Good People Doing Bad Things

Good People Doing Bad Things

In World War II, good American boys who wouldn’t have kicked a cat flew bombers that set on fire cities where good German children lived. German boys who were raised to be kind and decent participated in the Holocaust. How is it that normally decent people who were raised to be kind and respectful of others can commit acts of horrible violence during wars? How do they put aside their normal reluctance to hurt others and shoot or bomb not only enemy combatants but civilians including women and children? Some years ago the psychologist Albert Bandura listed mental eight tricks we play in disengaging our consciences so we can perform acts of violence we would normally abhor.

  1. Moral Justification: one is persuaded, for example, that killing the enemy serves a higher moral purpose such as protecting one’s country or serving God’s plan, etc.
  2. Euphemistic labeling: to mask the true nature of behavior one knows is unethical, such actions, for example as “enhanced interrogation” for torture, “serving the target” for shooting the enemy, and “misinformation” for lying.
  3. Advantageous Comparison, as in “What I am doing is not as bad as what they are doing.”
  4. Displacement of Responsibility: Uncritically following orders, as in the Nazi concentration camp workers or SS execution squads.
  5. Diffusion of Responsibility: when a whole group decides on the unethical action or when the action is divided into many subparts, for example, the building of nuclear weapons. (“All I do is assemble this little electronic part.” Or, “I’m just driving a truck bring supplies—I don’t shoot anybody.”)
  6. Disregard or Distortion Of Consequences: for example, when harm is inflicted at a distance (as in officers in Montana who guide drones that make “bugsplats” in Afghanistan) or dropping bombs from a plane on “targets” even though women and children and old men are being killed below.
  7. Dehumanization: labeling the victims of one’s violence as non- or subhuman, as in calling Vietnamese people “slants” and “gooks” during that war, or Germans “Huns” in WWI, or Arabs “towel heads” and “Sand Niggers in the First Gulf War.
  8. Attribution Of Blame: or blaming the victim who is seen as deserving the mistreatment or seen as having brought it on themselves. For example, “These German civilians were are killing below should not have voted for Hitler; therefore they are to blame for our bombings.

Generally speaking, in the run-up to a war and during it, most or all of these powerful psychological techniques are employed by governments and their militaries on both sides.

Such propaganda is often based on lies made up by governments as in the myth Propagated in World War I by the British propaganda office that German lancers had speared babies, thus arousing rage against the Germans.  And I would add one other explanation—not a trick, but an existential situation. Once a war has started and soldiers are caught up in it, it becomes a self-perpetuating “me or them” situation. If I don’t kill them, they will kill me and vice-versa. And if I refuse out of conscience to shoot at the “enemy,” my own military command will carry out a summary court martial and could execute me. This is why we have to learn critical thinking, so we can see through these lies, and why we must prevent wars before they start.

Kent Shifferd is an historian, the author From War To Peace: A Guide To The Next Hundred Years (McFarland Publishing Co., 2011), lead author for A Global Security System: An Alternative To War (World Beyond War, 2015) and an advisor to the War Prevention Initiative.


The War On Coal: Are We Winning Or Losing?

The War On Coal; Are We Winning Or Losing?

Coal industry executives and conservative politicians have accused President Obama of “waging a war on coal.” He should. Burning coal accounts for 40 percent of global electricity generation and it is driving the world toward runaway global heating. Furthermore, coal is not only the dirtiest fuel in terms of greenhouse gasses, it also releases soot, mercury (a potent neurotoxin), lead, cadmium, arsenic and other carcinogens when it is burned causing health problems for millions of sufferers from cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease. 76,000 U.S. miners have died since 1968 from the incurable black lung disease.[i] Health care costs in the U.S. resulting from the burning of coal amount to $345 billion per year, exceeding the market value of the coal itself.[ii]

But are we winning this war, and are we doing in such a way that if we win it will not be a Pyrrhic victory? On the one hand, we seem to be winning. Germany has cut its coal usage in half since 1965, the UK and France by 70 percent.[iii] In the U.S., the number two user after China, coal use dropped 18% from 2007-2013 as the 500 plus coal plants generating in 2010 has dwindled to 343. The portion of electricity produced by coal burning dropped from 50 percent to 39 percent. China may be approaching peak coal use as well due to public opposition and water shortages. Coal requires huge amounts of water to mine, wash and cool the operations. And now the President has proposed strong new water protection laws and limits on CO2 emissions from coal plants that will result in a 32 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, presaging another major round of shut downs for the old, antiquated generating plants.[iv]

