I still have my unused airline ticket from September 11, 2001, ten years ago today. My wife and I had flown to Washington for a week’s vacation that included a White House tour, a visit with our Congressman, and some play time in the Atlantic Ocean. We were driving our rental car back to the airport late that Tuesday morning to catch our flight home when we heard the news that changed all of us.
This tenth anniversary will remind every American of their personal story of that morning and the quandary of trying to comprehend such ultimate viciousness. My personal ruminations were at a peak the following day, at about three hours into our five-day drive home when we passed within three miles of the impact site of United Flight 93.
How could four teams of men so purposefully commit to the murder of thousands of people, including themselves? What kind of pep talk would convince nineteen functioning adults to trade their own existence for the glory of a mad narcissist?
The clinical question of how people can sometimes overcome their natural resistance to cruelty was best answered in 1961 by a Yale University psychologist. Dr. Stanley Milgram set out to discover how millions of German citizens could have been so complicit in carrying out the abject barbarity of the Nazi Holocaust.
In his 1974 article The Perils of Obedience, Dr. Milgram summarized the results of his earlier study: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Dr. Milgram’s evidence that people tend to surrender to authority is convincing, even when they are instructed to perform extreme behavior. In his famous 1961 research, an elaborate laboratory setup was used to convince an unsuspecting subject that he was part of a memory experiment. As the only innocent participant in the study, the subject was instructed to administer an electric shock to another man every time that he gave the wrong answer to a series of questions.
Of course, the Shock Generator machine was just a prop and the recipient of the electricity was an actor. But, under the supervision of another actor in a lab coat, the subject increased the voltage with every wrong answer, even beyond the danger warning levels on the machine. The process was repeated with 40 subjects, producing consistent, disturbing results. A fascinating, seven-minute video of the Milgram Experiment can be seen here.
The months that followed September 11, 2001 uncovered an Iraq that had been systematically subjugated by a phenomenally cruel Saddam Hussein. Videos of his seizing control of the governing council disclose the rapid implementation of a long-laid strategy. Motivated by legitimate fear, Council members who pledged their loyalty to Hussein were issued hand guns with instructions to dispatch their uncommitted friends. The videos reveal the terrific misgivings of council members to submit to Hussein’s authority. But, they did so, executing 450 of their fellow councilmen.
In the heat of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, American Private First-Class Lynndie England posed for photographs while humiliating several frightened, naked Iraqi prisoners -- an act of sadism that she would never have contemplated ten months earlier in her life as an employee at a chicken processing plant in West Virginia. But under the aggression of Specialist Charles Graner, Private Lynndie England and her fellow soldiers tarnished the heroic stature of America’s military in the Abu Ghraib incident.
We must consider deeply the character of the leaders we choose and never surrender authority to rulers who trust more in themselves than in the liberty and responsibility of the citizens. The selfless champions who founded our nation of freedoms left us with a legacy and a treasure trove of proven philosophy. Looking back on our great history, reflective of the ten-year-old scar that we wear, consider these final two verses of our national anthem:
And where is that band who so vauntingly sworeThat the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,A home and a country should leave us no more!Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.No refuge could save the hireling and slaveFrom the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth waveO'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall standBetween their loved home and the war's desolation!Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued landPraise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall waveO'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
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