It was like some German Expressionist play: the white room, the three men in robes on this high dais; men (in black suits and narrow ties, with heavy-framed glasses, often balding) rushing back and forth with papers; and the man - in black suit, heavy-framed glasses, balding - sitting in a glass box, plugged into his headphones. Like an Expressionist play, too, the trial of Adolph Eichmann - which began today in 1961 - veered giddily between extreme formality and raw emotion, between contemptible pettiness and sickening horror.

Eichmann had been abducted from Argentina by Mossad agents, and there must have been moments when they wondered if they had the right German. Could this dull, almost invisibly anonymous little man be the one who organized the Holocaust, whose timetables and procedures controlled the dispossession, despoliation and murder of six million people? Oh, yes: he freely admitted it - well, at least five million. But he hadn't done it out of malice, you understand: "personally I have no hatred against a Jew, I have never personally had a bad experience with a Jew; [but] when I switched from being a military to a police officer, I had to carry out all the orders I was given. I am one of those men who carry out orders without reservation, according to my oath of loyalty."

This obedience went beyond the soldierly discipline pleaded by the Nuremberg defendants; it was obedience as a moral principle, which not just explained but exonerated the actions of the subordinate and transferred the burden of accountability to the superior. Eichmann went as far as to derive it from the philosopher Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, linking his eager assistance in genocide both to Higher Law and to Kultur.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, watching from the public seats, properly found Eichmann's ordinariness the most frightening thing about him: "the trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal." It made her wonder how easily other normal people could commit such horrors if they were convinced it was their duty.

Where one wonders, two will test. Another white room, another man in suit, tie, glasses. Clearly struggling with emotion, he says, "I'm sorry, that's the wrong answer," and presses a button - sending, he believes, 450 volts of electricity through the screaming man beyond the partition. Stanley Milgram's infamous experiment, begun three months into the Eichman trial, revealed how obedience can drive ordinary people into committing atrocities simply in order not to disrupt an established routine or disappoint a figure of authority (in this case, a man in a lab coat). Sixty-five percent of participants were willing to inflict what they had been told would be a fatal jolt on a man they believed had a heart condition, despite knowing that this was only a psychology experiment. Repeated trials only produced the same result.

Obedience can make us murderers; it can also make us ludicrously irrational. At the University of Manitoba, Bob Altemeyer has made authoritarians his special study. His innocent-appearing agree/disagree questionnaires give his subjects ample opportunity to reveal their inner monologues: "1. The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protestors are usually just ‘loud mouths' showing off their ignorance." "5. It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people's minds."

Top scores on Altemeyer's test indicate people with "a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society." He calls them Right-Wing Authoritarians (RWAs) - but by this he does not imply that they have particular opinions about Keynesian economics or gun ownership; instead, he means that they show a desire to be among the "right-thinking:" a straightness defined more by rigidity than direction.

Indeed, the authoritarian desires to follow authority wherever it may lead - Nazi storm troopers differ little from Stalinist shock workers; the RWA sees his role as finding and joining any majority, defending the body politic against dangerous free radicals. In a cunning further study, Altemeyer asked subjects who scored high on his RWA test whether they would, if the Federal government had passed a law outlawing certain religious cults, willingly help hunt down, arrest, or attack members of those cults, "if organized by the proper authorities." Why, yes, they would. Then Altemeyer adjusted the target group of this putative Federal ban: Communists? Sure. Homosexuals or "unpatriotic" journalists? Certainly. The Ku Klux Klan? Well, OK - if the authorities said so. What about "right-wing authoritarians?" Uh... yes. Although their agreement was less emphatic, most RWAs were so keen to side with power that they would be willing to join a posse to persecute themselves. You can only imagine what they would do to the Jews.

It's not an accident that few Nazis had much success in life before they joined the party - Eichmann had been a high-school dropout and traveling salesman; he hadn't actually read Kant. Most of us don't have the talents or knowledge to make much of a dent in this world; the tempting vice for the unexceptional majority is conformity, exaggerating those "virtues of the will" that are within everyone's reach - faith and obedience. It therefore behooves the leaders of any society to ensure that the "virtues of judgement" are also honored: curiosity, conscience, debate, and integrity. If not, we risk letting the dull, anonymous demons within us loose to make their hell on earth.

About the Author

Michael Kaplan

Michael Kaplan writes about chance, fate, probability and error. He is the author of Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human.

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