Two weeks ago the world looked on in horror as a man mutilated a fellow human being who was walking the street in Woolwich in broad daylight. His crime was that he was a soldier and his murderer, who attempted to behead him with a knife and a meat cleaver, proclaimed that he was acting in the name of Islam. To add to public horror he was interviewed on camera with blood-stained hands and it became clear from his rantings that he was an ideologue, probably acting alone or as a member of some fanatical cell, misappropriating the teachings of Islam.
Many thousands of words have been written since then discussing what makes people carry out such evil deeds. Several themes have emerged from the myriad possibilities. The most frequently mentioned is 'the banality of evil'. This idea comes from the work of a political philosopher Anna Arendt who made a study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. She expressed the view that evil looks and behaves banally. The perpetrators do not look like monsters but as Eichmann did, they seem harmless and even bland. They simply become immersed in the detail of their work and unthinkingly follow orders.
In their focus on bureaucratic detail coupled with their inability to think critically or to see the bigger picture they are banal.
Psychologists have also studies the ordinariness of evil and in particular the work of Philip Zombardo and of Stanley Milgram is often used to try to understand this. In the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) Zombardo invited psychology students to participate in an experiment in which they were divided into prisoners and guards and placed in a fabricated prison. Within hours the guards were engaged in humiliating and degrading actions against the prisoners while the inmates themselves, with few except-ions, became cowed and submissive, and a few had major psychological breakdowns necessitating their removal from the experiment.
Milgram carried out an obedience experiment in which a 'teacher' read pairs of words to a 'learner'. If the latter was unable to recall the pairs then an electric shock would be administered.
The voltage increased over time up to a maximum of 450 volts. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment.
Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously on hearing the screams of pain from the learner. Unknown to the 'teachers' no shocks were in fact administered. Milgram explained this behaviour as a willingness to conform to what was required. He called it the agnetic state; a si-tuation in which the person suspended his or her capacity to think morally. This was a psychological interpretation of Arendt's theory.
Another theory is that in order to behave in such a manner, participants, far from being passive, only appear so and in fact believe that what they are doing is right.
An alternate view to those above is that evil is done by those who have a predisposition to act in this way. This is supported by some studies on the heritability of certain traits of personality associated with cruel and callous actions. Recent genetic studies have found a heritability of over 65pc for traits described as sociopathic or psychopathic.
Whatever the explanation for evil behaviour, we should not forget that those of us not directly involved should not remain on the sidelines. We can choose to behave like the onlookers in Woolwich who took photographs of the horror or we can join the women, one of whom lay on the body of the dying man to shield him from further assault, or two others who separated him from the attackers. Remember the words of Edmund Burke, "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing".