When Good People Act Evilly: Redeeming a Broken World

In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students were assigned roles as either guards or prisoners. Alarmingly, the intended 2-week study ended after only 6 days because of how quickly and wholly the students who were assigned the “guard” positions began acting in authoritative and violent manners. The “guards” inflicted such abuse that the disheartened “prisoners” were beginning to suffer from psychological damage and the environment rapidly became toxic and dangerous. In his experiments and books, Dr. Zimbardo reminds us of the horrifying fact that, given the right situation, most good people can act in terrifying and evil ways:

Any deed that any human being has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us—under the right or wrong situational circumstances. That knowledge does not excuse evil; rather, it democratizes it, sharing the blame among ordinary actors rather than declaring it the province only of deviants and despots—of Them but not Us.

Professor Zimbardo has noted that at Abu Ghraib, American soldiers all too willingly adopted the sadistic guard model and behaved in a disgraceful and abusive manner that did damage to America’s reputation and status around the world.

We should not believe that human behavior is entirely determined by circumstance but we shouldn’t be so naïve as to dismiss the enormous influence that one’s context exacts on one’s disposition and character. Susan Neiman explained this point well in Moral Clarity:

As Arendt’s book Thinking put it, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make their minds up to be or do evil at all.” Focusing on psychopaths is a good way to forget this, and it carried more than one risk. In addition to obscuring how little evil is committed by madmen (social psychologist Philip Zimbardo estimates it at 2 percent), it focuses on the evils for which responsibility is hardest to ascribe. Psychopaths, by definition, are too sick to be entirely culpable. But the problem, wrote Primo Levi, is “not that evil men did evil things, but that normal people did them.”

Dr. Charles Twagira would seem to be one of the “normal,” or even better than normal people, as he was the head of the Kibuye hospital in western Rwanda. In April 1994, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as it neared arrival in Kigali. Though the assassins were unknown, shortly thereafter, a group of Hutu (85 percent of the population) extremists launched a campaign of genocide against the minority Tutsi (14 percent of the population). Radio broadcasts exhorted people to kill the Tutsi “cockroaches” as a permanent way to ensure Hutu supremacy, and approximately 200,000 Hutus armed with machetes and firearms slaughtered over 800,000 Tutsis (about three-fourths of all Tutsis).  Thousands of Hutus who opposed the genocide were also slaughtered. This shocking amount of killing all took place within a few weeks. Dr. Twagira, who was a Hutu, was accused of murdering the family of a Tutsi man he worked with and accused of refusing to care for wounded Tutsi people who came to his Kibuye hospital during the genocide. After the genocide, Dr. Twagira fled Rwanda, and in March 2014 he was finally arrested in Vire, France, where he had been working in a hospital. What caused these “normal people” to engage in such savagery, and then, as in Dr. Twagira’s case, resume normal lives as if nothing had ever happened? How could a physician treat people one day and then callously refuse treatment to others and watch them die? Tragically, we have seen this behavior before, perhaps most infamously during the Holocaust.  We must be diligent and fervent in our attempts to understand these complex and shocking human behaviors. Perhaps understanding this better can help us in our prevention of genocide.

One of the most profound ways an individual can come to better understand themselves, and from this self-knowledge become more connected to G-d, is through prayer. One of the reasons that we engage in prayer is to explore and understand all that is spiritually laden inside of us. From this understanding we become more human, we grow, we connect more deeply with our neighbors, and we seek G-d more purely. Consider the words of the great Rabbi Soloveitchik:

Prayer is a vital necessity for the religious individual. He cannot conceal his thoughts and his feelings, his vacillations and his struggles, his yearnings and his wishes, his despair and his bitterness – in a word, the great wealth stored away in his religious consciousness – in the depths of his soul. Suppressing liturgical expression is simply impossible: prayer is a necessity. Vital, vibrant religiosity cannot sustain itself without prayer. In sum, prayer is justified because it is impossible to exist without it (Worship of the Heart, 150).

It is hard to understand the purpose of standing before G-d and rambling our thoughts, concerns, and dreams, in fact it sometimes feels unjustifiable. However, Rav Soloveitchik believes that the absolute human need for prayer serves as a spiritual justification. This belief is so relevant today when there is so much at stake and the need for us to be spiritually connected and aware is thus so great. The awareness and connection derived from prayer is at the very core of our aspirations for a redeemed world.

