“The Lucifer Effect”

As President of the American National Section of the AIDP (International Association of Penal Law), it is my great pleasure to launch this new outlet for scholarly discourse with an essay that examines an issue at the very core of international criminal law.

This morning’s headline in the country’s most-read newspaper (USA Today, March 14, at 7D) asked “Do we all have a dark side?” Discussing psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s new bestseller, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good people Turn Evil” (Random House $27.95), the newspaper quoted a number of experts who agreed that “nearly everyone would treat others viciously or look the other way at abuse under certain conditions.”

A decade ago, this conclusion would not have seemed so self-evident. In 1996, the bestseller on point was Daniel Jona Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (Knopf, $27.00), which hypothesized that the Holocaust was a product of the German people’s unique cultural predisposition to “eliminationist anti-Semitism.” Shortly after the publication of Goldhagen’s book, however, the modern war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Iraq, began to prove that the Holocaust was far from unique; rather human beings are universally capable of doing the things the Germans did.

What are the circumstances that can lure out the dark side of human nature and push us across the thin line between civilized conduct and barbarism? What transforms ordinary people into savages? Thirty years ago, Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo each explored this question under laboratory-like conditions. Milgram’s famous experiment proved ordinary college students would subject other college students to painful shocks if encouraged by an authority figure and told the victims deserved it. Zimbardo’s experiment proved college students assigned to play the role of guards would, if unsupervised and undisciplined, begin to abuse other college students assigned to play the role of prisoners, resulting in Abu Ghraib-like misconduct.

The importance of the modern war crimes trials is that they have confirmed Milgram and Zimbardo’s findings in the real world. Through documents and witness testimony, the war crimes trials have shown us how provocation, incitement, and propaganda can raise hatred and fear to such an extent that ordinary people can turn on their neighbors in a bloodthirsty way. Throw in official sanction, coercion by persons in authority, pressure from assenting comrades, and opportunities for personal gain. Then add a long history of ethnic tension, and you have the ingredients for massive crimes against humanity.

Unfortunately, those ingredients exist in numerous countries. Consequently the questions raised by the savagery in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Iraq – how to preserve minority rights, when to recognize claims to self-determination, how to apply preventive strategies, and when to use force – are likely to confront us again and again in the coming years.

Michael P. Scharf Professor of Law and Director Frederick K. Cox International Law Center

Case Western Reserve University School of Law