In 1859 a young Swiss entrepreneur named Henri Dunant witnessed the battle of Solfertino, where the French and Italians were fighting to drive Austrians out of Italy. Three years later he published a book about the experience, A Memory of Solfertino.
Dunant's book tells about the bloody battle, but its focus is on the aftermath—the fruitless attempt to help the wounded and dying. The book concludes with a proposal that all nations form volunteer committees of non-combatants to help care for soldiers injured in battle.
Two years after A Memory of Solfertino was published, twelve nations met in Geneva to sign a treaty, the first “Geneva Convention.” They agreed to form national committees of the “Red Cross” and to respect the battlefield neutrality of Red Cross volunteers. It was the first step to a new way for the global community to think about war.
Today everyone knows about the International Red Cross. They go to places where terrible things have happened and they bring first aid, food, blankets. They stand between people and disaster; they hand out bottles of water and when they can they set up field kitchens so people can have a hot meal. In wartime they bring balm to the injured, make the wounded whole; and they visit prisoners held by opposing armies.
Today there are many additional Geneva Conventions. In addition to battlefield neutrality for armband-wearing volunteers, the newer Conventions lay out a plan for humane treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war. The Red Cross has expanded from 12 nations to 181, and its symbol from the red cross to (in Arabic countries) a red crescent, and (in countries that wish to adopt neither cross nor crescent) a red crystal.
The current challenge for the International Red Cross is the detention of people who are not prisoners of war but persons named as unlawful enemy combatants. A 10-year-old Afghani boy named Esrarullah saw his father for the first time in 8 months—not in person, because families of detainees are not allowed to visit—but by an internet video conference arranged by the Red Cross. I cannot imagine how difficut it must have been for the Red Cross to arrange an internet video conferencing in Kabul, Afghanistan between a father detained at an American air base outside Kabul, when for months the authorities had allowed no contact.
Henri Dunant was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. The awarding of a peace prize to the founder of an international volunteer organization that serves on battlefields may seem a bit unlikely. But the Nobel committee understood that when the international community began adopt conventions for the conduct of war it was taking the first step toward ending war.
Neutrality is sometimes criticized. Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
Yet what Henri Dunant envisioned was not “neutrality” in the moral sense. He asserted a strong moral position for humanitarian treatment of all people. In World War I, the Red Cross was called “neutral” and when its ambulances went back and forth on the battlefield neither side fired on them. But the courageous volunteers who wore armbands with a red cross, armbands that let them pass between the warring armies, were adamantly on the side of the wounded, the exhausted, the homesick. It is not morally neutral to be on the side of humanity. But sometimes “standing between” is difficult.
When two countries are at war, both claim the high moral ground. This claim is a kind of dualism: yes-no; on-off; right-wrong; good-evil. By rhetoric and incomplete information, one side is elevated and the other is demonized. Patriotic fervor springing from national pride contributes to the polarization of public opinion and public understanding.
In this atmosphere it is nearly impossible to discuss, let alone discern, the truth of the controversy that has led to war. In this atmosphere it is something approaching a miracle that nations do not fire on Red Cross ambulances. In this atmosphere anyone who seeks to promote understanding or to note the flaws and omissions on both sides is likely to be condemned.
Someone who believes that humanity’s claim is higher than national claims is likely to be called treasonous, or castigated as promoting “neutrality” in a time of great moral conflict. Whenever there is conflict we are urged to “choose sides.” As people who aspire to a high ethical standard, the call of the moral high ground is powerful. We want to stand up for what is right. We want to stand on the side of justice.
But sometimes we need to stand between.
It is most evident on the local and family scale that one person is not always evil and another not always good. In some conflicts we are pretty capable, as human beings, of understanding (for example) that siblings may disagree but one is not totally evil and the other is not perfectly good. In local controversies, when public figures demonize each other, many people are able to remember that each has accomplished something useful, something good.
There may be people who are completely and totally overcome by evil. But most of the time, in everyday life, we deal with people who are simply human. So when conflicts arise, the ethical thing, the moral act, may sometimes be to stand between. Acknowledging this as a moral position—a “humanitarian morality”—may help individuals do the right thing at times when the Lucifer Effect> would otherwise cause them to do the wrong thing. Sometimes heroes like Henri Dunant are people who stand between one side and the other because they stand for humanity.
To “stand between”: it means to listen to more than one point of view. To seek out the facts. To refuse to demonize one side or the other. Yes, we can be discerning and we should not be blind. But there is a difference between deploring tactics, statements, judgments—and condemning someone as uniformly wrong, uniformly evil, and then adopting an “ends justify the means” ethic that results in scorched earth and torture.
In my experience it is extremely hard to stand between. But humanitarian morality says that a government does give food and shelter to its prisioners of war. Humanitarian morality says a doctor does treat an enemy soldier. Humanitarian morality says we do seek out the common ground in a more personal conflict; that we do listen; that we do speak respectfully and compassionately when asked where we stand; that we do keep alert to the possibility that we have mis-understood. We don’t refuse to accept new facts just because they may require us to change our opinions.
