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Sunday, November 30, 2008

After his public support for the Afghanistan war (in spite of his being a Quaker), it wasn't too surprising to hear NPR's Scott Simon offer a simple-minded commentary on Weekend Edition Saturday, chalking up the terrorism in Mumbai to "evil." But it provided a good opportunity to express some thoughts I hadn't had the chance to publish previously. The letter I've sent in response follows.

I was disappointed to hear Scott Simon ramble self-indulgently about "evil" today. I say "self-indulgently" because his comments expressed a surrender of intellectual clarity and curiosity to the impulse to dismissively label an enemy.

Simon says the Mumbai terrorists had "learned to use their intellect to turn off their conscience." But empirically, as social psychologist [and my instructor for a psych intro course at Penn] John Sabini once put it, conscience is "what stops you from doing what you'd like to do." Can Simon seriously think the Mumbai terrorists liked slaughtering dozens of people who were no threat to them? Nonsense. Free of the constraints of conscience, they doubtless would rather have been lying on a beach sipping a cold drink. But, as the Milgram experiment demonstrated, a conscience governed by an authoritarian ideology can be used to make people do unnatural, anti-empathic things.

[fellow] cult survivor and sociologist Janja Lalich said in her keynote address to the International Cultic Studies Association in June, "The suicide bombers are not psychopaths. They are victims." The same applies to the Mumbai terrorists.

Eric Hamell

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