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American Terrorism: Evil vs. Empathy; Authority vs. Conscience, Part 2

Part 1:

In Part 1, I expressed my awe at the degree of compliance of my fellow citizens and the new administration in not doing more to end the status quo of perpetual war, rampant economic injustice, the suspension of habeas corpus and the laws of the Geneva Convention.

I expressed my disappointment that more empathy was not expressed and apparently felt toward the victims of brutality of the Bush torture program. It seems little or no accountability will be demanded from the primary architects of grossly inhumane not to mention illegal activity. And, again, the majority of the American public is enabling this decision.

How can leaders, in this case George W. Bush and his administration, manifesting so little conscience, induce so many to enter their “thrall” and accept and follow illegal and inhumane orders perpetrating hideous and covert torture? My mother used to say “rank has its privilege” but not to what seems such a sociopathological degree.

Scott Peck asserts in his book, People of the Lie, that mental health is “dedication to reality at all costs.” This healthy sense of reality includes an in-touchness with one’s inner reality and a respect for the reality of others. It requires the capacity to fully think and FEEL.

This “feeling capacity” seems most vulnerable to dysfunction in our society and world, among both leaders and followers. Feelings are profoundly under-valued in society, and this feeling dysfunction is at the heart (pun intended) of all existing suffering and injustice. The status quo in America has us locked into perpetual war and there is ever-increasing economic hardship for all but a tiny percentage of the population. A patriarchal win/lose gamesmanship is at play, which the media reinforces, totally ignoring moral consideration. A paradigm shift to partnership and cooperation is the answer, but that would require decisions based on a leadership and society that seriously honors empathy and compassion. Ours does not.

Alice Miller in her book For Your Own Good maintains that unprocessed trauma in one’s childhood, that is, when children are exposed to profound degrees of non-empathy at times from adult caretakers, causes a shutting down of their feeling capacity in adult life and at times a sudden dismantling of their own will for another’s. Such trauma undoubtedly also happened to the original destructive caretakers during their childhoods and the cycle of dysfunction continued on.

Miller contends that these moments of trauma when left unprocessed and un-grieved are enough to induce one to over-identify with an aggressor and enter his or her thrall later in adulthood. Also such conditioning can induce one to project one’s negative feelings about oneself onto others as scapegoats. These people cannot handle and take mature responsibility for whatever guilt, shame, anger, frustration gets triggered within them in the present and must deflect it.

Miller writes of the abuse inflicted on Hitler as a child by his father. She views Hitler’s ruthless cruelty as leader as him identifying with his aggressor father and projecting his contempt for his (Hitler’s) weak child-self onto the Jewish people. She points out that his father was part Jewish and had tremendous shame about that which was why Hitler aimed his hatred at the Jewish people.

Miller also contends that the culture of strict, religious upbringing for children, a poisonous pedagogy she calls it, made the German population easy prey for the authoritarianism of Hitler. She writes.

When still in diapers, the child learns to knock at the gates of love with “obedience” and unfortunately does not unlearn this thereafter.


Just as in the symbiosis of the diaper stage, there is no separation here of subject and object. … In a totalitarian state, which is a mirror of his upbringing, this citizen can also carry out any form of torture or persecution without having a guilty conscience. His “will” is completely identical with that of the government.

Miller points out that both Hitler and Stalin had enthusiastic, highly intellectual followers and she emphasizes that one’s capacity to be “enthralled” by a toxic, controlling leader is not about intelligence. It is about one’s connectedness or disconnectedness to one’s authentic feelings. One’s ability or inability to respond to a situation with one’s heart. The degree of a heart’s response-ability, so to speak.

Scott Peck takes on the horrifying dimensions of what he calls “group evil” in a chapter in People of the Lie devoted to the infamous MyLai massacre during the Vietnam War. He examines the realistic stressors on the troops that day, as well as the dangerous socio- and psychological group and leader dynamics at play that created a “perfect storm” for such atrocity.

Mylai, March 16, 1968:

…the troops of C Company killed at least somewhere between five and six hundred of those unarmed villagers [women, children and old men]. These people were killed in a variety of ways. In some instances troops would simply stand at the door of a village hut and spray into it with rifle fire, blindly killing those inside. In other instances villagers, including children, were shot down as they attempted to run away. The most large-scale killings occurred in the particular hamlet of MyLai 4. There the first platoon of Charlie Company, under the command of Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr., herded villagers into groups of twenty to forty or more, who were then slaughtered by rifle fire, machine gun fire or grenades. It is important to remember, however, that substantial numbers of unarmed civilians also were murdered in the other hamlets of MyLai that day by the troops of other platoons under the command of other officers.

