Why Are People Capable of Committing Acts of Terror We are socialized right from the beginning. Colonization is the modification of an individual’s behavior to conform with the demands of social life. Once we are born, our society and culture already helps define certain aspects of ourselves. As we grow older, we assimilate more of the culture into our own identity. During this process, we also learn of moral values, what is right and wrong or how an action could only be appropriate in a certain setting.
If we all learn from the start what is right or wrong s well-socialized people in society, how is it that there are still people who commit acts of terror? When we interact with people in society, we are constantly adding new layers to our own personality and thought to conform with society and their norms. Since we are used to trying to fit in to our society and culture through interaction, it is easy to adapt to new situations where we may have to commit horrific acts as we conform to our surroundings.
The first reason as to why normal, well-socialized and educated people could commit horrific acts is because we get caught up in the roles of our lives. By instantly trying to fulfill the different roles we play in society, we sometimes lose our own identity. The lifestyle that we currently live with does not help with this situation as well. According to German sociologist George Simmer, the type of lifestyle we live in affects the way we perceive things or react to things.
When living in a rural area, the “rhythm of life and sensory mental imagery flows more slowly, more habitually, and more evenly’ (Simmer). Due to the slow pace lifestyle in rural areas, we react more with our heart. In contrast, urban lifestyle is more fast-paced and frantic. In order to peep up with our surroundings we have to think in a more logical and ‘rational manner’ (Wiley) and also have a heightened awareness. This is what Simmer called the Metropolitan Attitude. We have different roles to play based on the situation.
In one social circle, a person could be a mother, and in another circle, she could be the leader of an organization. Trying to find a balance between all the different roles we have to play may be hard. Attempting to fit in the whatever situation we are in could make us more susceptible to committing acts of terror. During the Stanford Jail psychology experiment conducted by Zanzibar, it valued Just how easily people could adapt to a new situation and a new role given the right circumstances. This experiment shows the process of a “normal and average” person becoming a prisoner and a Jailer.
One of the goals of this experiment was to also see how we go from ourselves with our identity and our names to being prisoners with numbers as identification; what it takes to understand the process by which prisoners become prisoners and how long it takes for them to lose their identities. Right at the very start, the prisoner test subjects were treated as prisoners. They were escorted out of their house in handcuffs, given numbers and uniforms that euthanized and De-individualized them. “Within a very short time both guards and prisoners were settling into their new roles, the guards adopting theirs quickly and easily’ (McLeod, Zanzibar).
Being suddenly ripped from your normal life and thrust into an unknown situation, despite knowing to be part of a psychology experiment, we are forced to adapt to survive. For a short period of time, those people regarded their Jail situation to be their life. They get so caught up in their roles they lose the previous identity that they had. The way that the prisoners “discussed escape plans, the awful food, grievances or ingratiation tactics to use with specific guards in order to get a cigarette, permission to go to the toilet or some other favor” (Zanzibar).
This removes from the reality and cements their role and identity within the temporary Jail house. One reason why it was easy for the people to adopt their different roles and persona was due to the pressure society gives us to conform. Mile Druthers believed that “society exercises control over our behavior, as rules of conduct, as laws, as customs, and as norms and values that we believe in and that shape our omniscience and make us part of a collectivity’ (Druthers) He also had a functionalist view. He believed that we exist to serve society.
There are two types, mechanical and organic solidarity, for people to interact in society. Mechanical solidarity refers to the a simpler society, where they had a collective conscience and shared a set of values and traditions. Modern society was more of an organic solidarity. We are more complex and rely on occupational interdependence or division of labor. When the people went from their homes and set places in society to the Jail house, it changed he physical aspect. They went from a modern society to a simpler society that was controlled by Zanzibar.
