The human propensity to follow

The Milgram Experiment in Syria

By Robin Yassin-Kassab, June 10, 2012

It has thrown students out of top-floor windows. It has shelled cities from the land and from the air. It has raped women and men and tortured children to death. Now with the massacres at Howleh and Qubair – in which Alawis from nearby villages, accompanied by the army, shelled, shot and stabbed entire families to death – the Syrian regime has escalated its strategy of sectarian provocation. Here Tony Badran explains very well the sick rationale behind these acts.

To a certain extent the regime’s plan has already worked. Now it seems inevitable that sectarian revenge attacks will intensify. In general, sectarian identification is being fortified in the atmosphere of violence created by the regime and added to by the necessary armed response to the regime. Sectarian hatred will deepen so long as the regime survives to play this card.

The regime wants us to understand the conflict in purely sectarian terms. Many Syrians recognise this and are resisting it. At this impossibly difficult time it’s good to remember the Alawi revolutionaries, who are heroes, and crucial to the revolution, heroic in the way Jewish anti-Zionists are heroic.

What do I mean by heroic? A disproportionate number of Alawis owe their livelihood to the regime. To fight for a post-regime future means to fight for a future in which their community will be, at best, less favoured than at present. This takes moral and political courage. Many Alawis have grown up surrounded not, as most Syrians have, by anti-regime mutterings, but by the happy version. To break with this version requires a psychological transformation, something as big as growing up. More concretely, there are family pressures – and family is so important in Syria. Very many Alawis are employed in the security forces. If your uncle is an officer in the mukhabarat, therefore, you don’t find it easy to publicly oppose the regime. It takes courage to do so, and the kind of confidence in your own judgment which will allow you to discount the arguments of your elders and authorities. Only a few people have such strength. (Of course it takes much more strength to live in a Sunni neighbourhood being beseiged and bombed, but this is a different kind of strength.)

We should be humble when we consider the historical mistakes of others. Most of us, whatever our background, would commit any barbarism if an authority we trusted assured us of the act’s legitimacy. This was the conclusion of the famous Milgram Experiment, whch Stanley Milgram sums up here: “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

The human propensity to follow even obscene orders, or to conform to the obscene perspectives of elders, does not excuse the actual torturers. Every man’s responsibility for his own actions is a rule we must live by even if ultimately it isn’t true. Those who torture and kill must be considered guilty. I hope evidence is being stored so the killers may one day be tried under a fair justice system. In the meantime, many are being killed, and not only Alawis.

I know of a young Damascene Sunni who worked for the mukhabarat. The version I heard says he was only a driver, not a torturer. He was followed and shot thrice in the back of the head. I’ve heard about an informer, a Christian, who was killed in the western suburbs of Damascus. The version I heard was that he wrote lists for the mukhabarat, and that the demonstrators he listed were arrested and tortured or killed. Men waited for him outside his house, kneecapped him, took him away in their van and later dumped his stabbed corpse. His mother called the local Christian families together and demanded an act of revenge. The men told her it wasn’t their business. And I’ve heard from a friend from the Qurdaha region that even there in the regime’s heartland army officers are being picked off by snipers while they drive the mountain roads. or

Photograph of Nuremberg defendants in the dock. Front row, left to right: Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, and Alfred Rosenberg. Back row, left to right: Karl Doenitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Sauckel, and Alfred Jodl. United States Army Signal Corps photographer, 22 November 1945, Harvard Law School Library, Harvard University. or

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