Sunday, March 2, 2008

Will Evil Prevail?

Exploring this big question was a rare descent into pessimism for TED, but offered some interesting fare, and ended with calls for heroism, so it was true TED fare.

Irwin Redlener, a public health doctor, addressed the question of nuclear threat. He described the nuclear threat from 49-19 as being threat of nation-nation nuclear threat, mostly mitigated by the principle of mutually assured destruction. During this period, there was virtually nothing you could do cope with possible nuclear events (despite the futile duck-and-cover campaigns) because a first strike would inevitably be followed by nuclear bombs raining on all participants – and thus resistance was futile.
His message was that the nuclear threat of today came from possible terrorist use of the stockpiles (left after disarmament), many of which are extremely insecure. Between 95 and 2006, there were 175 cases of nuclear theft. But there is something that can be done to prepare for such localized terrorist nuclear threats. The old advice to get protected from the immediate blast makes sense when it’s likely to a single blast. Moreover, with proper preparation for evacuation a huge proportion of people in the fallout zone could actually escape it. However, no American cities have such a plan.

Philip Zimbardo, social psychologist, is most famous for a prisoner experiment that degenerated so brutally over a few days that it had to be stopped – the woman who was to become Zimbardo’s wife, who was not part of the experiment, protested in order for it to be stopped. That and other experiments are the basis of his theory that ordinary people can succumb to evil under the right circumstances. In fact, he categorized people into 3 categories:
People who are evil – the bad apples
People who can become evil in certain circumstances – the bad barrel
Systems that create circumstances where people can become evil – bad barrelmakers

In narrating the horror of a series of Abu Ghraib photos what he gained access to through being an expert witness in the trial, he professed that it was a case of bad barrelmakers.
It takes courage to diverge from the norm, as was the case for the American who reported Abu Ghraib whose family had to go into hiding. He pleaded for early education about heroism and that it was the domain of ordinary people, so that people could step up when the need arose.

Samantha Power, political scientist and journalist, told us all a story, that exemplified such heroic courage, of the remarkable Sergio de Mello, the UN envoy who was killed in a terrorist blast in Iraq. “The world needs more Sergio”, she declaimed. He embodied four principles
Get in the room and talk to evil in order to try to reach some balance and accommodation
Have a reverence for dignity
Fear is a bad advisor –rise above it
Be humbled and aware of complexity but not paralyzed by it

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