Psychological Self-Help

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In my estimation, when we come to understand (through hard scientific studies) the
complex factors that underlie violence, such as the factors mentioned above and
discussed later in this chapter, we will no longer need the concept of “evil.” Many
decades from now, when lawful cause and effect connections are known between
genes, childhood experiences, brain disorders, psychological or mental disorders,
attitudes and thoughts, hormonal influences, specific psychological/social
environments and mean, cruel, or destructive behaviors, we will no longer need to
believe in supernatural forces to understand anger, violence, and meanness. Even
now, most people no longer need to believe in Satan or demons but the notion of
“evil” is still with us in subtle forms. We do need to learn a lot more about the
complex conditions and laws of behavior that produce violence, resentful attitudes,
prejudice, intolerance, greed, delusions, poor impulse control, and psychopathic
I want to give you another example of how science can understand awful (“evil”)
acts and thereby avoid the mystical anti-scientific notions embedded in explanations
that use “evil.” Military leaders, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists, observed
during the Vietnam War that some soldiers who had been in combat—sometimes
captured and tortured—and had seen the brutality involved in war were more likely
to become brutal and violent themselves. Some US soldiers killed old men, women
and children without good cause. It may amaze you—it did me—that an estimated
20% of American officers who died in Vietnam were killed by their own men. A
psychiatrist, Jonathan Shay (1995), studied such acts and wrote a book, “Achilles in
Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character.” His title states his thesis,
namely, going through the horrors of war, results in the soldier’s own conscience and
morals (or impulse control) deteriorating and becoming radically changed. This is
especially likely if the soldier has personally been grossly mistreated or if the soldier
has been misinformed or mislead about “what is right” by his own officers or
government, and if the soldier has brutalized others. For some soldiers it becomes
much easier to inflict pain, disregard suffering, and to kill—the kinds of things that
we might call “evil.” Another consequence to the soldier fighting a war may be long-
term suffering of Traumatic Stress Disorder (discussed in chapter 5). We will also see
in this chapter that many “evil” people have grown up without experiencing
dependable love, care, and empathy. Many violent people, grossly mistreated when
young, have learned early to enjoy hurting others, e.g. bullying others and hurting
A fascinating study by Alette Smeulers, a professor at Maastricht University in
Netherlands (presented at EPCR in Torino, March, 2002), is about the training used
to convince a person to torture, torment, or maim for a government. A few people
have life experiences that make them sadistic and cruel but there have been many
schools, mostly government run, that make ordinary people into torturers. How do
the trainers change people? Smeulers says these training programs usually select
people with a militaristic background, i.e. accustomed to taking orders and having
unquestioning loyalty to authority. There are then three long stages in the training of
torture perpetrators: (1) routine exposure to being in situations where torture
occurs, e.g. first just guarding prisoners who are tortured. More and more they are
permitted to see the torture. Then gradually the trainee is asked to actually help the
torturers. (2) At first, hurting someone is hard, but the trainee learns to rationalize
and justify his actions. In the trainee’s mind the enemy is dehumanized; they are
seen as evil or inferior. Feelings of shame and guilt are blocked or overcome--
desensitized. (3) Being brutal and cruel becomes routine and habitual. “I just did my
job. I had no choice” The torturer rationalizes his actions…and his government’s
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