Great crimes are sometimes committed by small people. Vasili Blokhin was born in 1895 in a poor Russian peasant family and at the age of 15 worked as a bricklayer, until he was mobilized on the World War I’s front. After the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, he actively adheres to the Soviet power as a member of NKVD troops, and in 1933, alongside, he graduates the Architecture and Construction Institute in Moscow, so that in 1953 he would retire in the grade of Major General. So far, nothing unusual for the biography of a soldier from those troubled and warlike times.
However, Blokhin left a footprint in history which makes him distinct from all his other fellows and colleagues: he was responsible for the execution of death sentences carried out by NKVD and personally shot about… 20.000 people (!). Two other colleagues of his had more “modest” results – they shot by 10.000 people each. It was a lot of work; only during 1937, the NKVD’s execution troops shot about 1000 people every day .
Blokhin is perhaps the most sinister person from the category of professional executioners, but he’s far from being one of the few. In time of war, and not only, very many other people have committed murder, torture and violence, covering themselves with permission or authorization granted by some high-ranking court, either chief, or institution, or state. How does it happen that so many people agree to execute such orders and, in fact, what prevails: the power of the orders that come from high places or the inner desire to find justification for accomplishing such violent acts? Some famous social psychology studies have provided some enlightening answers to these questions. The amazing results of one of these experiments we will present below.
In the early 1960s, the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment which immediately became a landmark in the science of human behavior. Milgram asked himself the question which many other asked themselves before him: How is it that so many ordinary people agreed to perform unspeakable atrocities during the Nazi regime and how was it possible to organize the Hebrew Holocaust with the hands of thousands of German citizens? Finally, why, in history, do soldiers fulfill the most odious military and political leaders’ orders?
To find an answer to these questions, Milgram has set up an ingenious experiment in which he managed to persuade some people to administer high-intensity electric shocks to others, these people being announced, in advance, that these shocks produce actual pain (although in reality, of course, they didn’t). In 65% of cases, the shocks’ intensity reached 450 volts – an intensity which would have had a lethal effect in real conditions. People simply obeyed the promptings that came from a scientist clothed in white.
During the experiment, the researchers themselves were surprised to find out how a simple man can easily become an executioner, when he is authoritatively asked to do things that are contrary to the most elementary moral norms and are threatening another person’s life. One of the first conclusions drawn by Milgram was that individuals have a reflex of subordination to the authorities, and in specific situations even the controversial orders shall be fulfilled, as it happens in crisis and warlike situations, in totalitarian and bureaucratic regimes; this explains how it was possible to organize an “industry of death” in Nazi Germany and not only there [Milgram, 1963]. But things seem to be more desolate than psychologists initially thought.
At the first interpretation, Milgram’s experiments, which soon became famous and were repeated in different variations, showed how strong is the impact of authorities on the psyche of subordinate persons or those who are on a lower hierarchical level; also, the tolerance of different massacres and genocides by ordinary citizens and even their participation in the execution of hundreds, thousands and millions of people became explainable.
In an interview from 1979, Milgram told the host: ”I would say, on the basis of having observed a thousand people in the experiment and having my own intuition shaped and informed by these experiments, that if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for these camps in any medium-sized American town” . Pretty pessimist assertion on human nature.
Although he intended to demonstrate the effects of obedience, Milgram reach to further explanations of his experiments’ results. He argued that all people harbor strong aggressive instincts, that continually press for externalization, and that this experiment provides the institutional justification for the release of these impulses. The experiment show that men seek for some kind of legitimacy for expressing the inner aggression [Milgram, 1974]. These ideas are very much alike the enthologist Konrad Lorenz’s theories who was saying, during roughly the same period, that there is a “pressure” of the aggression’s instinct inside us, seeking for its “liberation” [Lorenz, 1963].
It would therefore appear that people act aggressively not so much because they are forced by authority, but rather because they are covered by an authority and they take advantage of this opportunity. A relevant illustration of this psychological process is offered by France in 1572, with the episode when the hatred of mostly Catholic population for the Protestant Huguenots turned into a general massacre soon after “they were set free” by the elite. The Duke of Guise, while leaving the place where Coligny, the Huguenots leader, was killed, said that the murder was done by the order of the king. These words “transformed the personal passions into public duty,” the Catholic population indulging itself into “an orgy of carnage,” an event that remained in history under the name of “St. St. Bartholomew’s Day/Night massacre” [Rae, 2005, p. 102].
In 2012, a new study has reconfirmed most of the experimental results reached by Milgram. This time, the researchers have stressed out in a particular way some nuances of the conclusions that they got to: the individuals who are subjected to tests perform reprehensible actions not because they are subjects to an authority, but rather because they consciously assume the new “social role” that is assigned to them. In other words, when conditions require a certain behavior, the individuals behaviorally adapt to that “social role” – they assume a new “identity” which corresponds to those conditions and that type of behavior and act accordingly, even with a certain amount of enthusiasm. Even when they are prompted to behave overly harsh with other persons, people don’t perform passively the authority’s orders, but they adapt their psyche to new realities, they begin to consider their own mission just and act rougher with the conviction that they are doing the right thing [Haslam, Reicher, 2012].
