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Until American society seriously addresses the roots of violence, we can be sure our authoritarian natures will reflect poorly on our society. We are not different in such expressions, others can be worse, as the African and Asian genocides prove. But as the only superpower, we have some responsibility to lead the world in peace, not in violence. Yet we allow Lucifer to guide our destiny.

Is prisoner abuse in Iraq an American society norm, or an exception? The works of Adorno in Germany and of Milgram in the US after WWII show there is a very narrow tipping point between civilized and jungle behavior. And like the Germans we were, and still are, largely unaware of our tipping points.

Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, was first to formally describe the authoritarian personality. Others, notably Adolf Hitler, made passing observations about these personality characteristics. Adorno and his colleagues discovered a connection between racism/fascism and the authoritarian parenting style. His studies led him to propose a personality framework that may be described as follows:

      "While finding comfort in the identification of submissive behavior towards authority, the authoritarian person directs his/her aggression towards other groups, often racial minorities. This is an attempt to relieve the feeling of personal weakness with a search for absolute answers and strengths in the outside world."

This description calls to mind a Sunday seminar years ago where a parishioner opined that all he wanted from God was the strength to cope with life. Monotheism provides such power for many--from the outside. Is this connection with Authoritarianism playing out today. It looks like it.

Perils of Obedience

Stanley Milgram added a punctuation mark to the pioneering efforts by Adorno and his co-authors. Yes, one can be too obedient--and not even know it. Close study of Milgram's full article is highly recommended for his insights apply today just as they did then. Worse than that, the tendency is likely to be ingrained, genetic. Either way, this tendency bears importantly on how we respond to terror and our leaders. What Milgram demonstrated is that the Authoritarian Personality is not limited to the German populace of Hitler's time. It also affects the rest of us.

The Perils of Obedience
by Stanley Milgram
Yale University

Then we wonder why so much of world hates us, why allies are drawing back from Iraq involvement, and why we so often get it wrong on such a grand scale. The average American psyche is far removed form beating prisoners. But when pushed to the limit in frustration, anger triggers responses right out of our jungle nature. Under pressure, we know not what we do, just as one of Milgram's subjects later admitted with chagrin, astonishment and remorse--long after he participated in Milgram's study. We can jump on Milgram, and many have, for showing our dark sides. But in fact, the military exerts a lot more pressure on individuals than Milgram could. Abu Ghraib was entirely predictable from Migram's results.

That this is so is consistent with our history--from scalping native Americans through the My Lai and Kent State massacres to Iraq, not to mention all the similar misadventures in between. Authoritarianism was in command each time.

As dear as democracy is to the hearts of most of us, there is something missing when we tolerate high levels of crime and violence in our own society--which take a heavier toll than does terrorism. Think about it, even our national anthem eulogizes war. More than heads and drums need to roll if we are to achieve peace. Let's get our own act together; then we may have a chance to help make over the world. I say help because if we really can clean up our act we shall still need allies eager to cooperate against terror in concerted fashion.

A superficial appraisal indicts the system and its masters Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush. Inadequate training and lack of social awareness and supervision combined to create brutality beyond the Geneva convention. Why do ordinary Americans commit such acts?

Just as Serb Christians abused Muslims in Bosnia, so also American Christians abused Muslims in Baghdad. In spite of its superficiality, Rumsfeld and Bush are responsible whether they accept it or not. The former has stepped up to the plate to protect his boss. The world is screaming for Rumsfeld to resign. Yet his boss rewards his "loyalty" with a stamp of approval. Why do extraordinary Americans commit such acts?

Of course there must be courts-martial and retraining. Whatever those outcomes, whatever the fix, this will not be the end of the matter. If the only solution is to roll heads, there will be no permanent solution. The basic problem lies beyond our societal sensibilities; beyond our social intellects. We must realize why the ordinary and the extraordinary participate so eagerly in Authoritarianism. Then we must figure out what to do about it. We on this site believe we are making a start.

An immediate action Bush is taking is to demolish Abu Ghraib, Hussein's infamous prison. It has given the US a "Saddam halo" that we can ill afford. Other steps would be to relieve the military from overseeing prisoner interrogations, beef up prison oversight with guards trained in the duty in strict accord with the Geneva Convention, prohibit any involvement by private contractors. These things may be mostly for public consumption. For example, Alfred McCoy, wrote a book on the history of interrogation and torture techniques employed by the CIA. McCoy wrote that the CIA found the most effective techniques are not extreme physical pain, but rather a slow degrading of the will - and humanity - of the prisoner. This is what was going on at Abu Ghraib.

However, the problem is deeper than rolling heads or organization, and radical Islam is counting on us to march to the same drum they do. For example:

  • violence is natural [occurs everywhere]
  • violence is necessary [to achieve competitive goals]
  • violence in the name of God is martyr stuff [???].

On the other hand, the "natural" drum beats of the Creator, or at least of Creation, are more subtle than the above narrow views.

  • Violence in nature is a balance. It cannot exist alone. For every wolf, there must be ten sheep, for example. In each case, the behavior is genetic.
  • Difference is the norm, not the exception. Some species are violent, others are peaceful. Still others are capable of both.
  • Difference is the norm also within species. In humans we see people with the full range of aggressiveness to the virtual lack of it.
  • Societies are similar. Some are peaceful; some are not; most lie somewhere in between. Not surprisingly, American society is multiples more violent than those of Portugal or Norway.
  • The same phenomenon is observed within societies: Washington DC and Baltimore, for example, are some 20 times more violent than are Honolulu or El Paso.
  • So the genetic tendency toward the Authoritarian Personality can be tempered by society on both the local and national scales. See Ethnic Conflict and links therefrom for some guidance.

As for the martyr stuff, see Martyrdom and Monotheism and Violence.

The Lucifer Effect goes Milgram one better. Whereas Milgram was the authority figure, in his monumental research in the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo played the role of warden, assigning students to play the authority and obedient figures according to rules he set down. He not only confirmed the power of blind obedience, but added a further punctuation mark by proving simultaneously the power of Adorno's original insight that dominance and submissiveness go hand-in-hand.


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