We're All Still Cruel at Heart

Recently, scientists repeated the Milgram test, reports the BBC, which demonstrated normal people's willingness to inflict pain on others, and guess what? There's no difference today.

The original Milgram test basically predicted Abu Graib: it showed that normal people are willing to inflict extreme pain on others, as long as an authority figure is giving the orders. Even after faked screams of pain, 70% were prepared to increase the voltage, the American Psychology study found. Both may help explain why apparently ordinary people can commit atrocities. "

This reminds us of what Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel told Liz Smith yesterday: that those perpetuating torture and similar crimes are always normal-seeming, never easily-identifiable monsters:

"The Germans who colluded or looked away were ordinary people, [said Wiesel]. But they were people who had been convinced that Jews were actually subhuman. Twenty years of propaganda works its evil. And why is it unrealistic to show a person who has survived the camps and then made a good life?

"Do you know the way many 'ordinary' war criminals were found and brought to trial? The phone book! Investigators just looked in the phone book. These people had simply resumed their lives after the war. They didn't try to hide because they still didn't understand they had done wrong. When I sat in on some of the trials, I myself was actually shocked at how normal they seemed. No horns, no outward ugliness. That is the great horror - they weren't monsters. But they did monstrous things."

So what does this mean? Are we all automatons, ever-responsive to authority, with only a feeblest conceit of free will?