Torture and the Herd Mind

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The horrifying report of the US Senate investigation into CIA torture during the Iraq War was released to the public this week, revealing depths of sadism and cruelty that nearly everybody but Dick Cheney considers un-American. When scandals like this are revealed, our first instinct is to look for someone else to blame.

This is a natural instinct, and I followed the instinct myself when I called out Dick Cheney above. But that was a cheap shot, and blaming others for a complex problem always feels like a moral dead end. Did we not all participate in the democratic process that led to the election of the leaders who embraced barbarity on our behalf? Are we not ourselves all to blame?

To blame ourselves seems more enlightened than to blame others. And yet, surprisingly, it brings us no closer to real understanding. Whether we blame others or ourselves, either way we are identifying a flaw in human character as the cause of a terrible problem. We are presuming that bad traits like greed or sadism or toxic ideology or ignorant apathy lead certain individuals (others, ourselves) to make wrong decisions. But we always discover that this realization doesn't improve anything, because no personal judgement will have an impact on problems like torture -- or human slavery or terrorism or genocide or any other form of geopolitical atrocity. Even when we occasionally manage to put some evildoers in jail, we don't seem to be fixing the underlying problems at all.

Imagine a bunch of people floating on rafts towards a waterfall that will soon kill them all. They are all paddling as hard as they can in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Some are using their hands, some are kicking their legs, others are trying to lash their rafts together. They are all yelling at each other that somebody else is doing it wrong, or they are crying for help because they know they are themselves doing it wrong. But the key point is this: they are all going to go over the waterfall. It doesn't matter whether they paddle with their hands or kick with their legs. It doesn't matter what any of them think, or what any of them say. They are in the grip of a force of nature. They are floating on a river that is carrying them against their will.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, it may be the case that a CIA torture scandal was simply inevitable. It may not have mattered what Dick Cheney thought, or what any Cabinet official or Washington Post reporter or angry voter did. It may be that the CIA's descent into barbarity was an inevitable result of the invasion of Iraq. The actions of certain powerful individuals surely made the torture scandal worse, and the actions of certain other individuals may have made the scandal less horrible. But this is like the difference between people who are paddling fast or paddling slow to get away from the waterfall. Either way, they are all going over.

When we discuss atrocities like the CIA torture scandal, we should try to puzzle out the actual forces of nature that caused the atrocity. Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is far more powerful than that of any individual decision-maker's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind, whose patterns do not resemble those of the individual mind at all.

This is why it feels so unsatisfying to blame individuals like Dick Cheney (or George W. Bush, or Donald Rumsfeld, etc. etc.), who are no longer even in power. It also feels unsatisfying to blame ourselves; after all, we know we never personally sanctioned torture. To blame ourselves for decisions we know we never made might seem nobly self-sacrificing, but it also feels gratuitous and weak, and leaves us helpless against the likelihood of future atrocities.

If we are perplexed as to what we did wrong last time, what can we do to make sure we don't do the same thing wrong the next time? Are we supposed to vote harder? Go out to the streets and protest ... against exactly what? Should we throw out all our elected officials, based on a magical belief that a new set of politicians will maintain higher moral standards in time of war?

But then, we must ask ourselves, what government ever maintains high moral standards in time of war?

Meanwhile, we're still on our rafts, paddling as hard as we can, and the current is still carrying us towards the waterfall ...

No individual person can institute a policy of government-sanctioned torture. This is an act that requires a group, a collective, a bureaucracy, a herd. It is not the individual mind but the group mind that conjures visions of cruelty. No single person -- not a Napoleon, not a Hitler, not a Mao -- is ever capable of wielding or controlling the kind of power that a herd mind can wield once a war begins.

It's all too easy to fixate on individual personalities and miss this crucial truth. It's easy to imagine that a vile leader like Dick Cheney might actually harbor private urges of psychological or sexual sadism (he looks so creepy that many people believe this about him prima facie, though it may or may not be actually true). But there is very little substance to these speculations. For instance, even if Dick Cheney is a diagnosable sadist, this does not explain the disturbing CIA actions detailed in this week's report. Dick Cheney was never in a prison cell brandishing a whip and a bucket of water and a rectal feeder. It takes a very large bureaucracy to carry out a policy of institutionalized torture over the course of many years. It takes a herd mind.

