under construction

Abominations in the eyes of the Lord

29 Dec 08    Four Decades After Milgram, We’re Still Willing to Inflict Pain, NYT, Adam Cohen
25 Nov 02    Reflections to a senior White House staffer, Anton Keller

Dear Sir,

Your suggestion to contact Barbara Angus at the U.S. Treasury on what we see as ill-considered, unconstitutional and economically harmful fiscal instruments developed by the Clinton administration has lead to a first meeting between her and Gilbert Morris of George Mason University.  I will keep you abreast on how things develop on that front.

Meanwhile - and going beyond expressing our grief, condolences and sympathy with the victim families on the watershed events of 11 September, and assuming that you, too effectively operate on the premise that nobody has a monopoly for good ideas - I wish to share with you some of my observations, insights and recommendations for what they may be worth.  And though some of these ideas may be unorthodox and - at least for the blue-eyed, faint-hearted and flat-earth-minded - even shocking, they are, of course, not meant to be offensive but to be genuinely helpful to those in charge.  Assuming our leaders really mean it when they publicly declare their intention to use all available necessary resources to promptly reduce the likelyhood of similar terrorist actions against our peoples.  In a nutshell:  the only realistic chance to effectively prevent further acts of the WTC type - and even bigger ones, God forbid - is seen in an early, radical and lasting shake-up of the religious underpinnings of these acts on the individual level.

What we currently hear and see does not exactly go in that direction.  As such, it reminds me of the ill-considered anti-money-laundering frenzy, where we allow ourselves to be stampeded into undermining our individual liberties, human rights and democratic institutions, i.e. the very achievements of our civilization.  Originally at least, this is not even happening anymore by our constitutional lawmakers, but is mostly the result of a new phenomena, called international bureaucratic lawmaking by non-elected bureaucrats operating outside the effective control of democratic institutions.  It is characterised by often ill-considered anti-market, anti-sovereignty and anti-privacy measures which are hugely harmful to the national economy (remember the some $ 100 billion foreign investors withdrew from the US economy prior to the enactment of the IRS' unconstitutional Qualified Intermediary Regulations on 1 January 2001).  They are reminiscent of traditions we thought by-gone with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Indeed, all relevant statistics, serious studies and countless evidences show that we are only - and excessively and dangerously at that - fooling ourselves and those whom we intend to effectively protect, if we continue to believe in and use society's scarce resources for fighting crime essentially at the monetary, i.e. the tail end rather than, primarily, at the individuals' motivational level.

Coming to think of it, Italy's Prime Minister Berlusconi was completely right when he pointed at some distinctly libertarian values of our Western society which, characteristically, are not to be found in Islamic society.  And even though it may not have been politically correct, he was right - even if for the wrong reason - when he claimed the superiority of the Western culture over that of Islam (as currently practised).   Following are a few related pointers:

1.    Written before 11 Sep 01, the introductory queries I voiced on 13 September at the Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime seem equally valid for the current efforts to fight terrorism:

-    Are you sure where your means and methods will lead you, and what effects they will have on your country, on its economy and on your co-citizens?
-    Can your given objectives - and that is regardless of whether they can be made to look like occupying the moral high ground, regardless of whether they are socially fashionable and are politically correct - can your chosen objectives be achieved only by way of a coercive strategy, like more criminalization of socially objectionable behavior?  And does the opposite, i.e. the incentive and de-criminalization strategy not lead to quicker results at less social, economic and political costs - similar to what happened in the fiscal domain where President Reagan's supply-side revolution has brought in more and not less revenue with even significantly lower tax rates?
-    And what makes you think technological, social and other developments will not, in time, effectively counter even the most fashionable design, if its manifestations are not in harmony with such fundamental forces as human needs and aspirations?  (full text of my statement at: www.solami.com/CamSym.htm)
2.    Islam, as currently practised, is seen to stand in its own way, to forestall the realizations of its own promises, and to constitute an inescapably binding, gridlocking and self-damaging recipe for growing relative backwardness in cultural, economic and political matters.  This no-future syndrome is increasingly felt by searching members of this much-abused community.  And it is seen to be at the heart of current events, in as much as its recognition by or effects on the sub-consciousness of individuals motivate and significantly influence the most horrific and seemingly senseless actions and inactions, all of which are designed to break the individual and communal stranglehold, to break out of this full-circle dead-lock at all costs.

3.    It is to be noted that essentially the same retarding mechanism has been in place notably in the early phases of Atonism, Judaism and Christianity.  This is seen to have been the case for as long as those communities tolerated leaders who presented (and ruthlessly enforced) the Holy Books as God's authentic and inalterable word, and the prophesies contained therein as being the binding last words.  Once Zoroastrians, Yezidis, Atonians, Jews and Christians had shed these shackles, the individual members of these communities were able to recognize their purpose in life, to assume their own existence as an integral part of the devine creation, and thus to shape their own destiny consciously, responsibly and as best as they could, without shrouded minds and false hopes engendered by self-serving manipulators of religious texts.  On the way there, they were assisted by courageous enlightened reformers in all three One God faiths.  This process continues not only within the Jewish and the Christian communities (with such opponents to established doctrines as, e.g., Hans Küng).  Still mostly overlooked by current mainstream media and politics, it has already reached the heartland of Islam, with the leaders of the Assyrian, Kurdish and Turcoman communities of Northern Iraq courageously offering hope and leadership to searching members of the Islam community, a.o. with their Vivant Sequentes Declaration of 1992:

