We have all read books, watched movies, and heard lectures about the horrific crimes the Nazis perpetrated on our people in the 1940s, and the parallels between the actions of the Nazis and those of October 7th are evident. And yet, somehow the events of October 7th seem different to me. When we read about the depravity of the Nazis, it affects us emotionally, morally, and even intellectually. We find ourselves asking questions like why didn’t someone do something, and how could God allow this to happen? But after October 7th, I felt something different. I am not just affected emotionally and morally; I have been affected physically. Suddenly, I can no longer sleep. My appetite is severely diminished. My shoulders feel heavier. The events of October 7th have affected me viscerally. I am no longer the same person I was on October 6th.
I find myself asking different questions as well. Philosophical questions about theodicy don’t concern me anymore. I am no longer wondering how God could let IT happen because I want to understand what IT is? What is this evil that ravaged the South on October 7th? How can a human being perpetrate such acts? Burning families alive, beheading babies, dragging Holocaust victims into captivity… these are not human acts. They are monstrous. How can a man become a monster?
In 1971 psychologist Phil Zimbardo set up an experiment at Stanford University. He was not studying the meaning of evil, but he was attempting to understand the psychological effects of becoming prisoners or prison guards. He placed an ad in a newspaper asking for people to participate in his experiment. Zimbardo chose twenty-four out of the seventy people who responded. He considered them the more mature and stable of the volunteers. He flipped a coin to decide which half of them would become prisoners, and which half would become the guards.
To make the experiment as authentic as possible, he consulted a prisoner who served 17 years in prison. This former prisoner described to him what life was like as a prisoner. The experiment took place in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford. The hallway became the prison yard, which was the only place the prisoners were allowed to eat, and exercise. At one end of the corridor, they placed video equipment, so they could record the experiment. At the other end of the hallway was a small closet that served as the room for solitary confinement. The prisoner’s cells were former laboratories that sat on the sides of the hallway. The doors of those laboratories were replaced with doors that had steel bars and cell numbers.
The prisoners were blindfolded and brought to the “jail” where they underwent the humiliation of being stripped and deloused. They were given uniforms with no underclothes and forced to wear chains on their right legs. Each prisoner was given an ID number.
The guards were warned of the seriousness of their jobs and given free rein to keep the prisoners in line. They wore uniforms, sunglasses, and whistles, and carried Billy clubs. They immediately began to assert their control by calling for prison counts multiple times during the day and night to make the prisoners familiar with their identification numbers. They forced prisoners to do push-ups while other prisoners sat on their backs as a form of punishment. At some point, the prisoners rebelled and the guards had to respond to the rebellion. The guards used fire extinguishers to get into the prisoner’s cells and then stripped the prisoners naked. That’s also when they decided to use psychological tactics against the prisoners. Needless to say, the effects of the experiment were extremely detrimental. After less than 36 hours from the beginning of the experiment, they were forced to let one prisoner go after he exhibited symptoms of uncontrollable crying and disorganized thoughts. He was labeled weak and then dismissed.
Later there was a rumor of a prison break, and when it never materialized the guards once again stepped up their torture of the prisoners.
It sounds like a Stephen King novel, but this scientific experiment actually took place. The experiment was meant to run for two weeks, but they had to end it after 6 days in fear of causing emotional harm to the prisoners. But it was the guards as well who were emotionally harmed. They were shocked and sincerely remorseful over their actions. One of the more hostile guards said, “I really thought I was incapable of this kind of behavior”. It’s good the experiment was run by a psychologist because after it ran, they must have all needed therapy.
In an article called “Heroes; What They Do and Why We Need Them”, Zimbardo explains some of the lessons he learned from his science experiment.
He explains that most of us believe that evil acts are committed by evil people. He calls this notion “The Lucifer Effect”. He explains that his experiment demonstrates that this is not the case. The guards in his experiment were not bad people. They were responding to the power they were given as guards. Power is what lies at the root of evil according to Zimbardo. He explains that when you are given power without any oversight, you are more likely to abuse it.
Zimbardo strongly believes that people have the capacity to be good or evil. Their life situations dictate on which side they find themselves.
It’s an interesting conclusion. As a high school English teacher, it reminds me of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. At the start of the play, Macbeth was a faithful general to King Duncan. He was beloved and celebrated by his people. It wasn’t until he tasted his first sips of power that he began to murder those around him. It was his unchecked power and the neuroses that accompanied it, that led Macbeth to murder men, women, children, and even his own friend. Shakespeare would probably have agreed with Zimbardo’s conclusions about the danger of absolute power.
I too believe that the abuse of power played a big role in the events of October 7th. Hamas abused their unchecked power by sending their people on this murderous mission. And the terrorists were drunk with power when they murdered over 1,400 people. But can power account for it all? Or was it powerlessness that contributed to it as well?
Hamas played its people like violins. They stripped them of their means to support themselves, they educated them to delight in their own deaths, and they injected them with venomous hate of Jews. They created a powerless population, and at the last minute gave them the ultimate power – power over human lives. They created monsters and set them loose.
Of course, I am not justifying what these terrorists did; You cannot defend the indefensible. I am just trying to understand how men are made into monsters. How was this evil created? Hamas played the ultimate vicious psychological game with its people. They played with power.
Zimbardo goes on in his article. He asks how we can combat evil? Heroism is the antidote to evil according to Zimbardo. But heroes are not the superheroes of Marvel comics. Our kids can be educated in heroism. They need to learn that the everyday man can be a hero.
He explains that to be a hero you need to understand two things: You may not remain passive when others are passive, and you need to suppress your own ego in favor of society. Can you find a better way to describe our own soldiers, police, and even the Jewish people at large at this moment in time?
If it is abuse of power and powerlessness that lies at the root of evil, we have all learned how to combat it: By loving others instead of trying to control them, and by sacrificing for others instead of expecting them to sacrifice for you. Perhaps it is a lesson learned from an ill-conceived science experiment, but it is a crucial one nonetheless.
*In 2019 an article was published in the APA challenging the accuracy of the conclusions of Zimbardo’s experiment and the way it was presented to the public. https://www.letexier.org/IMG/pdf/LeTexier_Debunking-the-SPE_American-Psychologist_2019.pdf
Zimbardo defends himself on his website. https://www.prisonexp.org/response