News today that members of Congress, including Nancy Pelosi, failed to protest when they were briefed about waterboarding and other harsh techniques of interrogation five years ago recalls the disturbing Milgram experiments of the 1960s.
A Yale professor wanted to find out how much pain people would inflict on others for what they believed to be a good cause.
"Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others," Prof. Stanley Milgram reported, "and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."
We still don't know the answer to that question, which was originally raised in an effort to see behind the Eichmann defense for Nazi atrocities during World War War II, "I was only following orders." But we should keep trying to find out.
Today's revelation about waterboarding further underscores how dicey individual morality can become under social pressure. According to the Washington Post, "officials present during the meetings described the reaction as mostly quiet acquiescence, if not outright support.
"'Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing,' said [Porter] Goss, who chaired the House intelligence committee from 1997 to 2004 and then served as CIA director from 2004 to 2006. 'And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement.'"
All this is clearly intended to relieve pressure on the Administration for its secrecy, including the destruction of torture tapes, but if involving lawmakers clears the air of some holier-than-thou posturing, it doesn't absolve anyone or lessen the need to move forward in the public debate on what kind of people we are and want to be.
What Stanley Milgram wrote in 1974, looking back on his experiments, might be as good a place as any to start:
"There was a time, perhaps, when people were able to give a fully human response to any situation because they were fully absorbed in it as human beings. But as soon as there was a division of labor things changed. Beyond a certain point, the breaking up of society into people carrying out narrow and very special jobs takes away from the human quality of work and life. A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of overall direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.
"Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-b into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the ground that he was only following orders from above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act. The person who assumes responsibility has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society."
As today's furor over torture goes on, it might help to think about that.