Milgram’s Experiment and the War on Terror

Many politicians and citizens have raised an uproar decrying the comparison between our use of tactics, such as profiling against a group of people, and against detainees who have not been proved to be guilty of terrorism, and those used by the state of Germany prior to the rise of the Nationalist Party. Invariably, the catchphrase ‘patriotism’ and ‘national security’ get thrown into the argument, and what I believe is the real shape of the situation becomes distorted. Indeed the very mention of the Nationalist Party, because of its overuse as an icon of ultimate evil, sends people flying off the handle in indignation, without any analysis of what the central issues really were that allowed a situation in which otherwise normal sane people did evil things. Or failed to prevent them. And this blanket gag order certainly makes an analysis of our current situation almost impossible. Taboo subjects cannot be explored.

Well, I’m exploring them anyway. I’ve known quite a few German people in my life. I’ve visited Germany. My husband has visited Germany. Everyone I met was very hospitable, nice and about as more or less normal as anyone I encounter here. Though everything was insanely punctual.

This is not to say that the people who did do terrible things or the people who knew about it and did nothing are absolved of their crimes. No. Their actions were inexcusable. But after looking at the Milgram experiment, and frankly, reviewing incidents that cannot be swept under the rug such as the torture at Abu Ghraib, it is somewhat more difficult to look at the individuals involved in the original ‘Axis of Evil’ and say we are different. It makes me wonder how many of us have the potential to become the same kind of monster in similar conditions. This experiment scared the crap out of me.

I think that this topic of comparison has become taboo because we are afraid. We don’t want to see our own potential for such evil acts, so we place a firm barrier there and say, ‘this could never happen here’. But in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram proved definitively for the next twenty years with repeated experiments that it could absolutely happen anywhere in the world with any group of people.

The Milgram experiment consisted of a triad of players: the teacher-subject, the learner-actor, and the authority figure-researcher. The subject was told to have the learner repeat pairs of words. Every time the learner got one wrong, the ‘teacher’ subject was to administer an electric shock. The shocks got progressively stronger until there was a final voltage that would render the learner unconscious. They would begin screaming and pounding on the wall and then finally stop responding if the teacher did administer the final shocks. If the teacher hesitated or asked to stop, they were given verbal prompts to continue four times by the researcher who told them that they must go on, that it was very important. If the teacher protested more than four times, or if they refused to go on, they were released. The learner was an actor. There were no electric shocks in reality. But as far as the subject-teacher knew, they were real.

And consistently in all variations of this experiment in different populations, do you know how many of the subjects continued to the final shocks? Between 61 and 66%. Over half. Over half of people inflicted progressive, painful, and dangerous shocks to someone, rendering them ‘unconscious’ or ‘dead’, since in a few of the scenarios the actor stated they had a ‘heart condition’, simply because they were ordered to do so. These were not enemy soldiers or Nazis. They were not skinheads, they were not white power advocates, or sociopaths. They were school teachers, doctors, lawyers, grocery store clerks, truck drivers, friends, next-door neighbors. They were you and me. That’s a terrifying realization. One that has somehow been lost in the current jingoistic move toward our own brand of nationalism. And I use the term nationalism not as an epithet or a curse word, but as the definition of what we are doing, rallying behind an image of what our leaders decide the US stands for. That’s what nationalism means.

Nationalism has its uses. It can make people proud of who they are. It can make us build a nation with amazing things like roads, sewage systems, as the Romans did, purely on the steam of national pride. The dangerous part of nationalism, however, is that it can be used by the greedy, by the power hungry with some other political agenda, to sharpen the borders between what is and is not American, creating an Other where there was none before. Does it look familiar? It should and if it doesn’t, it is because we are mired in denial.

We are so horrified by the revelations of Milgrams experiment and what it says about the human race, that we forget to be analytical. Some of us declare disgust with humanity, without the most critical question. Why was Milgrams experiment recreated so consistently, and why does it happen in history so often with the same results? Why do we fail to learn from this particular mistake? Because we are primates. Every primate species in the world reacts to an authority structure in a similar way. We do not question authority, whether by force of arms, or by persuasion and influence, except in direct challenge, and this is the exception rather than the rule. The majority of times we are faced with a dilemma to do something wrong which is sanctioned or encouraged by authority, we will do it even when we have an idea that authority is wrong. Because on some level, we are fighting hundreds of thousands of years of programming as a primate species. Does that make humanity evil? No. We are what we are. Does it excuse appalling acts of torture and cruelty? No. But it does explain it. And as we look for answers as to whether we can overcome this programming, they are there.

There was a baboon troop that was documented some years back to have a structure different from every other baboon troop studied. Most of their alpha males had been killed off by some kind of disease, or poaching. In any case, only the gentler males were left. These males became the authority structure, though they chose not to exercise authority except when absolutely necessary. They stood up and fought only if another more aggressive male tried to come in and take over the troop, then the whole troop banded together to ‘discourage’ the intruder from being aggressive. The result was that the aggressive males often stayed in the troop and changed their behavior to become less aggressive and more laid back, because they apparently seemed happier there. In fact, the longevity of these baboon compared to others was marked. They were living longer too.

The amazing thing about humanity is our ability to evolve, to learn from our mistakes, to become different, like these baboons. Milgram’s experiment will rear its ugly head in history again. And maybe we’ll fail another hundred times when faced with the choice between our own internal compass, and an errant authority. But someday we won’t. And that will happen more and more. Why do I believe this? Because many of the past subjects of Milgram’s experiment wrote him later on, despite the emotional distress they felt after a review of the experiment, to tell him that they were glad they had been shown about themselves what the experiment revealed. Many wrote to tell him that they were becoming conscientious objectors when it came to the Vietnam War, because of what they had learned. Whether you agree or disagree about the wisdom of the Vietnam War, the point is that they decided for themselves rather than relied on an authority to make that moral decision for them.

I also know that this slow advance toward individual thought is still happening. If we take the world as it is now, and the world as it was during the Roman Empire, though we make jokes about being the new Roman Empire just short of orgies and vomitoriums, there are profound differences. We collectively agree that slavery is wrong. The proportion of nations who agree that all people should have basic civil rights is the majority. However well or poorly this is executed, the fact that this is even attempted on such a global scale is light years from where we were during the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Inquisition.

But progress grinds to a halt if we aren’t allowed to discuss certain issues for fear of offending, if we can’t even have a conversation about history without being branded unpatriotic or accused of disparaging veterans. Veterans are respected with good reason. They are people who act on an urge to be part of something bigger than themselves. This is never a bad thing. It is however a good trait that has been used by unscrupulous people in authority, who then veil their own agendas by forbidding conversation about the history that follows. But the fact remains, and most veterans I have spoken with agree, that the first step to learning from our mistakes, is to admit, collectively with collective responsibility that we’ve made them. Many veterans I’ve encountered, being also honest self-evaluating people, like Milgram’s conscientious objectors, welcome the chance to air their own thoughts instead of keeping them locked behind a wall of silence.


One Response to “Milgram’s Experiment and the War on Terror”

  1. *applause* that’s exactly right I think.

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