Reclaiming America
In praise of disobedience
By Luciana Bohne
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 23, 2005, 16:44

On the website, I accessed an interactive map showing participation by American citizens in the national vigil called for by Cindy Sheehan on 17 August 2005. The most touching thing about this exercise was clicking on counties and viewing this count: one person in a county in Maine, two in a county in Texas, one person in a county in Colorado. It must take guts to do that -- to show up with a candle, alone. These are the people whom you can trust to stand up in a room full of polite, scared, or obedient people to say, �No, I will not go along. It is wrong.�

In Stanley Milgram�s classic psychological experiment on obedience, conducted at Yale in the 1960s, he asked a group of people to apply supposedly lethal volts of electricity to another group of people if they failed to deliver the right answer to an improbable memory test. It was all prearranged: there were no electric shocks, and the test was not testing memory but obedience. The result frightened even the scientists who had predicted minimal compliance with orders to �kill� the memory-challenged subjects. In fact, an overwhelming majority pushed the button that they were repeatedly told would endanger the subject�s life. Those who complied were later asked why they had done so. They said they were afraid to offend the scientist in his authoritative white coat; they didn�t want to be impolite; they didn�t want to be the only one to disobey orders even though they felt bad about them.

Milgram�s experiment shows that the path of evil for ordinary people is not paved with a monolithic stone on which they consciously choose to walk; rather, it is paved with the shards of their petrified conscience, breaking apart under the regulatory pressure of sculpting their will into that of the crowd. Thus, they embrace evil by imitation, cowardice, or timidity -- one step at a time, rather than in one leap of the will as in a private, conscious, Faustian bargain with the devil.

Although some people are decidedly motivated by evil, such as greedy, selfish, and ambitious people tend to be, most people support evil through fear, insecurity, or an excessive admiration for authority. But as Milgram�s experiment also showed, it takes only one person to refuse or to question the logic of orders for some others to immediately follow suite. We are imitative creatures -- which makes it imperative that those we put in power be people of reasonable integrity, adequate intellectual maturity, and at least average emotional balance.

In this sense, the nation�s moral balance owes a great debt to people like Cindy Sheehan. By asking President Bush what is the noble cause her son died for, she has empowered the nation itself to ask why her children are dying. As Americans recently learned, the president cannot give the nation the answer to this one crucial question.

As Americans now fear, the president who swore to protect and preserve the US constitution has, instead, violated it: he has knowingly taken the country to war for a lie, has waged that war even before consulting the Congress, and has trampled on treaties of international law signed in the people�s name, which the Constitution explicitly says makes them �the supreme law of the land.�

In a memo to President Gerald Ford, shortly after the �fall� of Saigon in April of 1975,

Henry Kissinger drew up a memo of four lessons to be learned from the war in Vietnam. He generally promoted the legend, still dear to some conservative thinkers, that a �revolutionary� front within the Democratic Party�s supporters had stabbed the country�s mission in the back. (Germany�s equivalent myth was the �dagger-thrust� legend, �dolchstosslegende,� which claimed that German defeat in WW I was caused by fifth-columns of self-hating or anti-German elements at home and abroad.)

Nevertheless, Kissinger�s memo to Ford identified a fatal flaw in the �catechism� of the war (trust Kissinger to be unfailingly pompous; he meant �conduct�) -- namely the unwillingness of the government and the press to tell the truth about the human cost of the war and the sacrifices Americans would have to endure in undertaking it. Kissinger�s memo is a study in bad faith and in the politics of resentment against the people who protested the war -- a multitude he stubbornly refused to admit was the majority.

Nevertheless, heeding the sensible advice of a Chinese proverb that recommends looking at the moon rather than at the finger pointing to it, let us quote Kissinger to Ford: �One clear lesson that can be drawn, however, is the importance of absolute honesty and objectivity in all reporting, within and from the government as from the press. US official reports tended for a long time to be excessively optimistic, with the result that official statements did not make it clear to the American people how long and how tough the conflict might turn out to be.�

We now know that this �lesson� was not applied to the conduct of the war in Iraq.

Having told our troops that they were protecting the nation from looming attack (a lie), having promised they would be greeted with showers of rose petals (an unrealistic and cynical claim), having announced a little under a month and a half after the start of the war that the �mission [was] accomplished,� (a manipulative advertising slogan), President Bush now refuses to explain for what noble cause the children continue to die. He should do so, if only because it�s a little unsporting of a president of the United States to boast �bring �em on� when told that �insurgents� are killing the troops and then whimper �send �em away� when their mothers come to call.

Perhaps, though, the president would really, really, really like to meet with Cindy Sheehan, but he cannot find his clothes.*

* My thanks to Australian readers who sent cartoons with these insights!

Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at

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