The mystery of the herd mind explains why individuals who participate in acts of atrocity often appear bewildered when they are caught in the act and called to explain their actions. We see this whenever a historical atrocity occurs. Ask a Turkish politician about the Armenian genocide of 1915. Put a Nazi on a witness stand and ask why he killed Jews. Interview a bunch of Rwandan Hutus who sit in a crowded jail about why they killed Tutsis, or a bunch of Serbians about why they killed Bosnians. You'll always get the same shrug. They aren't hiding the answers. They really don't know why they did what they did.

Again, here's why they did it. They were channeling the herd mind, and the herd mind has a different logic than the individual human mind. In times of peace, the herd mind can be a source of beauty and generosity and wonder. In times of war, the herd mind can lead us to greater levels of evil than almost any of us could ever be capable of dreaming up. In either case, the herd mind's logic always operates differently than the individual mind. And we tend to follow the herd mind's logic as often as we follow our own.

Are we letting individual actors off too easily when we recognize that only a herd mind can commit atrocities like torture or genocide? We could take crowd psychology too far and let this happen, but we should not. The fact that we are all stuck in the river's strong current doesn't mean that we shouldn't observe the different ways that people attempt to paddle. It does no harm to put an Adolf Eichmann or Sloban Milosevic or Dick Cheney in jail, and it provides or would provide a neat (though weak) moral lesson to do so.

Still, we must realize that we solve no problems by punishing individual evil-doers in time of war. Go ahead and put Eichmann and Milosevic and Cheney behind bars, but other fools will take their spots. The herd mind is not choosy about its leaders.

So, how do we begin to understand the nature of the herd mind, so we can at least make better decisions about which herds to join? That's a gigantic topic that will require future discussion, though we laid some groundwork in past weeks when we discussed the fact that a herd mind will always believe in its own moral excellence. (We called this significant discovery The Ashley Wilkes Principle.) We've also noted that fear and paranoia tend to quickly overwhelm the herd mind in times of war, and this does appear to be a key finding that will hopefully lead to future discoveries about possibilities for long-term peace.

This week's USA Senate report on CIA torture disturbed many people around the world, and has stirred many of us to think harder about what can be done. I'm sure that many people are reading various go-to texts for enlightenment. Some may be reading Noam Chomsky or Slavoj Zizek. Some may be reading the US Constitution or the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Some may be reading the Bible or the Dhammapada.

Me, I'm reading a book called Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War by Wilfred Trotter, originally published in 1919. I don't know why I never read this book before, and I have a feeling I'll be writing about it again. Till then, please share any thoughts you have about this topic. I'd love to know if my words on this page are making sense to anyone but me.

5 Responses to "Torture and the Herd Mind"

by mnaz on

That's right. Individual minds can be taken to ruinous places by collective herd mentality. I was on the road, in Arizona, staying with an old acquaintance (we attended the same church many years ago) when Abu Ghraib first broke. This guy watched FOX News every day, and he was PISSED when this story came out-- not so much at the abuse and torture, but the fact that it was being reported. "They only report the bad stuff," he kept saying.

But then, look at the situation. If the herd mind believes that we are "fighting the terrorists," how do you wrap your head around that? All bets are off, right? Terrorism is not subject to negotiation or analysis; it's very nature precludes any such thing. It is simply a monolithic evil to be crushed, right? Well, that's generally what your TV screen tells you, at least.

by Levi Asher on

Exactly, Mnaz. I just don't think people are thinking very hard about these problems. Calling other people "evil" -- as in monolithic evil -- is the laziest excuse for real ethics.

Hmm, maybe that's the point I was trying to make here ...

Great post! Yes it's easy to point fingers and think you yourself would never have done such a thing but when you are part of a system your mind is not wholly your own. I like your waterfall analogy and agree the best defense is to understand how herd mentality operates. I will definitely want to check out the book by Wilfred Trotter. Also, in his novel "Resurrection" Leo Tolstoy addresses the nature of systematic evil.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for bringing up Tolstoy, Carol Apple ... yes, in fact I had Tolstoy in mind as I was writing this blog post (seriously!). I have been learning more and more about his political philosophy lately, and finding great things there.

by mnaz on

Levi, where is our man Obama on this insidious issue of "religion wars?"
??

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