The Dark Side

You, Too, Could Be a Homicidal Zealot

The line between civilization and ISIS-style violence is thinner than we admit, says the co-author of the new book Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness.


As we watch as the members of ISIS continue to slaughter and behead their way in seemingly any direction they choose, I was asked the following questions:

How does it happen that a society or a culture suddenly decides that violence on the level doled out by ISIS is OK? What does it take to turn that corner? How and when can the human mind sanction torture and murder? Zealotry within the ranks of a terrorist army is one thing, but what does it take for a surrounding population to go along with it (assuming the coercion is social or psychological, not at the point of a gun)?

The violence we are witnessing today is no greater in its bloody intensity than it has been throughout our history. Man, like nature, is red in tooth and claw. The greater intensity is found in our exposure to that violence. Vietnam was the “living-room war,” the first to be televised. But, it’s one thing to watch an hour of young men killing and being killed on the CBS Evening News. It’s quite another to be subjected to continual appalling violence, like A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, his eyes unable to shut when assaulted by such imagery. If the violence in Vietnam was too gruesome, the three(!) networks could choose not to show it. Today, there are innumerable media, social and otherwise, and no editor can cut out the ravages she sees unfit for viewers’ consumption. ISIS can upload its hideousness and dare you not to look. Their trailers advertise the cruelties coming to a village near you. Their Instagrammed terror is so proximal and so amplified that ISIS’s atrocities only seem greater than in years and decades past. We don’t want to encourage this twisted public relations campaign, but, the truth is, the world ought to know of the massacres that regularly take place throughout it.

History is rife with human annihilation. I don’t know how many were killed by Ivan the Terrible, how many beheaded by Vlad the Impaler ( reckons that he had 20,000 men impaled in one go). Now, these guys were all-powerful warriors. No local villagers could possibly have done anything to stop them. True enough. So, the history of mass killing by omission begins, for many, with the Holocaust. No one needs be reminded yet again how an enormous number of Europeans stood by, when no point of a gun was in sight (or at least, not pointed directly at them), as millions of their countrymen were destroyed. More recently, Hutus began macheteing their Tutsi neighbors one day after the president of Rwanda was killed. Within three months, more than a half-million people were dead. In both genocides, some people did step in, did save. If not for these preternaturally strong-willed and righteous individuals, the notion that human evil, so readily at hand, can be checked, would be entirely discredited.

A couple of factors, both internal and environmental, are at play when such rapacious violence spreads like a brushfire. Crowd psychology allows would-be interveners to let the other (nonexistent) guy do the right thing, while stoking the aggressive ids to join the mob. Fear, plain and simple, can incite swift violence, too. If a critical mass of people is afraid or is convinced to fear, the signal is contagious. Studies have shown that just the look of fear on someone’s face can induce the feeling in the viewer. And when sufficiently afraid, we are capable of committing acts we believe we are incapable of committing. How many Americans were (or still are) in full support of torturing people they did not know? We were told to fear these hooded men and so many of us threw away our 9/10/2001 consciences. Others craved revenge. “Justified” bloodlust is a powerful trigger. And it needn’t be a 9/11 to 9/12 kind of revenge. “Your great-grandfather killed my great-grandfather” can also do the trick.

Sadly, it takes very little for any person, including you—yes, you, the person reading this—to become savage.

The single most important ingredient necessary for this savagery, this mad mass killing (both active and passive) is dehumanization. In his important book On Killing, Dave Grossman reveals that killing was, historically and perhaps unsurprisingly, a challenge for most soldiers: 80 percent of the muskets collected at the end of the Battle of Gettysburg were still loaded, and, during World War II, only about 15 to 20 percent of soldiers aimed at the enemy, while the rest of the bullets were fired into the air. The Civil War was the bloodiest of all American wars, with three-quarters of a million dead, and more than 20 million World War II soldiers were killed. Still, it’s possible that Union and Confederate soldiers found it hard to see their enemy as subhuman, and perhaps Allied and German soldiers had the same difficulties. I have no evidence, but I would bet that Americans and Japanese soldiers had less trouble firing at each other. Grossman documents how the U.S. military made a concerted and deliberate effort to mold more efficient killers. The use of psychological and behavioral techniques (dehumanizing the enemy and the soldier alike) dropped the “nonfiring rate” from about 80 percent in World War II to only 5 percent in Vietnam.