Kabbalistic theology teaches us the three crucial stages of creation: Tzimtzum. Shevira. Tikkun. The Kabbalistic narrative of creation explains that G-d humbly pulled back from the world and the spiritual vessels catastrophically shattered, or broke, spilling holy light everywhere.

In this theological narrative lays, perhaps, the most significant question of 21st-century Judaism: What must we be doing uniquely in our own era to re-gather the scattered sparks of light and to repair the world(s)? How will we redeem, elevate, and heal? If we are to accomplish these holy goals we must learn to hold the delicate balance between light and vessel, between oneness and separateness, chaos and order, the infinite and finite, the spatial and temporal and eternal.

Understanding our own capacities for goodness and wrongdoing is a challenging endeavor, but is necessary for mankind to achieve the common understanding essential for progress. However, we are not yet aware of the human potential for good and evil. The great philosopher Rousseau once wrote:

We know the first from which each of us starts in order to get to the common level of understanding. But who knows the outer limit? I know of no philosopher who has yet been so bold as to say: this is the limit of what man can attain and beyond which he cannot go. We do not know what our nature permits us to be.

Though this may still be true today, as Rousseau wrote that it was about his generation, I propose that prayer and spirituality are essential elements in better understanding our behaviors and refining them. It is our responsibility, as religious individuals, spiritual leaders, and members of faith communities, to take the lead in this arena.

shoah picThe people of the 19th century never could have imagined the advancements, or the horrors, that occurred in the 20th century. Just like those before us we do not yet know what lies ahead in the not so distant future. However, what may come, positive and/or negative, we should not blame the societal ills on the technology that we create and control. Technology has become a favorite target of many philosophers and social commentators, who decry it as an agent of desensativity, social ostracization, and de-connection from reality. However, as Susan Neiman explains, we must take responsibility for our technological advancements, recognize the benefits, and watch our judgments:

But when you think of the risks technology poses, presumably you don’t mean the technology that improved by 50 percent your chances of living long enough to worry about them. Nor do you mean the technology that ended the days when toothaches were torture and sore throats were deadly; when women’s lives were exhausted by between grinding chores like washing clothes by hand, and anxious hours at sickbeds keeping children’s fevers down with wet rags; when music was limited to people in private concert rooms, and art was something you had to take a ship to Italy to see. Take stock for a moment: For every high-tech advance you find superfluous, there’s another you find essential. Deciding which elements will enhance our lives and which will threaten them is a matter of good judgment, (Moral Clarity, 262).

Psychologists and sociologists have long tried to understand why seemingly good people commit crimes. Apart from unstable childhoods, the impulsive and peer-pressure-driven adolescent years, and varied demographic problems, there appears to be a need that motivation and opportunity must exist in order for people to commit crime. We can see this dependence in even simple mischievous crimes that formerly existed but due to technological changes have disappeared. In the early 20th century, for example, most cities in America had slow moving streetcars (San Francisco still has a system powered by an underground cable that runs at 9.5 miles per hour). In urban areas, young boys were especially fond of trying to avoid paying the fare by hitching a ride on the front or back of these streetcars, which had small flat areas above the bumpers. Whether due to peer pressure (the fear of being called derogatory names, etc.) boys would commonly run up to the streetcars and hop on; if they slipped and fell off, they risked being crushed; if they stayed, they risked being seized by the streetcar operator or a policeman. Eventually, once the streetcar lines were removed and buses took over, this behavior largely disappeared, as it is nearly impossible to hang on to a moving bus. In San Francisco, the cable cars are so popular that you probably could not hitch a ride if you tried to pay for a spot.

On the other hand, when money is involved, the crimes are more serious and enduring. Money is still at the heart of most criminal activity, as greed remains a powerful force. Recently, Thomas Rica, a former public works inspector in the wealthy community of Ridgewood, NJ, was found to have stolen $460,600 in quarters from a storage room, in the building where he worked, that was used to hold money from the village’s parking meters. Rica, whose $86,000 salary was more than enough to sustain his family, acknowledged that he found the nearby coins (and his access to the room with a master key) too tempting, and pocketed the coins over more than a 2-year period, a crime that must have taken an incredible amount of time and effort just to carry the tons of coins to his car. A simple Google search will turn up hundreds of similar stories.

