Am I a monster?

August 23, 2011

There’s a prison. In the cell there’s a prisoner; outside in the watchtower stands a guard. These two are the same person. Essentially, the prisoner is his own guard; the guard is his own prisoner. But these two, the prisoner and the guard, do not actually know that each is simultaneously himself and the other. They do not understand that they are one person because of their division; the division exists because they do not understand that they are one person.

 – Edward Stachura, “Fabula Rasa”

About a year ago I attended an interdisciplinary academic conference entitled “Monsters and the Monstrous.” Bringing together scholars from literary studies, religion, history, law, criminology, psychology and other disciplines, this conference certainly made me think about the many ways which concepts of monstrosity appear in our culture. Paper topics ranged from discussions of virginity as monstrous sexual deviance in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight to the media’s harsh vilification of criminals, particularly mothers who kill their children. However, for me, the most disturbing paper had to be a talk given by a young graduate student who described her main area of research as “the sociology of genocide.” The talk, entitled “Am I a monster?” was presented as an interactive dialogue between the speaker and the audience.

“Let’s think about the Nazis at the beginning of the Second World War,” she told us. “If the Nazis had to come up with a list of adjectives to describe themselves, what words would they use?”

“Industrious,” someone shouted out. “Progressive.” The speaker began to write these words on the board.

“Forward-thinking,” someone else chimed in.

“Rational,” another voice added. “Creative.”

“Sexy!” someone else cried out, and though that one caused a few giggles, we had to admit that the Nazis probably did indeed think of themselves as sexy.

Soon, the list grew and grew with positive attributes. Innovative. Visionary. Sophisticated. Organized. Responsible. On and on it went, until the board was covered with all the positive words describing the ways that the members of the Nazi party most likely saw themselves, even while committing what has gone down in history as one of the most horrific acts of the twentieth century.  To the rest of the world, they were monsters. To themselves, they were a great society, maybe even divine.

And then, of course, came the punchline. “Now, how many of those words do you think people in your own culture would use to describe that culture?”

And that, of course, stopped me dead in my tracks as I looked at that list of words. How many of those descriptions have we Americans used to apply to our own society throughout the course of our history? In our own opinion, we are indeed forward-thinking, responsible, creative, rational, idealistic. Even when we were committing a mass genocide against the people who were here before us; even when we were holding so many others in slavery; even now, as we support an institution such as the prison at Guantanamo Bay, these are the words we use to describe our great nation.

“Everyone is a monster to someone,” the speaker concluded, and we were left to deal with the emotional consequences of this assertion on our own. And while this statement on its own is not original or even all that controversial, its implications can be pretty hard to take on an individual level.

It’s always interesting to observe people’s reactions whenever a heinous crime takes place. Six years ago in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, a serial rapist and killer who had effectively terrorized our community over a period of twenty years was caught and convicted. To everyone’s shock, he was (as far as anyone could see) just a normal guy – married with children, a responsible worker, active in community activities, a practicing Catholic. He lived just about two miles from where I grew up. Naturally, the media jumped on the story. “Monster in our midst!” screamed the headlines. “How could anyone do this?” everyone asked – a question whose implicit meaning is, “I would never do this.”

Until very recently I myself could not understand what would provoke anyone to commit such acts of brutal violence. As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I remember my reaction when I first heard the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My first thought: this has to be some kind of an accident. My second thought (once the second tower was hit and we realized that it was indeed no accident): how could anyone do this?

Forty years ago, an experiment run by psychologists at Stanford University revealed that people will do shocking things when placed in certain circumstances. Prof. Philip Zimbardo gathered a group of college students and, after instructing them to take on the role of prisoners and guards, left them to their own devices. According to Alistair Leithead’s article in the BBC news, the results were horrifying: mental breakdowns, an outbreak of sadism and a hunger strike.

“The first day they came there it was a little prison set up in a basement with fake cell doors and by the second day it was a real prison created in the minds of each prisoner, each guard and also of the staff,” said Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist leading the experiment.

The volunteers had answered an advertisement in a local paper and both physical and psychological tests were done to make sure only the strongest took part.

Despite their uniforms and mirrored sunglasses, the guards struggled to get into character and at first Prof Zimbardo’s team thought they might have to abandon the project.

As it turned out, they did not have to wait long.

“After the first day I noticed nothing was happening. It was a bit of a bore, so I made the decision I would take on the persona of a very cruel prison guard,” said Dave Eshleman, one of the wardens who took a lead role.

“Suddenly, the whole dynamic changed as [the guards]  believed they were dealing with dangerous prisoners, and at that point it was no longer an experiment,” said Prof Zimbardo.

For Eshleman, the experience taught him the power of situations. “When I saw the pictures coming from Abu Ghraib in Iraq, it immediately struck me as being very familiar to me and I knew immediately they were probably just very ordinary people and not the bad apples the defence department tried to paint them as.”

We are then faced with the following disturbing question: would all of us become demons if placed in circumstances (war, genocide) where being demonic was encouraged? Don’t we have any free will at all? Isn’t it possible to control our actions, even when circumstances tell us to do otherwise?

Over the years, a few of my friends have told me about fantasies that they’ve had. Violent fantasies of inflicting harm on other human beings. They’ve never acted on such thoughts, but the impulse is still there. Until very recently, I never understood such impulses because I’d never experienced them myself. Maybe that was because, until recently, I’d never felt very strongly about any political or social issue. Now, unfortunately, I have to say that this situation has changed.

I understand what motivates the crimes that took place at Columbine and Virginia Tech. I understand 9/11, and I understand Abu Graib. I can empathize with terrorists, torturers and killers. I know what motivates people to kill for an idea. I can imagine how inflicting pain on others might be pleasurable.  I understand what it is that makes people spin out of control. I do not mean to frighten my readers or suggest that I am about to commit such a crime myself, because I’m not. Thankfully, for now at least, the goodness in me is still stronger than the evil. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that there is something very dark and dangerous tucked away inside each of us, and if these people are monsters, then I am one, too.

One of the things I pray for most is that I never have to live through a war. I watch the news of Libya and Iraq with horror and indignation, but also with a certain detachment. It’s hard to feel the sting of horrible events happening on the other side of the world. But what if the war were to come here, to North American soil? Wars have raged here before, most brutally the US Civil War, and there’s no reason why they can’t rage again. What 9/11 showed us, and what the current economic crisis and the downgrade of our credit rating are showing us, is that the era of American exceptionalism is over. What will we do when the war comes here?

I’d like to think that I’ll be brave. That I won’t harm anyone. That I’ll be a hero and lay down my life for the ones that I love. That I’ll maybe even sacrifice my only life for that of a stranger, just as St. Maximilian Kolbe did during the Holocaust. I’m sure that you yourself are probably thinking this same way.

But, God help us if we ever have to find out.