Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Milgram Experiment, the TSA, and We the People

Last week, Kathy's dad returned from a trip to the west coast. On his way back, he noticed TSA agents completely dismantling and inspecting a wheelchair. What he then noticed appalled him to the core: the owner of that wheelchair, an elderly woman of 90 years or so, standing on the footprint mat, her legs slightly spread, swaying as a TSA agent gave her the new pat-down. On the woman's face was a far-away look, like she had dementia, but obvious in the moment was the terror and fear that she felt.

He told us sadly and with some self-loathing that he did not say anything then. He wanted so much to go over and tell the agents to stop, and that they should be ashamed of what they were doing, not merely to an American citizen, but to a woman who could have been their own aged parent or grandparent. We agreed with him that he and the travelers in the security area should have threatened a riot over so obvious a display of cruelty at the hands of the state.

Daily Kos does a fair defense of the TSA agents, but this only raises the issue studied by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the aftermath of World War 2:  Why do the agents obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience?  Similarly, why do we obey an authority figure who performs acts on us or on fellow travellers that conflict with our personal choices?

(See the Milgram Experiment on YouTube:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.  I first saw these in Psych 201 back in 1992.  These videos send chills down my spine even now, seeing the anguish in so many test subjects as they deliver the shock despite their personal belief that they are causing harm.)

[Note: Kathy's dad lived in occupied Budapest during World War 2, and German soldiers were garrisoned in his home frequently.  He saw both sides of these soldiers: the normal, conscientous type at home; and the cruel finger of the state in the streets.  For him to describe what he saw is to look through the eyes of one who saw the real cruelty of the past and the shadow of such cruelty that is darkening our airports.]

I do not want to suggest that America is becoming Nazi Germany.  That is a leap too far.  But when specific state actions mimic historically condemned actions, the question needs to be raised, "Why?!"  The Milgram Experiment shows the danger inherent in a state bureaucracy carrying out actions that are brutal--these actions happen with alarming alacrity and minimal actual restraint.

Frogs don't boil when the heat is turned on all at once.  They die when they are boiled gradually.  Likewise, totalitarian states did not happen overnight.  They occurred gradually.  We know this, so why can't we seem to agree to stop it from happening here in the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave?  Why do we have so many people who think it is a sign of progress?

I just don't understand how what is happening got this far.  We should know better!  We do know better.  It is past time for us to unite and take action.  We can exercise our First Amendment rights: to decry what is happening, and to petition our government for a redress of our grievance.  What comes after depends on the government's response.

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