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The banality of evil

May 06, 2010 14:21 IST
In the aftermath of the Ajmal Kasab trial and the failed bomb attack in New York, the impartial observer would find it hard to conclude that Pakistanis were mild, inoffensive people. But in fact there are a number of people -- apart from the professional Wagah candle-holders -- who cannot believe that this kind of horror could come from the kind of Pakistanis they know -- PLUs (people like us), urbane, sophisticated, great hosts and dinner companions.

There is, of course, the fallacy of rapid generalisation: Every Pakistani is not like the people you know, who are likely to be the world-traveling sort. There are many dirt-poor, uneducated people who have been brainwashed with strange notions of what Indians are like and what India is like. Given high population growth and a fairly stagnant economy, the number of these 'Bottom-of-the-Pyramid' people is much larger than those at the top of the pyramid, the 22 ruling feudal families who own the place.

But apart from the logical fallacy, there is also a more subtle issue, that of how easily evil can take over even perfectly normal, well-adjusted people. It turns out you don't have to be a sociopath to do the most horrifying things: Your random neighbours, like the kindly old man down the street, the kid who drops off the newspaper, the old lady who is full of religious zeal -- any and all of them can turn into monsters under the appropriate circumstances.

This was demonstrated in Cambodia, when under the Khmer Rouge, perfectly ordinary people became mass killers. I have been to the Tuol Sleng prison and interrogation centre in the middle of Phnom Penh, where thousands of people were tortured, and confessions extracted from them. They were photographed and meticulous dossiers prepared about each of them. They were then taken to the Killing Fields on the outskirts of town and dispatched with a blow to the back of the head with a spade.

But what is most amazing about Tuol Sleng is that it was formerly a school in the middle of a residential neighbourhood! It still looks like an inoffensive school from outside, although inside it is the Genocide Museum, with the interrogation cells left as they were, harrowing paintings of inhuman torture, and row after row of black and white photographs of those who were about to die, including some Indians and other foreigners.

It is a metaphor for the banality and very ordinariness of evil. The Khmer Rouge were the greatest mass-murderers in the recent past, killing some 15 per cent of their compatriots.

Ordinary Cambodians -- farmers, artisans, bicycle-repairers, fishermen -- were instruments of civilisational suicide. Similarly, perfectly normal Hutus went on the warpath in Rwanda against embattled Tutsis, attempting genocide. Ordinary Germans did the bidding of the Nazis; ordinary Europeans participated in an orgy of violence on innocent people during the horrifying Inquisition, dispatching thousands, especially women, in the most appalling ways.

And so with the Pakistanis. The young men of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other terrorist outfits were not monsters to begin with: They were turned into what they are quite deliberately -- they have been manufactured by a consciously-created system where they have no choice but to become monsters.

I was reminded of all this when I was listening to an archived podcast from 2007 of an interview with Philip Zimbardo, a retired professor from Stanford, whose celebrated 'Stanford Prison Experiment' of 1971 was a startling practical demonstration of how evil is engendered.

In 2006, Zimbardo wrote a new book, The Lucifer Effect because he was struck by similarities between the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq and the Stanford experiment.

The experiment was simple: Zimbardo set up a simulated prison in the basement of one of Stanford's buildings, and recruited 24 normal male college students for a two-week study of the behaviour of prison guards and prisoners. The students were randomly assigned to either role and given uniforms or prison smocks to wear, but no specific instructions on behaviour except that there must be no physical contact. Zimbardo himself acted as both 'jail superindendent' and research leader.

The results were startling: Within 36 hours, the 'guards' started misbehaving, exerting their power over the 'prisoners'. One of the prisoners had a nervous breakdown. Within three days, the guards were exhibiting brutal, sadistic behaviour, and the prisoners were increasingly humiliated and oppressed. Several other prisoners also had nervous breakdowns. On the night of day five, sexual torture began: The prisoners were made to expose themselves, and to simulate sodomy with each other.

On the sixth day, a shaken Zimbardo abandoned the experiment, which had been slated to run for two weeks. He was shocked to realise that certain dangerous boundaries were being crossed, and that some of the participants might end up with permanent psychological damage.

The fact that perfectly normal, intelligent college students -- they had been screened for any abnormality -- could so easily be turned into sadistic monsters is astonishing. Apparently the situation had gotten the better of them: Perhaps the normal human condition is indeed the Hobbesian 'nasty, brutish and short'. Maybe Lord of the Flies, the book about a group of boys abandoned on an island evolving into a dictatorial society, is all too true.

Perhaps the Law of the Jungle is indeed the right metaphor, much as we like to think of ourselves as civilised beyond fang and claw and might-is-right.

