The Boston bombers, The True Believer, and the odious experiment

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Boston bombing has made me think of a great book and an odious experiment, both of which might help explain the strange behavior of the bombers.

I believe they committed their atrocity in the belief it would somehow make the world a better place. How's that for irrationality?

In 1951, one of the great books of the 20th century hit the shelves. It was The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer, a longshoreman who had become an independent scholar by reading and thinking.

Eric Hoffer explored what sort of person joins the mass movement, loses the sense of self-preservation that most of us have, and causes them to commit inhuman acts and sacrifice their own lives.

Hoffer said that "the fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure," and needs the movement to give meaning to his or her life. A movement gives such a person a way to act that makes their life heroic rather than insignificant.

And what if it hurts others? Well, if they are part of the movement, their sacrifice is appreciated, and if they are not, they don't matter. They might even be the enemy.

In a profile done when he competed in a Golden Gloves event at Salt Lake City, we have this portrait of Tamarlan Tsarnaev:
Tamerlan says he doesn't drink or smoke anymore: "God said no alcohol." A muslim, he says: "There are no values anymore," and worries that "people can't control themselves."
When he died in a shootout with police, he was asserting his values and his value. His body reportedly had multiple gunshot wounds and a blast injury. No doubt he believed that he was going out in a blaze of glory. To give significance to the story of his life, he killed random strangers, thinking somehow he was acting heroically.

But how could he kill people who had done him no harm, because they were participating or watching an American event? Why did he do something most of us wouldn't do if directly ordered to?

The experiment I thought of was Stanley Milgram's experiment in authoritarianism, which has often been misinterpreted but seems to support Hoffer's view.

In the Milgram experiment, done in 1963, one subject (actually an actor) was hooked up to electrodes, while the actual experimental subject was put in charge of administering shocks. The idea was to see if Adolf Eichmann's defense, "I was only following orders," reflected the psychology of normal people.

The subjects were led to believe they were participating in a learning experiment. Here's the Wikipedia description:

The subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual shocks. In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level. After a number of voltage level increases, the actor started to bang on the wall that separated him from the subject. After several times banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, all responses by the learner would cease.[1]
At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the learner. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the learner.[1]
If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:[1]
  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.[1]
The experimenter also gave special prods if the teacher made specific comments. If the teacher asked whether the learner might suffer permanent physical harm, the experimenter replied, "Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on." If the teacher said that the learner clearly wants to stop, the experimenter replied, "Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly, so please go on."
Although the experimenters assumed that between zero and three percent would follow instructions right up to the final, massive, 450-volt shock, in practice, 65% did.

Milgram wrote an article about it, Perils of Obedience, and did a documentary film, Obedience.

He found that it mattered whether the experimenter was dressed in a lab coat or ordinary clothing, whether the experiment was done in a high-status building or a run-down location. These were matters of perceived authority.

But Milgram did 20 variations on the study. In the one where the "teacher" was simply ordered to go on, none did. The high rate of compliance went with appeals to the greater good -- as in, "it is absolutely essential that you continue."

Because while people will rebel against simply being ordered to comply, they will commit the most monstrous acts for the march of progress, or the moral improvement of mankind. We do our worst when we are convinced that we are acting for the best.

I'm sure it was the same for American interrogators who used torture, for the people who flew aircraft into the Twin Towers, and for Eichmann himself.

In his television series The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski had a moment when he squatted in  Aushwitz, plunging his hand into the sodden ashes, and as they ran through his fingers, quoted Oliver Cromwell:
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken".
He was talking about the 'scientific' racism of the Holocaust, but it can apply to every doctrine, every movement. The cure for certainty, he felt, was empathy:
"We have to touch people."