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What Is An Obedient Citizen's Role In The Devastation Of The Middle East?

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What Is An Obedient Citizen's Role In The Devastation Of The Middle East?

"When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find that far more, and far more hideous, crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. --C. P. Snow

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In 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, attentive to the ongoing trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, carried out a series of experiments to test how much pain one would inflict on another simply on orders from an "authority figure", even if this conflicted with one's morals. Subjects were told the goal was to study learning. A "teacher" would ask questions of a "learner" strapped to a chair in another room, with wrong answers punished by electric shock administered by the teacher. The teacher could hear the learner's reactions to shocks -- grunts, screams, pleads to stop, etc. Levels of shock went from mild to a top designation of "Danger: Severe Shock" at which "learners" (victims) screamed for mercy. Learners were not actually being shocked, a fact unknown to the "teachers" (men of differing backgrounds, ages 20-50), who were actually the ones being tested.

Milgram outlined his results thusly: "The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of authority constitutes the chief finding of the study ... Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

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Even when subjects protested the cruelty and themselves exhibited stress, they continued as ordered by the "authority", here the scientist in charge. Initial experiments revealed ~65% of subjects were willing to apply the most extreme 450 volt shock (potentially fatal), and the rest as much as 300 volts, although all had been told the "learner" had a heart condition. This was so unexpected, even by polled professionals in psychology, as to indicate a radical human weakness. Milgram published a book on his studies, Obedience to Authority , in 1974. Some filmed records of experiments can be seen as well. Milgram's study has received a good dose of criticism, but his experiments, some in various permutations, have been carried out all over the world on a variety of subjects, including women, and as recently as 2009, and results tend to be in accordance across societies and time.

Adolph Eichmann's historic trial was attended by philosopher Hannah Arendt who, expecting a monster, was struck instead by how "ordinary" Eichmann was; a kind of Everyman. Eichmann felt no responsibility for actions decided by those in authority above him. He didn't kill anyone but simply followed orders by carrying out a bureaucratic task from a desk. That excuse was mirrored in another of Milgram's experiments that employed two "teachers", one as the reader of questions, the other as the deliverer of shocks. The majority of readers had no problem being indirectly involved in the most potent shocks being applied, because they excused themselves "".. by saying that the responsibility belonged to the man who actually pulled the switch".

Milgram describes young men "aghast" at the behavior of subjects in the experiments and insistent that they themselves would never behave so, but who thereafter, as military troops, performed inhumane actions more extreme than experimental shocks. Americans were shaken by the extent to which typical citizens could be induced to execute brutal orders at My Lai and Abu Ghraib.

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Military training is forced yielding to authority, as made clear in the U.S. Army Oath of Enlistment: "I do solemnly swear that I will " obey the orders of " officers appointed above me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God". Marching drills make visible "the submersion of the individual to an organizational mode." Such submersion, of course, is necessary for an army, or else it could not function defending a country as it must. Individuals involved therefore have to be persuaded that a cause is so just that a designated enemy is worthy of destruction.

Are there parallels in civilian society? If a citizen has come to understand that his government is exercising its authority by spending the people's blood and treasure illegally and criminally, and by creating a web of lies to justify its actions, what is such a citizen's most ethical response? Is one morally justified simply to turn away in the name of expedience and self-interest? This issue is real and important and difficult to face squarely.

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Bill Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

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