My second-hand exposure to the awful power of dehumanization comes from my experience working in the NYU/Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture for five years. People treated at the program come from more than 100 countries, the newer refugees arriving from the most recent conflagration. Initially most of those in the program were Tibetans and French-speaking West Africans, but as Yugoslavia was torn apart, the population shifted. I worked mostly with Tibetans in a support group. These men and women, many of them monks and nuns, initially felt most at ease speaking only about the Dalai Lama and the plight of the Tibetan people. They felt it especially important to share the news with a white Westerner. In time, with encouragement from the group leaders and from one another, they became more comfortable talking about themselves (a practice that is commonplace in the West, but discouraged as self-aggrandizing in Tibet). The Bellevue program’s staff knew that these patients were actually the most resilient: the ones who could escape, walk for days through the Himalayas and make their way to New York City and ultimately to the program. Even so, it took weeks, often months, before they were able to share their stories of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and torture at the hands of Chinese authorities. It was painful to hear the stories of torture and humiliation inflicted upon these people, and painful to recognize that the dehumanizing methods they endured are still in use today around the world. One survivor told of being thrown into a lightless cave for six months. A visual artist had his palms branded, turning his hands into claws. Surgeons at Bellevue restored them. As I write, I am looking at one of his wonderful drawings.

As psychologist Françoise Sironi describes it, the torturer himself is often first humiliated and tortured by his instructors before being put to his sickening work. Both the tortured and the torturer’s humanity and identity are meant to be stripped away. Sironi writes, “A torturer who begins to see his victim as a human being runs the risk of rehumanisation and a departure from ‘disempathy’.” Once a person is seen as subhuman, he is much easier to kill or torture. His comrades in agony are the only community to which the torturer feels a part. When surrounded and encouraged by his superiors and colleagues, the torturer comes to see his repulsive violence as “normal.” Sironi, again: “[T]orturers must be made to believe that they have ‘reasons’ for doing so … racism, xenophobia, hatred (class hatred or other forms), revenge, etc. An enemy must be created, an ‘other’ that is different … In all totalitarian ideologies, people are taught to see the other as a non-human, as someone who is radically different and as an enemy that should be feared and must be eradicated.” Religious fanatics see infidels as less than human because they are certain that the unbeliever (or the not-quite-right-believer) is less than human in the eyes of God. Killing in the name of the Lord has been around since there was a Lord.

We sleep better at night believing that those who torture and kill are fundamentally different from us. I think that for a particular few, this is true. I also believe that we are capable of unleashing frightening aggression that exists in each of us. Many are familiar with the studies conducted by Stanley Milgram in the ’60s. Subjects obediently inflicted pain by electric shock (or at least they thought they were) on unseen others simply by being encouraged to do so by men in white lab coats. Did soldiers go to Abu Ghraib with the intent to torture prisoners? Of course not. And yet they did. And this without a commander instructing or threatening them to do so. Who among us can say that no matter the social environment, they are incapable of dehumanizing the “other,” incapable of acting on their basest, primal instincts? This is not, of course, an excuse to do so. Civilization has its rules. But there has always been and there will always be a segment of society that chooses or is indoctrinated to ignore these rules.

Which brings us back to ISIS. Steven Pinker recently argued that, globally, violence has actually declined over time. Even if this were the case, we are all as capable of brutality now as our ancestors ever were. The ISIS atrocities somehow seem more monstrous than the carnage of the past because their revolution is being televised. It is nauseating to speak of the vile butchery ISIS is inflicting today in the same breath as social media, but the pictures tell the story. Uploaded videos of men digging their own graves before having their throats slashed; selfies with severed heads. The barrage and immediacy of these images magnifies these horrors. Our present is no more murderous, our terrorists no more vicious, our witnesses no more cowardly. But now we cannot escape the view. Maybe that’s for the best.

Dr. Joel Gold is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, and has a private practice in Manhattan. He is the co-author, with Ian Gold, of Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness.