The Banality of Karadzic and a Thought on Abu Ghraib

How was it possible, many people want to know, for infamous indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic to fool so many people for so long into believing that he was a soft and fuzzy alternative medicine guru? Perhaps Karadzic, a talented if evil politician, also simply has a gift for deception. Maybe, but I'm more inclined to think that Karadzic wasn't simply play-acting in the role of Dr. Dragan David Dabic. Or if he was, it was because everybody is always play-acting at his various personalities.

Hannah Arendt famously coined the term "the banality of evil" to explain how Nazi war criminals, including especially Adolph Eichmann, could seem so ordinary in their concerns and the portions of their lives that did not involve mass murder. Arendt's theory has been criticized over the years and I have long been persuaded by a somewhat different view, what Ervin Goffman called the "dramaturgical" account of personality. The core idea is that people have some consistent traits but that their presentation (including self-presentation) of self varies enormously depending on the role that they play at any given time. In the role of father, a man can be patient, attentive and loving, but in the role of concentration camp guard the same man can be a cruel sadist.

To recognize the dramaturgical nature of personality is not to excuse evil, especially where, as in the case of Karadzic, the perpetrator sought and appeared to enjoy the role of killer. Nonetheless, understanding that normal people can be made to do terrible things under extraordinary circumstances is an important step in preventing those terrible things from happening. Thus, Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect and the man who conceived and carried out the well-known Stanford prison study, testified for the defense in Chip Frederickson's trial. Zimbardo's immediate point was that the extraordinary conditions under which Frederickson committed acts of sadism would lead a great many other "normal," even "good" people to commit similar acts. The larger point, of course, was that the people who created these circumstances should bear responsibility, a point recently emphasized by retired Major General Antonio Taguba.

Posted by Mike Dorf