuals do so. A lynch mob murdering someone somehow seems less brutal than an incident of road rage that leads to a killing. When three teenage boys allegedly beat a homeless man to death in Cape Town a couple of years ago, there was speculation that each of them was a nice boy, who’d never do such a thing on his own. Put them together and it was a bit of schoolboy high jinks gone wrong.

The notion that individuals are less capable of evil than groups has a resonance for South Africa, with its violent history. People were “necklaced” by mobs not long ago – burnt to death with tyres and petrol.

National service in South Africa
The idea that collective responsibility removes individual responsibility was true for one system that pervaded white South African society for decades – national service. Those questioning the idea of national service were told, “Well, everyone has to do it – no exceptions,” which supposedly made it more acceptable.

During basic training – boot camp in American parlance – humiliation was an indispensable tool. So was mundane activity. Recruits ironed beds, combed mattresses and buffed floors that were immediately dirtied again. The crewcut warriors, who reckon war is an art, would argue eloquently that all this was vital. If you disobeyed an order to iron your blankets you might disobey an order under fire. “We break you down as individuals and then build you up as a unit,” was how it was explained.

Where military doctrine ended and sadism started depended on what unit you were in. What’s not in doubt is that there were career corporals who tackled their daily work not with professionalism, but with masochistic relish.

Whose responsibility is this?
For every 10 people that watched A Few Good Men to see how cute Tom Cruise and Demi Moore looked in naval uniform or to relish the arrogant character of Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan Jessup being brought low, there were one or two who really pondered the moral dilemma of the movie. The recruits ordered to “discipline” an inept member of their platoon were following orders – did that absolve them of responsibility for their actions?

The movie’s overstated themes – not even decorated career soldiers are above the law, strong soldiers have a responsibility to protect weaker ones, not abuse them – might be worth some reruns on US television about now.

Still, a number of psychologists have suggested that the confidence with which the guards carried out the abuse and photographed it suggested they were following orders. Several of the people involved have said they were.

Morality vs. following orders
Does an environment where disobeying orders can get you killed make torture more likely? Perhaps, but as doctors Reicher and Haslam point out, it doesn’t make it inevitable. That’s why many people will meet newspaper photographs of the bodies of Goldin and Bloom with disgust and see it in the same light as the images of My Lai, Belsen, Nanking in 1937, Sharpville and yes, 9/11. (William Smook)


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