After shock: a Pakistani man comforts a mourner after his relative was killed in a suicide bomb attacck in Karachi on 29 January. Photo: Getty
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That suicide bomber was the boy next door

The uncomfortable truth is that bombers and war criminals might not be so different from the rest of us – we are all vulnerable to peer pressure and groupthink.

Many people believe in monsters. It is reassuring to imagine that only a monster would blow himself up on a crowded bus, or send millions to their death in Nazi death camps, or wave goodbye to his family each morning before a nine-to-five shift of torturing prisoners of conscience. And yet, the uncomfortable truth is that suicide bombers and war criminals might not be so different from the rest of us.

The Power of Others, a new book by the journalist Michael Bond, suggests that human sociability might hold the answer to why ordinary people do extraordinary things – whether these are acts of heroism or atrocities. We are all, he believes, much more vulnerable to peer pressure and groupthink than we imagine.

“People will often adopt the view of the majority, even when it is patently wrong,” he writes. An experiment conducted in the 1950s at the University of California asked students to sit a test in which they had to agree or disagree with a number of improbable statements such as: “Male babies have an average life expectancy of 25 years.” While the students answered sensibly under normal conditions, when other students told them they’d sat the exam earlier and answered in a certain way they could be tricked into agreeing with nonsensical statements.

So what does this have to do with those who commit atrocities? Perhaps our moral judgement is also easily influenced by others. This is the conclusion drawn from the notorious Stanford prison experiment. In 1971 the Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo recruited 24 male students for a two-week role play in which half would be guards and the rest prisoners in a makeshift jail. The experiment was called off after six days as the “guards” grew ever more tyrannical, devising cruel ways to torture and humiliate their detainees.

“I think you can turn almost anybody into a terrorist, if the conditions are right,” Amali, a Sri Lankan psychologist who studies Tamil Tiger suicide bombers, tells Bond. It’s a depressing thought but research into the backgrounds of 34 Palestinian suicide bombers conducted by the psychologist Ariel Merari could support this view. Basing his study on interviews with their friends and relatives, Merari found that none of the 34 men showed signs of psychological disorder, had suffered a recent trauma or had a history of criminal behaviour. They came from a range of social and educational backgrounds and not all were religiously devout.

In a later study, he found that the personality of suicide bombers made them especially open to outside influence: they were either social misfits seeking acceptance, or impulsive and emotionally unstable. Manipulative recruiters know how to take advantage of the vulnerable and their job is easier in militant societies such as Gaza – Bond adds – where “martyrs” are publicly venerated.

There are problems with Merari’s research: a sample size of just 34 people is hardly ideal, nor is relying on friends of terrorists to provide accurate information on their mental state or personality. Yet his focus on how social pressures can turn “ordinary” people into murderers offers an interesting perspective. It suggests that we should be wary of the glorification of martyrdom in the Arab spring states of Libya, Egypt and Syria. And perhaps we need to try harder to understand why some people are instinctive misfits,while others are all too willing to follow the crowd. l

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.