While we constantly hear of petty and white-collar criminals, what about notable figures from the past? Interestingly, this behavior can be seen in some of our most famous historical figures. Thomas Alva Edison was lionized during and after his life for his thousands of ingenious inventions, many of which have made life more enjoyable for millions of people. However, even with Edison, a combination of ego (an obsession with controlling the application of an invention) and fear (his financial backer was the formidable J.P. Morgan, who brooked no scruples in the pursuit of money) caused him to embark on a shocking course of evil that is made even more alarming when you consider Edison’s fervent opposition to capital punishment.

Edison picIn the years following Edison’s development of the incandescent electric light bulb in 1879, he faced a problem. In order to provide electricity using his direct current (DC) technology, there needed to be power plant located close by (at least every mile) in order to transport the current efficiently, which would necessitate thousands of plants in every city. In the meantime, another scientist and mathematician, Nikola Tesla, developed alternating current (AC), which resulted in the ability to transport electricity great distances without the necessity of numerous power plants (Tesla also developed the much more energy efficient fluorescent light bulb in 1888). Edison rejected Tesla’s idea out of hand, not realizing (or allowing for the possibility) that it was the superior system.

When Tesla found a backer in George Westinghouse, the AC system took off. Edison, fearing that the competition would overwhelm him (and pressured by his own backer, Morgan), turned to truly evil tactics. Beginning in 1888, he obtained AC dynamos and began to electrocute animals in an attempt to convince reporters and the public that AC was a dangerous technology that would kill people. At first, he killed dogs, but then he moved up to calves and a horse. However, even these disgusting demonstrations were not enough. Edison next arranged for the world’s first execution by electric chair, using his rival’s AC technology. On August 6, 1890, in New York’s Auburn prison, convicted murderer William Kemmler was strapped to an electric chair, and after a 17-second burst, appeared to be dead. However, he soon began to desperately gasp for breath, and the execution was delayed while the dynamo recharged.  A second charge was applied for minutes, and Kemmler literally burned to death while the witnesses became physically ill at the horrid, torturous death.

Even after the gruesome human execution, undeterred, Edison arranged to have an allegedly rogue circus elephant, Topsy, killed by AC at Coney Island in New York in front of the press and thousands of spectators. On January 4, 1903 Edison applied 6,600 volts of electricity to the animal, killing her in minutes. The entire sickening act was filmed and dispersed throughout the United States. Eventually, however, even Edison had to acknowledge that Westinghouse and Tesla had the better system, but not until he had created a truly monstrous invention. To date, only the United States and the Philippines have ever used the electric chair for executions (more than 4,400 through January 2013).

Upon hearing such disturbing tales of good people turning to evil, we might yield to despair about our human capabilities, but that would be a mistake.  We have more power than ever before. We constantly fall in order to climb forward (yeridah l’tzorech aliyah), but the falls are becoming more intense due to our immense technological capacity. But in this cycle, we must remember we possess the most powerful ability:

Stone is hard, but iron cuts it. Iron is stiff, but fire melts it. Fire is powerful, but water extinguishes it. Water is heavy, but clouds carry it. Clouds are strong, but wind disperses them. Wing is strong, but the body resists it. The body is strong, but fear destroys it. Fear is strong, but wine averts it. Wine is strong, but sleep conquers it. Death is more powerful than any of these, but tzedakah redeems death (Midrash Tanhuma).

The most powerful weapon is tzedakah (acts of righteousness). It is the way we defy the natural world (breaking from self-interest) and even death (placing our souls in the realm of the eternal). The potential for spiritual and ethical actualization are all around us. We are reminded of the well-known and profound teaching of Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk:

It is said that he once asked his disciples, “Where does God live?” They were bewildered. “How can the rabbi ask, Where does God live? Where does God not live?” “No,” said the rabbi, “God lives where we let Him in.”

Humans can find themselves in situations overcome by pressure. It is through prayer, community, and absolute commitment to justice that we are capable of overcoming temptations for evil and wrongdoing. It is G-d’s promise that we are created with bechirat chofshi (free will) and we prove this Divine truth whenever we prevail over the selfish and unjust temptations that have plagued our world since the Garden of Eden.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.