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?

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

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

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