And if someone believes that conscientious people shall demonstrate more humanity in Milgram’s test, this impression is rather wrong. It was found that often the very conscientious and agreeable persons are more predispose to execute the barbaric orders of superiors, because by their own nature of conscientious and obedient people they do not dare to deviate from social norms invoked by an authority [Bègue et al., 2014].
American psychologists Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai, the authors of ”Virtuous Violence” argue that, in fact, when someone does something to hurt other people, or to kill somebody, they usually do so because they think they have to. They think they should do it, that it’s the right thing to do, that they ought to do it and that it’s morally necessary. Killings and physical attacks are often committed in retribution for wrongs – real or perceived – or as an effort to teach lessons and instill obedience.
”When we say that violence is morally motivated, we mean that it is so in the mind of the perpetrator. We don’t mean that we think that violence is good”, explain authors. These moral motivations for violence had been ubiquitous throughout history and cultures, they apply equally to the violence of the heroes of the Iliad, to parents spanking their child, and to many modern murders and everyday acts of violence  [Fiske, Rai, 2014].
This same logic can be scaled up to truly heinous acts, like the terrorist attacks. When asked about the psychology behind the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, Tage Shakti Rai, one of the authors of ”Virtuous Violence”, states that ”these are cases where the perpetrators felt that they were retaliating against what they perceived to be a gross, abhorrent moral wrong”. They were guided by the conviction that their terrorist act was necessary, even moral in terms of their ideology .
In other words, for those Islamic terrorists, immoral were not their horrible murders, instead immoral were the blasphemous caricatures of Charlie Hebdo. Sadly, as far as violence is perceived as fair, moral, educational, uprooting them from human society is even more difficult. You can fight against something that is bad, but it’s hard to fight against something that is considered to be right.
Earlier on, under the impression of the data about people’s predisposition to aggression, inflicting violence and murder, the evolutionary psychologist David Buss published, in 2005, a book entitled as trenchant as possible: “The Murdered Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed To Kill”. One of the main conclusions of the book is that anyone has the ability to commit a homicide. Most of us, during their lifetime, thought about killing a human, for various reasons: jealousy, anger, self-defense, greed or revenge; more than 80% of people of both sexes have been haunted by such thoughts. And if there were favorable conditions for such acts, many of us would have performed them [Buss, 2005].
It is important to note that not only men, but about 60% of women have “homicidal fantasies”. Intriguingly is that men and women have confessed that their victim would be a person of the male gender (this is the way 85% of men and 65% of women who admitted that “homicidal fantasies” haunts their thought) [Kenrick, Sheets, 1994]. So, practically, we see that man is violent by nature, can easily be provoked and that he often seeks favorable conditions in order to release his instinct of aggression.
There is an executioner within us. Yes, it is. Each of us is a potential executioner, no matter how bleak this may sound. This is the way that our instinctual constitution was formed under the influence of evolutionary instincts. And one can’t change in a few decades or centuries of correction that what was formed during tens and hundreds of millennia.
© Dorian Furtună, ethologist
Photo: The executioner / from Flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/caseyhugelfink/8561631505
1. Vasili Blokhin // http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Blokhin
2. The psychology of torture. The Milgram experiments showed that anybody could be capable of torture when obeying an authority. Are they still valid? // by Malcolm Harris. Aeon. 7 October 2014 / http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/why-do-we-keep-repeating-the-milgram-experiments/
3. The ‘Breaking Bad’ Syndrome? UCLA anthropologist exposes the moral side of violence // by Meg Sullivan. 12.2014 / http://phys.org/news/2014-12-bad-syndrome-ucla-anthropologist-exposes.html
4. Can violence be moral? // by David Nussbaum and Séamus A Power. The Guardian. 28 February 2015 / http://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2015/feb/28/can-violence-be-moral?CMP=share_btn_tw
• Bègue L., Beauvois J-L., Courbet D., Oberlé D., Lepage J., Duke A.A. Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm // Journal of Personality. First published online: 24 Jun 2014. DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12104
• Buss D.M. The murderer next door: Why the mind is designed to kill. New York: Penguin Press. 2005.
• Fiske A.P., Rai T.S. Virtuous Violence. Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships. Cambridge University Press. 2014.
• Haslam S.A., Reicher S.D. Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show // PLoS Biol. Vol. 10(11). 2012. e1001426. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001426
• Kenrick D.T., Sheets V. Homicidal fantasies // Ethology and Sociobiology. Vol. 14. 1994. P. 231-246.
• Lorenz K. Das sogenannte Böse zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression. Original edition : Verlag Dr. G Borotha-Schoeler. Wien, 1963. (“So-called evil, Toward a Natural History of Aggression”).
• Milgram S. Behavioral Study of Obedience // Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 1963. 67. P. 371-378.
• Milgram S. The perils of Obedience. Harper’s magazine. Abridged and adapted from “Obedience to Authoritz”, by Stanley Milgram. 1974.
• Rae H. Identitatea statelor şi omogenizarea popoarelor. Epigraf. Chişinău. 2005. 352 p.