In a related study, the Milgram Experiment at Yale analysed the willingness of volunteers to administer electric shocks to unseen victims based on orders from authority figures. It turned out that -- with no gender differences -- people were quite willing to torture people whom they had never met. (The shocks were simulated, and so were the recorded screams of the recipients, but the subjects didn't know that.)

Zimbardo believes that it is not the individual's own inherent tendencies, but the social situation around them that drives bad behaviour. That can help us understand the pathology of the Pakistani situation. These young men have been told for such a long time that Indians and Hindus are evil and monstrous that they have internalised it.

It is the environment that addles them. Therefore, expending a lot of effort on the arrest and prosecution of individual terrorists is not going to have a major impact, because they are expendable -- there are many waiting in line, ready to step into their shoes.

In that sense, it is immaterial what happens to Ajmal Kasab -- he is simply cannon fodder, dispensable.

It is the system that is psychotic, and it is so by intent. That is why Pakistan refuses steadfastedly to move against those who have created the system: For instance, Mohammad Saeed of the Jamaat-ul Dawa (the current name of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba). The Pakistanis have refused again and again to prosecute Saeed, just as they refuse to extradite Dawood Ibrahim. These are strategic assets for the ISI. People like Hamid Gul, ex-ISI director-general, have articulated the grim calculus of this perspective.

The system in Pakistan was put in place by General Zia-ul Haq, who fundamentalised education, the army, and the rest of society (it may be remembered that Zia in effect banned the use of the 'Hindu' sari, and encouraged the 'Pakistani' salwar-kameez). The textbooks were re-written to eulogise Central Asian invaders.

History begins with the Arab invasion of Sind in 712 CE. The word 'Hindu' is always preceded by 'cunning baniya'. The idea that a single Mohammedan soldier is worth ten Hindus in valour was put about, notwithstanding considerable evidence to the contrary.

American psychologist Sam Keen suggested in Faces of the Enemy that a major part of warfare lies in dehumanising the enemy. Every nation has created extraordinary propaganda against its enemies: By internalising this, young soldiers are able to kill other young men without compunction, because they believe the enemy are sub-human monsters intent on raping 'our' women, destroying 'our' nation, and so on. The book includes hundreds of posters, cartoons and other material from 20th century propaganda, which Keen calls the 'archetype of the hostile imagination'.

Surely, there is Indian propaganda against Pakistan; however, it is on a secular plane, and does not target Pakistanis based on religion. In fact, average Mohammedans are better off in India as compared to anywhere else in the world, including, and especially Pakistan, where only the feudal upper classes (castes) live well.

But that is not what Pakistanis believe. In encounters with middle-class Pakistanis in America and on the Internet, I have heard how glad they are that there is a homeland for subcontinental Mohammedans who would otherwise have been oppressed by Hindus. They are silent, however, when I point out that there are, in fact, two homelands, and how the one homeland couldn't keep half of its inhabitants happy and started a genocidal war with them.

This incomprehension about India was seen in the transcripts of the conversations by the 26/11 terrorists with their handlers in Pakistan: The terrorists were obviously confused that India was not a whole lot like what they had been brainwashed into believing.

Thus, it is the environment, of radicalisation and mind-games, that is creating a cadre of evil-doers. Any amount of 'talks' and 'goodwill gestures' and 'walking the extra mile' is unlikely to change the situation unless the hate-mongering institutions with a monomanical jihadi agenda are dismantled. So long as India cannot get Pakistan to do this, there will be an endless supply of cannon fodder.

There is another issue -- terrorism has now become a job, and quite a lucrative one at that. Zimbardo is of the opinion that a lot of the brutality in the Stanford Experiment and at Abu Ghraib happened because of simple boredom, especially at night, when the guards had nothing better to do and wanted some entertainment -- perhaps the ultimate in the banality of evil.

In the case of the Pakistanis, and, alas, in the case of a number of home-grown terrorists in India, terrorism has now become an easy and attractive job, with perks like foreign trips (to Pakistan via Dubai to throw people off the scent), cash (including counterfeit Indian rupees shipped in container-loads), women (who will dare say 'no' to an AK-47?) and so on. For an ill-educated youth with poor prospects, this must be like manna from heaven.

Thus, the cognitive dissonance between the 'they are just like us' ordinary citizens of Pakistan and the ruthless killers is a matter of their environment. Unless it is cleaned up, and the godfathers of the system like Hamid Gul, Hafiz Saeed and Dawood Ibrahim forced to stand down, India -- and (note to President Obama) the West -- will continue to face evil and bleed.

It is not the individuals, but the system of propaganda and inducement of hatred that is to blame. And that suits the Pakistani establishment just fine: It sustains their failing State.

Rajeev Srinivasan