Monday, July 25, 2011

the face of horror

trying not to feel ill:-(
"Deterioration of Mind Over Matter" Otto Rapp

Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist responsible for the Stanford Prison Experiment, tells us that the following makes it easy for people to do evil:
  • mindlessly taking the first small step down the road to evil;
  • dehumanization of others;
  • de-individuation of self (anonymity);
  • diffusion of personal responsibility;
  • blind obedience to authority;
  • uncritical conformity to group norms;
  • passive tolerance of evil (inaction, indifference).
I would add two other elements:
  • fundamentalist ideas, dogmatic beliefs, and deep-rooted ideologies;
  • neurology.
The first item perhaps helps to account for the unfathomable acts of hatred we witness in the form of terrorism motivated by religious fanaticism. Where now even small children as young as eight years old are instrumentalized as suicide-bombers. Either consentingly, due to severe brain-washing in special education camps (see Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: Inside a school for suicide bombers), or forced against their will.

Here the world recently witnessed a new level of violence during the terrorists attacks in Mumbai in 2008. The terrorists consumed cocaine and LSD to be able to "battle" for 50 hours without food or sleep, efficiently killing nearly 200 people.

Tragically, it appears now, that religiously motivated hatred and terror is being joined by politically motivated hatred and terror. As committed recently by a friendly looking 32 year-old Norwegian, called Anders Breivik.

It takes a very high level of abstraction, i.e., a total absence of empathy and compassion for human beings, to single-handedly shoot and kill at least 68 teenagers, while quietly walking around a pristine little island for over an hour (this after detonating a 300 kg bomb in the heart of Oslo, killing another 8 people).

The motivation for this act is said to be rooted in political extremism. Hence the perpetrator's self-perception of being a liberator, enabling a better future, and not that of being a coldblooded killer, a psychopathic monster, bringing to light an incredible drive to cause suffering.

The children where not only Norwegian, crucially, they where attending a political youth retreat, affiliated with the party the killer perceives as the cause of all problems. He is quoted to having said: "The time for dialogue is over. We tried to give peace a chance. Now the time for armed resistance has come." He also stated that he only wanted to send a strong signal, not kill as many people as possible.

Apparently, nearly ten years of planing went into this incomprehensible act of hatred. The serial killer wrote a manifesto comprised of 1500 pages, explaining his cause, defining the (political) enemy, and detailing the solution, which he sent to hundreds of people, who share his political ideology, in Europe and the US.

The atypical element of the killing spree is that the perpetrator survived. Neither did he commit suicide, nor did he forcefully oppose his capture. In fact, it is said, that he wants a public trial in order for him to explain his motivations. He is said to view the period after his arrest as a sort of propaganda-phase. Although he has confessed to having carried out the bombing and the mass killing single-handedly, he pleaded not guilty in court. He also looked quite content while being transfered by the police.

However, perhaps this is all a side-effect of a deeper cause - a far simpler one. And all the attempts to explain and classify with ideology and mindsets are simply attempts to comfort ourselves with things we can comprehend.

In 1966, Charles Whitman, a former student at the University of Texas at Austin and an ex-Marine, aged 25, sat down to write his suicide note:
I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

In his diary he had mentioned talking to a doctor about the "overwhelming violent impulses" haunting him. However, he never saw the doctor again. His note continues:
It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight. [...] I love her dearly, and she has been a fine wife to me [...]. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this.

After having murdered his wife and mother in their sleep, he went to the top of the University of Texas' tower and began to shoot indiscriminately at the people below, killing 14, before being shot by the police.

His suicide note also read:
If my life insurance policy is valid please pay of my debts [...] donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.

An autopsy revealed that Whitman's brain contained a tumor. The tumor was pressing on a brain region responsible for emotional regulation, especially fear and aggression. (Taken from Eagleman's book Incognito - The Secret Lives of the Brain, see more in this post).

It is safe to say that the neural circuitry of of the Norwegian killer is profoundly broken, lacking vital elements which allow us to be human: empathy, compassion, connectedness, and love. But then, can any level of understanding ever heal the pain of the victims? How do you live your life after you have witnessed the agony of incomprehensible acts of meaningless hatred and violence? After peering into the face of horror?

 "Necronomicon 2" H.R. Giger

What would it mean, if Anders Breivik could really be treated with brain surgery or medication, restoring in him a normal level of empathy and compassion? What if his brain's propensity for ideology would then crumble in the face of its new found capability for humanity? What if he could be cured of the age-old fallacy, that causing any kind of suffering will cease or remedy any other kind of perceived suffering?

I sometimes wonder, if one could define a spectrum for love and hatred, and assuming it to be symmetric, what state of blissful being would lie at the other end of such abysmal hatred...


Michael J Kubat said...

Many thanks for an incisive article. In one detail, however, I think you wrong. You state that "religiously motivated hatred and terror has now been joined by politically-motivated hatred and terror."

This is simply not true. Reach back almost a century and witness Soviet slaughter of tens of millions for belonging to the "wrong class" - a purely political motivation for mass murder and terror if there ever was one. Ditto for Communist China, ditto for every such regime since Lenin kicked it all off.

In employing politically motivated terror, Breivik is truly a Johnny-come-lately.

jbg said...

you are right, my analysis was a bit myopic and in disregard of a greater historical context.

perhaps "religiously motivated hatred and terror has now been rejoined again by politically-motivated hatred and terror" would be more appropriate...

jbg said...

Psychopaths: Good or Evil (BBC)

jbg said...

Anders Breivik Is Threatening to Go On a Hunger Strike Until He Gets a Newer Playstation

jbg said...


jbg said...

Glenn Beck: Norway camp smacks of 'Hitler Youth'

Glenn Beck urged to increase pressure on massacre victims