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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Turning People into Monsters

"Some weasel took the cork out of my lunch." - W. C. Fields


An interview with James Dawes about his book "Evil Men" (based on firsthand interviews with convicted war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War), on Church Stance & The Essence Of Evil - Everyday Ethics:

James Dawes: Nation states have a really expert system of turning people into killers and sometimes pushing them over that line into war criminals.

And looking at the experiences of these men, I was able to see that there is a pattern, really, for what was done to these men. It's a pattern that is employed in many militaries and other violent organisations, and it's hard to resist. There are essentially 4 basic steps to turning a young man into a monster.

The first is, you have to separate this person from their normal moral reference points. Separate them from their families, their schools, their institutions. Isolate them so you can control how they think. And then, when you control how they think, teach them to think in binaries. See the world as us vs them, good vs evil, safe vs unsafe. These simple binaries then seem to call for simple solutions and violence is often the first of those solutions.

The third thing that you want to do is break them down physically, spiritually: through training, through mild verbal abuse. Teach them that they don't have control over their lives through a sort of harsh and arbitrary system of rewards and punishments,
because if you can make somebody helpless, then they become entirely dependent on the system for guidance. If you're helpless, the best way to get a feeling of control again is to dominate and hurt another person.

And then the last thing is that it was slow. Nobody started off as a torturer. Nobody started off as somebody who raped and pillaged. Everybody started slow. They started with mild physical abuse. The first time they were taught bayoneting, they would stab corpses, and that was nauseating for them. They had difficulty with that. But then after doing that four or five times it became easy. So they were able to graduate to practising bayoneting by stabbing villagers tied to trees. And that was shocking to them. But eventually that became easy. And each step was hard until it opened up a doorway to a new thing. And by the end, they had become, in their words, demons. People they couldn't recognise. And the point was it happened very slowly.

William Crawley: In a sense you're describing, at least in the first three stages, basic military training aren't you?

James Dawes: That's right. Well some militaries are better at doing this, but also training them basic respect for human dignity and controlling violence under wartime conditions, but some, their interest in promoting terror...

William Crawley: One of more frightening implication of your book is that they're just men.

James Dawes: Very ordinary men. In fact, one of them was an ethics professor before the war. He studied moral behavior and in fact he engaged in various kinds of altruism. And then he was subjected to the same training everyone else was. He found himself doing the same thing. He was not an ordinary man, he was a virtuous man. And I think this capacity is in all of us.

William Crawley: And most of those men sitting around the Wannsee conference agreeing the Final Solution were lawyers, weren't they?

Education and human culture, these are all things that really make no difference. I think sometimes people like to imagine that there's ways you can inoculate yourself against violence. But when your whole culture is working toward producing violence, it takes someone of great moral strength not to get caught up in it.

And I don't say that to justify them, to say of course everyone does this. I don't say that to diminish what we are as a species really. I say it only because I think that the quick movement to righteous judgment that we have when we see people coming back from wartime. I think we need to temper that, and we need to understand that 'there but for the Grace of God, go I'"
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