"The messages of the One God have been communicated to man in numerous forms in response to the conditions of the time. The transcriptions of these messages are works of humans. And though their interpretations have evolved over time in light of changed circumstances, new needs and additional devine messages, the proper understanding and application of all these messages is not the birth right of any one man or institution, but is the fruit of individual soul-searching, modesty and tolerance. Accordingly, none of the daughters of Jerusalem has a rightful exclusive claim to the stone of wisdom, none has a monopoly for good ideas, and every one of them is but a contributing element, a guidepost of limited perfection and reliability in the spiritual and material evolution of each individual in his or her pursuit of self-fulfilment."  (full text at: www.solami.com/a31.htm)
4.    Like almost all Muslims, each of the terrorists concerned, and regardless of his training and education, was a true believer in the Koran as a reliable source of God's own words, with not a single comma to be questionable.  Under these circumstances, you may want to look for, e.g., a word, phrase or idea written in the Koran to be manifestly, authoritatively and even for a true believer, too undeniably questionable, and his current view of the world is lastingly shattered, with his beliefs, instincts and inner security and balance effectively destabilized.  In the event, he no longer will have faith in any proposed shortcut to heaven by way of martyrdom.  And all of a sudden, the Islamic Pipers of Hamelin - whatever their name, promises and past clout - may find their followers in short supply.

5.    Designed in the above sense to clear the - mostly inherited and self-inflicted - obstacles on the road to the future of, notably, the Islamic community and its members, a correspondingly organized, funded and managed non-governmental interfaith organization may be instrumental for both doing the necessary groundwork and bringing about individually and communely effective early changes.  To what extent existing facilities avail themselves for this purpose remains to be seen.  As is the case with the SLM Foundation which project - while still lacking even token support from political decision makers outside of the Middle East - has already drawn the strong support by the most influential Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Dr. Mohamed Sayed Tantaoui who, in relation to the proposal to set up, in the Mosul Vilayet, an international institute for the study of the roots of Islam, particularly those preceding Judean and Christian traditions, with the name of SLM Center:

December 29, 2008

Four Decades After Milgram, We’re Still Willing to Inflict Pain

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale, published his infamous experiment on obedience to authority. Its conclusion was that most ordinary people were willing to administer what they believed to be painful, even dangerous, electric shocks to innocent people if a man in a white lab coat told them to.

For the first time in four decades, a researcher has repeated the Milgram experiment to find out whether, after all we have learned in the last 45 years, Americans are still as willing to inflict pain out of blind obedience.

The Milgram experiment was carried out in the shadow of the Holocaust. The trial of Adolf Eichmann had the world wondering how the Nazis were able to persuade so many ordinary Germans to participate in the murder of innocents. Professor Milgram devised a clever way of testing, in a laboratory setting, man’s (and woman’s) willingness to do evil.

The participants — ordinary residents of New Haven — were told they were participating in a study of the effect of punishment on learning. A “learner” was strapped in a chair in an adjacent room, and electrodes were attached to the learner’s arm. The participant was told to read test questions, and to administer a shock when the learner gave the wrong answer.

The shocks were not real. But the participants were told they were — and instructed to increase the voltage with every wrong answer. At 150 volts, the participant could hear the learner cry in protest, complain of heart pain, and ask to be released from the study. After 330 volts, the learner made no noise at all, suggesting he was no longer capable of responding. Through it all, the scientist in the room kept telling the participant to ignore the protests — or the unsettling silence — and administer an increasingly large shock for each wrong answer or non-answer.

The Milgram experiment’s startling result — as anyone who has taken a college psychology course knows — was that ordinary people were willing to administer a lot of pain to innocent strangers if an authority figure instructed them to do so. More than 80 percent of participants continued after administering the 150-volt shock, and 65 percent went all the way up to 450 volts.

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University replicated the experiment and has now published his findings in American Psychologist. He made one slight change in the protocol, in deference to ethical standards developed since 1963. He stopped when a participant believed he had administered a 150-volt shock. (He also screened out people familiar with the original experiment.)

Professor Burger’s results were nearly identical to Professor Milgram’s. Seventy percent of his participants administered the 150-volt shock and had to be stopped. That is less than in the original experiment, but not enough to be significant.

Much has changed since 1963. The civil rights and antiwar movements taught Americans to question authority. Institutions that were once accorded great deference — including the government and the military — are now eyed warily. Yet it appears that ordinary Americans are about as willing to blindly follow orders to inflict pain on an innocent stranger as they were four decades ago.

Professor Burger was not surprised. He believes that the mindset of the individual participant — including cultural influences — is less important than the “situational features” that Professor Milgram shrewdly built into his experiment. These include having the authority figure take responsibility for the decision to administer the shock, and having the participant increase the voltage gradually. It is hard to say no to administering a 195-volt shock when you have just given a 180-volt shock.

The results of both experiments pose a challenge. If this is how most people behave, how do we prevent more Holocausts, Abu Ghraibs and other examples of wanton cruelty? Part of the answer, Professor Burger argues, is teaching people about the experiment so they will know to be on guard against these tendencies, in themselves and others.

An instructor at West Point contacted Professor Burger to say that she was teaching her students about his findings. She had the right idea — and the right audience. The findings of these two experiments should be part of the basic training for soldiers, police officers, jailers and anyone else whose position gives them the power to inflict abuse on others.