The morals within the situation also changed. The morals changed to a simpler one, of the mechanical solidarity. They had a collective conscience and shared set of values and traditions that had been set by Zanzibar and also the set perception of what they thought a Jail experience would be like. Having this change also allows the people to better adapt to their current environment. With the morals changed, it is easier to act out different based on your new role. We become invested in that role. The guards in this experiment were also De- individualized.
They were given the same uniform and reflective aviators. The guards become really comfortable in their roles, being able to dish out punishment. One guard kept track of things in a diary. At the very beginning, he wrote down that he was a pacifist. But as time went on, the reader could tell that his mindset was changing as he started to blame more things on the prisoner and also started to punish them. He was conforming to the group and convinced himself that his actions towards the prisoners was for their own good or for the greater good (Zanzibar).
Being part of a group that was doing the same thing as he was, and being surrounded by those actions, this shows how even though these people had the right moral values and was properly socialized in our society, based on the situation they were in, they lost ourselves to that current role, which allowed them to act in certain ways we normally would not be able to. The second reason as to why well-socialized people can commit horrific acts is because they are simply obeying an authority figure. When doing a horrific act, the person may try to shift the responsibility towards a higher authority.
This was what Amalgam was trying to find out in his experiment. Amalgam conducted an experiment that focused on the battle between obedience to authority and personal conscience. In other words, he wanted to find out how far people would continue to obey instructions if it involved harming another individual. Amalgam’s experiment consisted of a volunteer asking questions towards a confederate, someone in on the experiment, and when that person got a wrong question, he would be electrically shocked. As more questions was answered wrong, the voltage of the electric shock would go up.
What the volunteer didn’t know was that the person answering the questions wasn’t actually being shocked, he was Just acting. Also in the room with the volunteer was a ‘doctor’, an experimenter dressed in a white lab coat. The results showed that 65% of participants decided to continue to the highest level of 450 volts and all the participants went up to at least 300 volts. (McLeod, The). Although the volunteer was told they could leave anytime, they continued to stay and conduct the experiment, even continuing up to, what was labeled on the machine as, dangerously high levels of voltage.
The results showed that ordinary people are likely to follow orders from an authority figure. In extrapolating the results, ordinary people may very well follow orders from an authority figure, even to the extent of killing someone. One of the many lessons we were taught as a child was to follow and obey authority figures. This was how we were socialized. We tend to obey authority figures from those we recognize, such as doctors, teachers or simply our elders.
If we are brought up knowing that their morals are right and Just, that is another factor that makes us trust these authority figures even more. The uniform the authority figure wears can also give them status. When asked why they kept on going with the experiment even Hough they were hurting the other person, the confederate, the volunteers replied with, “l was Just following the orders I was given”. Even during the experiment, some volunteers asked if the authority figure would take responsibility before continuing after they were given an affirmative answer.
A number of them even said that this was for the advancement of science. Reification is to put science on a pedestal and think that as long as it is for science, what we do to them is fine. In Machiavellian book The Prince, he lists and explains different reasons in what makes a good ruler or prince. The concept he lays out is similar to reification but not in the sense of the advancement of science. Instead, he believes that a good ruler or prince will do whatever is in his power for the good of his land, even if it is to commit an evil act to get there.
The ends Justify the means, no matter what means are taken to make the best possible result appear. The obedience experiment by Amalgam demonstrate how by Just being sheep and obeying authority figures, can lead us down the path to doing heinous acts of terror. Machiavelli shows how the authority figure also has to do to unsanitary acts for the best interests of his people or in order or more power. There are many factors that come in to play before a well-socialized, sane and well-educated person has to be in before committing acts of terror.
Whether it is obeying authority or that you are Just too engrossed in your role in society, these are just some of the many reasons as to why a person may go off the rails and start committing these acts. I believe mental power and strength are factors to take into consideration. Being easily swayed by the general populous, or Just conforming to fit in, this makes us more susceptible to adaptation and change. Having mental power and strength is one way to make us less susceptible. Being aware of your social situation, or sociological imagination, can assist you to see the bigger picture.