AN ESSAY: Good, evil and terrorism

By Phil Zimbardo, Ph.D. President-elect, American Psychological Assn.
November 1, 2001 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

The bully can, in one thoughtless moment, smash the sand castle that a child took hours to build. A vandal can deface a statue in an instant that an artist took years to create. Terrorists can destroy buildings in a moment that took years to erect, or end lives that took generations to nourish.

Evil is the perversion of human perfection; it is the mind turned in on itself to hurt, harm, demean, destroy other people, along with their possessions and their most valued symbols. If we take Good as the natural human condition, then Evil is its antithesis, and Heroism its opposing force.

But they are all facets of human nature. The terrorist attack on U.S. sovereignty represents a new level of “creative evil” in which human intellect subserves the basest motives of violence and destruction. Thus, it is imperative not to underestimate the power of this new enemy.

It is a shadowy force without identifiable territorial boundaries, but one that has the charismatic power to unite disparate allies in many nations with its fervent ideological mission. We are beginning to appreciate the extent to which this complex, expertly choreographed terrorist attack was the end product of extensive planning, training, and professional expertise that required financial resources and networks of co-conspirators living in our midst.

They had to know how a dozen or more of their skyjacking team members could breach airport security. They knew to select transcontinental jetliners filled to capacity with jet fuel that on explosion could melt steel girders. They had to understand enough kinetic physics and structural engineering to know the precise locations on the WTC that would make it maximally vulnerable to their explosive attack. They had to know how to pilot commercial jetliners, to disarm warning signals, and how four huge airplanes could fly in and out of our major urban centers totally undetected.

This creatively evil enemy cannot be underestimated any longer. Moreover, we have to change our perception of this attack as “senseless violence,” as has often been described. Of course, this tragic destruction of lives and property does not make sense to us because it is incomprehensible that any individual or group would engage in such evil deeds. Calling it “senseless,” “mindless,” “insane,” or the work of “madmen” is wrong for two reasons. It fails to adopt the perspective of the perpetrators as an act with a clearly defined purpose that we must understand in order to challenge it most effectively. And such negative labeling also lulls us into thinking it is random, not comparable to anything we do understand, and is disrespectful of the high level of reasoned intellect behind these deeds, however distorted it may be.

Constructive efforts at preventing future similar acts of international violence might best begin with attempts to understand not only the Who question, but the What question as well. Our national leaders will seek out those who orchestrated this destructive attack against our nation and bring them to justice. But even if the identifiable terrorist leaders were to be eliminated, would that stop future terrorism? Unlikely, unless the root causes of the hatred against America is modified, unless the ideological political and social bases of the mentalities of the next generation of potential terrorists are changed.

Evil has always existed in many forms, as recorded since Biblical times, and will continue to flourish in different ways in different places. Surely, there are individuals we acknowledge as embodying evil, just as Lucifer and Satan do-Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other national tyrants. They are all dead, yet evil flourishes throughout the world with nameless conductors orchestrating ever new violence. It is well for us now to go beyond our tendency to focus on dispositional evil as a peculiar property or characteristic of despicable particular individuals. Instead, we might consider focusing on the situational determinants of evil in order to recognize the generic forces of evil, to identify the breeding grounds of evil that can seduce even good people to become perpetrators of evil.

Even while acknowledging our individual and national need for retribution and punishment of the leaders of these terrorist attacks, we must also realize that without altering the fundamental sources of anti-American and anti-democratic beliefs and values in other nations, new replacements will emerge for each tyrant leader we punish or kill. Much psychological research reveals the ease with which ordinary people can be recruited to engage in harmful, sadistic behaviors against their fellows.

In one classic study, by Stanley Milgram, the majority of ordinary American citizens who participated in the study blindly obeyed an authority figure in administering what they believed were painful, even lethal shocks to a stranger. My colleague, Albert Bandura, showed that intelligent research participants were willing to gave increasingly higher levels of shock to other college students when their victims had been labeled as “seeming like animals,” by a research assistant. In another demonstration, from my laboratory, of the power of situational forces to distort individual values, normal college students recruited to role play prison guards became their roles in a matter of days, behaving with escalating violence toward their prisoners-other college students. We know that a cult leader, Jim Jones, reverend of Peoples Temple, was able to program his followers to commit suicide, or to kill one another on his command-more than 900 American citizens did so in the jungles of Guyana. Research by sociologist, John Steiner indicates that most Nazi concentration camp guards were “ordinary men” before and following their years of perpetrating evil.

Many more examples could be culled to illustrate reasons why we should not demonize or medicalize these terrorists as an alien breed. Instead, we should focus on a better understanding of the mind control tactics and strategies that might make even good people engage in evil deeds at some time in their lives, and how generations of young people are recruited into lives of terrorism. We need also to better appreciate cultural ways of being that differ from our own, as well as acknowledge “the dark side of religion” in terms of how religiously-based value systems can be perverted to justify and reward the most horrendous of human deeds.

Tracking down the terrorist leaders by our intelligence and military forces, has the collateral danger of modeling revenge and retaliation at a national level that can become a stimulus for individuals to adopt a similar orientation toward innocent citizens in our own country whose ethnicity, religion, or appearance might be similar to those of the terrorists. We cannot allow that transfer of hostility to develop because in doing so, it fuels the cycle of violence started by the terrorists.

Terrorists create terror; terror creates fear and anger; fear and anger create aggression; and aggression against citizens of different ethnicity or religion creates racism and in turn, new forms of terrorism. It is easier to make war than to make peace, so we must redouble efforts to try the harder way in our own lives by creating a peace zone around each of us that embraces others and enriches existence rather than diminishes it.

We must individually and collectively refuse to adopt the terrorists devaluing of human life or they will win the next battle by giving into the kind of negative sentiments that their evil deeds have generated in us all. We have seen the enemy, do not let it become us. It is a time for American heroism to oppose terrorism. It is a new era in our nation and personal lives when heroism is defined not just as the sacrifice of life for others, but also as the opening of ourselves to the needs of others, as sharing some of our precious commodities, like time, with others in meaningful face to face encounters, as the willingness to do all we can to reinforce the bonds of the human connection. It is a time to choose to be a hero in your own family and community.

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