Maybe human social order is not very well structured to allow people to act morally when controversies arise. I am saddened by the ease with which people place others in little labeled boxes and on that basis make assumptions about their thoughts and motives. I am frustrated when facts are in short supply and opinions rampant.
What would happen, I wonder, if we thought of ourselves as people morally obligated, morally committed, to the peaceful resolution of conflict? What would happen if we consistently but gently asked questions, encouraged fact-based decisionmaking, remembered not to demonize? What would happen if, in every situation in which we find ourselves, we wore a metaphorical armband of red cross, red crescent, red crystal?
People have so much to give to each other and to human society, which so desperately needs measured and nuanced thought; which needs people committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes; which needs a profoundly humanitarian morality.
Life is full of complexities. Dualism—binary thinking—is not in the best interests of humanity. I am not satisfied—I am not contented—I am not resigned to live in a world that insists I choose one monotone or the other. I refuse to scorch the earth.
If we embrace diversity of thought, if we cherish difference, if we are willing to learn creatively from others; if we stand between—then we will enrich our own lives, benefit our community, and heal our world.
This is a wonderful testimony that should be more widely disseminated to the world than only to our Lucifer Effect viewers. You raise many vital questions about the nature of heroes, about adopting a neutral position between the extremes of opposing armies and political forces, about accepting a higher moral ground that places humanity, personal dignity, and freedom from cruelty above national standards and legalistic semantic labels.
According to the new legal standards adopted by the Bush Administration and supported by his legal aides, the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, as those who were at Abu Ghraib and now at dispersed military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, do not enjoy the rights accorded by the Geneva Conventions or those accorded civilians by 200 years of Anglo-American law, because they are not Prisoners of War, and not Citizens of the USA, they are non persons, "enemy combatants" or "enemy non combatants." They are being held for as many as 7 years now, with no charge against them, no legal defense and no recourse to family visits. If this were happening in any other country, we would label it the worst abuses of a totalitarian government, but somehow the American public has accepted it as a necessary evil in the endless "war on terrorism."
We need a new version of Henri Dunant to stand between those helpless detainees and the current Administration running our government--that is supposed to by the people and for the people.
We need a new generation of Heroes who will stand between and stand above evil in all of its many insidious forms.
Thanks for this enlightening essay.
By Phil Zimbardo | Posted on May 11, 2008, 7:59 pm
Thanks, Phil. It seems to me that your observation in The Lucifer Effect that the slide into abhorrent behavior often begins with "demonizing" the "other." When we define other people as "not fully human" we start down the slippery slope to evil. A basic principle of the Unitarian faith is that all people have inherent worth and should be treated with respect and dignity. Similar language is in the International Convention Against Torture. Whether or not our American Constitution applies, the Bill of Rights sets standards our forebears considered essential for the treatment of people accused of wrongful acts. These basic rules are almost completely incorporated in the Geneva Conventions. Carving out an exception for "enemy combatants" is a refusal to apply these principles to some human beings, without proof of guilt in a fair trial. This refusal is neither right nor in line with our Constitutional ideals. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." If the US were to apply our Constitutional principles to every supposed wrongdoer, we would be a positive example for all the world. Where is our American Henri Dunant?
By Rev. Jennifer Brooks | Posted on May 12, 2008, 7:15 am
For me, heroes are the teenagers who say no to drugs, the single mothers who seek education, My son, who sets his alarm 15 minutes before mine to make me tea before I wake up, The women who reads the ingredients of food she is chosing for her children, people who step off a bus and ask a little old lady if they can help carry her bags...Isn't day to day kindness the forgetten heroism?
On the subject of stereotyping, how do you hold on to your opinions when you try to look past the judgements only to find it not a rumour but reality? When people put themselves into the boxes, how do you take them out? It is all too easy to feel guilty for judging someone but when the opportunity to change is presented to them and they choose to live up to the label, what then can be done?
By Me x | Posted on January 9, 2009, 7:13 pm
There are several different things that the Lucifer Effect has shown. The main quetion is, if we where left to be alone, with nothing such as laws, or rules to help control you and your actions. The Lucifer Effect could show that you are either moraly, or imoraly good/bad. Through this experiment that was conducted several years ago, it was able to help us better understand the acts of human nature, and why we do the things that we do. The real quetion is though after this experiment, is are we moraly good, or moraly bad?
By Emily Brennan | Posted on April 1, 2010, 9:01 am
Emily Brennan asks whether we are morally good or morally bad. My opinion is that human beings are predominately good, but have the capacity to do evil. We have to be attentive to the moral choices we make every day. The essence of free will is that we really do have the capacity to make bad choices. To fulfill our potential as human beings, it's important to understand and accept our own capacity to do wrong. I believe that each of our strengths (the very gifts that allow us to do good in the world) also has a shadowy "flip side." Even the saintliest person has the capacity to do evil. People we call saints, I think, fully understand their shadows, and choose not to act from them.