Dr. Peck poses the question of how could approximately 500 men, the majority of whom were obviously not “evil,” participate in such a monstrously evil action, either directly or in the cover-up. (Failure to report a crime is a crime.)

Apparently the killing took place all morning Peck discloses. Only one person, a helicopter pilot, witnessing the slaughter from the air, tried to stop it. He landed his chopper and attempted to reason with some of the troops. His appeals unheeded, he returned to the air and radioed headquarters. When his superior officers responded in an unconcerned way, he gave up and continued on his way.

Peck estimates that 50 participated in the direct killing. 200 were direct witnesses of it. Within a week 500 troops in that task force knew everything that had happened. But the massacre went unreported for a year, when a soldier, who had not been in the task force but had heard about the incident in an idle conversation with friends, wrote several letters to Congress about it after he had returned to civilian life.

Dr. Peck explains the extenuating circumstances the soldiers were dealing with. They were on the other side of the world in a combat zone. They had sustained casualties and injuries during the past month from the Viet Cong and suspected the villagers of hiding them. They were stressed, and tired, and hot and frightened, angry, and/or frustrated. They were anticipating conflict and surprised there were no combatants in the area. Their officers were hungry for success, a high body count.

But the soldiers were also aware of the rules of the Geneva Convention — not to kill unarmed civilians. Peck writes:

Triggers are pulled by individuals. Orders are given and executed by individuals. In the last analysis every single human act is ultimately the result of an individual choice.

Peck speculates that though some of the soldiers probably felt guilt from their behavior, he maintains the majority of soldiers did not confess their crimes because they genuinely did not feel they had committed a crime. He asks how can a sane person commit murder and not acknowledge to himself he has murdered? How could he not carry guilt over such an act, not have a sense of responsibility?

Peck’s evaluation asserts many fascinating and troubling angles on why the soldiers acted as they did.

The first factor he cites is what he calls “specialization” in the minds of the troops as to the role they were there to play. They could, as Peck says, "pass along the moral buck to another part of the group.” Like weapons manufacturers, sellers, lobbyists, etc. who feel no personal responsibility to the consequences of violence from the weaponry. The moral decision as to the use of the weapons was not their part of the job.

Speaking of weaponry, the troops of Vietnam were supplied with the latest in dazzling new technology. Bulldozers, napalm, planes, tanks, bombs and mortars. There was a detachment from responsibility in using them Peck contends. A kind of video-game aloofness. "We don’t kill the people. Our weapons do."

Peck also cites peer-pressure, very powerful in the military. To challenge the will of the group was to invite severe reaction and scapegoating – the offending messenger (threatening to make the group recognize its acts of immorality) can inspire such group rage to get himself or herself socially ostracized and even killed. Also, groups bond by circling the wagons against an enemy out there. "The other." The Vietnamese, not just the Viet Cong, became “demonized” by the soldiers and scapegoated. Also this scapegoating was collectively projecting the "badness" the troops could not attribute to themselves to others.

Another factor Peck explains was a regressive “psychic numbing.” The mind’s ability to anesthetize itself from feelings in the face of trauma. “The horrible becomes normal.”

Also, he points out how obedience is the foundation of military discipline, making the disturbing and quotable assertion that “a follower is never a whole person.” Peck claims that most people are far more comfortable in the "follower" role, leaving the responsibility and decision making to those who step forward as leaders. When ruthless, reckless, immature, even sociopathic persons assume leadership positions, especially in an authoritarian set-up, the results can be tragic.

The officers of Charlie Company wanted a high body count, at least that was what the troops understood. Peck refers to the experiments of Milgram at Yale in 1961 which involved people being so intimidated by an authority in a white coat that they willingly inflicted what they thought were disabling electric shocks on strangers without question. 6 out of 10 of the tested humans were willing to inflict serious harm on strangers out of their conditioning to authority figures. Even that brave person during MyLai who protested the slaughter as it was happening surrendered his attempts after having gone to his immediate supervisors.

There is also a collective group ego and degree of narcissism Peck points out. The troops wanted to be successful. They had endured punishment by the enemy. The dissent against the war at home was hurting and confusing them. They were forcing a surreal, dishonest goal in their killing.

