Why Do So Few Speak Up?

Overcoming Human Inhumanity

Torturers, rapists, murderers: for more than a decade as I researched my history of the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, I spent a good deal of time talking to them, thinking about them, reading about them, writing about them. They all had much in common. At a relatively young age, these men had traveled thousands of miles to kill people they didn't know on the say-so of men they didn't know, and for a mere pittance -- all of it done in the name of America.

I also spent time talking to another group of men, a much larger contingent who stood by and watched as those beside them tortured or raped or murdered. Some heartily endorsed these acts, some seemed ambivalent about them, some were appalled by them, but none did much of anything about them.

Then there was a third contingent of men: those who witnessed the torture, rapes, or murders and couldn't -- wouldn't -- abide by that conduct. This tiny group spoke out about what they had seen, often at the risk of their own welfare, sometimes their very lives.

What differentiated these men from each other? They had all been raised in the same country, had been subject to the same laws and norms, including prohibitions against torture, rape, and murder. Many, if not most, had grown up in similar socio-economic circumstances, received comparable educations, and at least nominally belonged to churches with strict moral codes and an emphasis on doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Why then did so many of them commit horrendous acts or stand by while others did? Why did so few speak up?

I never came up with satisfactory answers to these questions. What I learned instead was that almost any man might be a torturer or a rapist or a murderer if given the chance. I learned that most men will look the other way if at all possible. And I learned that shockingly few men are capable of the courage and the empathy necessary to stand up for those that their brothers-in-arms would just as soon kill.

Today, in "Ted Cruz's Stone-Age Brain and Yours," Rick Shenkman -- head honcho at the History News Network and author of the just-published Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics -- explores the biological phenomena that may well underpin our appalling lack of empathy, the animal instincts that allow so many of us to stand by in the face of unspeakable acts. While the science may still be in its early stages and the means of measuring our motivations still crude and inexact, Shenkman (whose new book Scientific American calls "a timely look into psychological patterns that drive political behavior") analyzes a raft of studies that offer new ways of thinking about why so many humans tend to be so utterly inhumane, and explores how the stories we tell ourselves and others might offer us a path to overcome our utterly human inhumanity.