Industry is fighting back hard. According to Environment Virginia, the giant coal mining company and major water polluter, Murray Energy, is suing the federal government to defeat implementation of the new water rules that would guarantee clean water for one in three Americans. Murray Energy has been repeatedly cited for leaking its coal slurry waste into Captinas Creek in Ohio. The company CEO has compared the EPA to the “Gestapo” and called the federal government the “insane, regal Administration of King Obama.”[v] In Montana, according to Credo Action: “. . . Arch Coal, the second largest supplier of coal in America, has been pushing for the construction of a new railroad stretching from Southeast Montana to the Pacific Northwest.1 That’s because they’d like to open what could become the country’s largest coal mine in Montana and then haul that coal across the country to export to China, where it would add 2.5 billion tons of climate-warming pollutants to the atmosphere.”[vi]  The Federal Surface Transportation Board is considering their proposal which is being fought by several environmental groups in the state. And even before the President’s latest proposals industry groups had gathered to plan an all-out fight to defeat them in Congress. Reuters News reports:

“In the early months of 2014, a group of about 30 corporate lawyers, coal lobbyists and Republican political strategists began meeting regularly in the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. . . . Their task was to start devising a legal strategy for dismantling the climate change regulations they feared were coming from President Obama. The group — headed in part by Roger R. Martella Jr., a top environmental official in the George W. Bush administration, and Peter Glazer, a prominent Washington lobbyist — was getting an early start.”[vii] The group is backing a move by fifteen Republican State Attorney Generals to sue the administration to block the plan.

But even without opposition, President Obama seems to be shooting himself in the foot. The Administration’s Bureau of Land Management has quietly opened 100,000 acres of federal land in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to coal mining. The Bureau expects to issue twenty-eight leases and estimates 10.2 billion tons of coal will be mined. Greenpeace reports that when burned, it will emit 16.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide, dwarfing the 5.9 that the President’s new plan will save.[viii]

Finally, we must look at the reasons that coal use is declining. While some gains are being made from rapidly expanding wind and solar generation world-wide, the main substitution is natural gas which emits about half the CO2 of anthracite coal. However, natural gas is primarily fracked, a process that emits methane which is twenty-five times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 and a recent revelation by the man who developed the technology to measure the amount of methane being emitted says that it is grossly under-measured.[ix]   What is more, investing so heavily in natural gas infrastructure deprives the renewables industry of needed capital. And the President has given Shell Oil, one of the dirtiest companies in the business, approval to drill for oil in the very dangerous waters of Arctic. He promotes continued production of coal, oil and gas with their inevitable greenhouse emissions, citing an “all of the above” approach to climate change which is a huge policy error. Even if we win the war on coal, we will lose the war against global warming by these self-defeating policies. What is required is an all-out campaign to switch immediately to renewables.

[i] Lester Brown, et al, “Closing Coal Plants,” The Great Transition (New York: Norton, 2015), p. 34.

[ii] Lester Brown, et al, “Closing Coal Plants,” The Great Transition (New York: Norton, 2015), p. 36.

[iii] Lester Brown, et al, “Closing Coal Plants,” The Great Transition (New York: Norton, 2015), p. 36.

[iv] The Editorial Board, “President Obama’s Tough, Achievable Climate Plan,” New York Times, August 3, 2015.

[v] Sarah Bucci, Environment Virginia Campaign Director, Email July 17, 2015.

[vi] Credo Action email.

[vii] Coral Davenport and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Move to Fight Obama’s Climate Plan Started Early,” Reuters, August 3, 2015.

[viii] Sarah Lazare, staff writer, “Opening of Wyoming to Coal Pillaging Makes ‘Mockery’ of Obama Climate Initiative: Critics,” Common Dreams.Org,

[ix] John Schwartz, “Methane Leaks May Greatly Exceed Estimates, Report Says,” New York Times, August 4, 2015.