Peck refers, too, to the Washington politicians led by LBJ who were narcissistic about the war in general. Self-satisfied and intellectually lazy he asserts, who role modeled a dehumanizing perspective on the Vietnamese people. They were fighting that ever-specter of Communism, after all. Peck concludes they were exhibiting what Sen. William Fulbright called “the arrogance of power.” The politicians had their reputations invested in winning a futile war as more and more troops and Vietnamese died.

When we escalated the war in Vietnam it became an issue of our "infallibility and preserving our national honor”. The war was begun by lying. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a deliberate fraud. "LBJ obtained from Congress the authority to wage the war without Congress ever formally declaring it." Peck maintains that lying is both "a cause and a manifestation of evil."

Then there was the strong, enabling denial of the segment of the US population that over-trusted the motives of its government and military to be in Vietnam. Their collective ego also could not abide the country ever being "in the wrong.”

How much of this not-that-long-ago history resonates with the sad dynamics of our country right now. Can we cultivate our capacity for “empathy” and dedicate ourselves to reality at all costs for our own collective mental health? Can we face down and acknowledge our own crimes as a nation?

Stephen Gowanus writes:

As to the world being a better place for the exercise of US military might, there’s the not inconsequential matter of millions dead in Indochina, thousands blasted away in Yugoslavia, and 5,000 bombed to death in Afghanistan. Ultimately, however, it depends on who you’re talking about. It surely isn’t a better place for the dead, nor those who have been permanently disabled, nor those who have subsequently suffered and died from cancers caused by the rich environmental devastation and widespread broadcast of carcinogens the exercise of US military might inevitably brings. Nor the thousands upon thousands in Iraq who have died from diphtheria, pertusis and other assorted waterborne illnesses, after the Pentagon deliberately destroyed Iraq’s water treatment facilities during the Persian Gulf War, all in defiance of the Geneva Conventions; and nor for the monsters whose births owe much to the use of teratogens, the defoliants used in Vietnam and depleted uranium used in Iraq; nor the limbless children blown to bits by bomblets from unexploded cluster bombs; and nor the American veterans who have died slow, painful deaths, from such mysterious illnesses as Gulf War syndrome, which the Pentagon poohs-poohs as a myth.

Haroon Siddiqui writes:

America plunged Iraq into chaos, shattered the infrastructure and destroyed the society, reducing human beings to their basest instincts. They turned on each other and found safety only in family, tribe, clan and sect. Shiites and Sunnis, who had lived together for ages, ethnically cleansed each other’s neighbourhoods, which to this day remain separated by barricades, walls and checkpoints.

Scott Ritter writes:

In one of the last patrols conducted by U.S. forces before the formal withdrawal from Baghdad, four American soldiers lost their lives. The patrol itself was wholly symbolic—a show of force and will at a time when every military reason for the patrol had ceased to exist—a tragic yet fitting analogy for the entire U.S. military presence in Iraq. No more American troops need to die, or be physically or psychologically maimed, participating in futile “last patrols” designed to salvage the reputations of politicians. There are those who will argue for sustaining the failed military misadventure in Iraq out of a misplaced sense of national pride and honor. President Obama must confront his own ego and hubris and accept the fact that in order to secure a lasting legacy as a peacemaker he will need to ride out the short-term criticism.

As Miller and Peck both discussed, projecting one’s evil outward at others, what Jung explored as dealing with a “shadow”, is reflected in this evaluation by Stephen Gowanus.

The problem is, you can’t kill the bogeyman. Like Freddy Kruger, just when you think you can relax, he’s back. Kaddafi, the Ayatollah, Saddam, Daniel Ortega, Noriega, Milosevic. One goes, the next one comes. Osama fades away. Saddam is ushered out of the wings. Different guy, same bogeyman. And after Saddam, someone else. And then someone else. And someone else. And someone else again. Just one long string of bogeymen, Mencken’s hobgoblins.

It would be going too far to say none of the threats are real. Some are. Victims sometimes strike back, if they’re able to. But call the threats highly exaggerated, many magnified out of proportion, until they become cartoonish distortions whose existence owes everything to their capacity to terrorize, and nothing to reality.

Going along with Washington isn’t going to get rid of bogeymen. Washington needs bogeymen as much as an addict needs regular fixes. Getting rid of the incessant terror, both the manufactured kind, and the kind that arises as a result of US foreign policy, requires a radically different approach.

We owe it to ourselves and our world to stay whole and awake as citizens. To speak truth to power. Once again, “a follower is not a whole person.” As Peck writes:

This is why the individual is sacred. For it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost.

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