The nature of evil sounds weighty. So let’s talk about the “failure to protect”–not in the sense of the absence of collective action on major conflicts or wars–but in the case of abuse. We have witnessed an unfolding tragedy that has villains (Penn State’s outgoing assistant coach) and heroes (the brave victims who spoke out). But why don’t more people stand up for what is clearly the right thing to do?
David Brooks probes the psychology of collective inaction in his Tuesday column. True to form, he finds the problem in something that is part of our own thinking–a type of bias–that keeps us from doing the ‘right’ thing that we all think we would do in the moment:
Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.
But even with large-scale atrocities such as the Holocaust, its not clear that “just following orders” or groupthink can explain away individual responsibility. An upcoming tv program makes the case:
The program aggressively challenges the “just following orders” defense and the notion that “ordinary” Germans were not at fault in the Holocaust.
“After the Jews were sent off, people moved into their homes, took over their businesses,” says Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University. “So on some level the local populations understood these people were not coming back.”
The program also conveys that the effort to exterminate Jews was an evolving phenomenon that required people — not all of them Nazis — to design and build the infrastructure of trains, gas chambers and ovens to do the deed. The Nazis and their enablers tackled the Holocaust with a problem-solving ethos not unlike what we associate with the Manhattan Project or the lunar landing.
“There are those who believe that the Holocaust was born whole,” Dr. Berenbaum says. “I’m not of that school. I see an awful lot of improvisation. I see an awful lot of experimentation.”