Skip to main content

Why a man eats another man's heart

By James Dawes, Special to CNN
updated 6:51 AM EDT, Thu May 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A video shows a Syrian rebel carving the heart out of a dead soldier and eating it
  • James Dawes: How can ordinary men commit such horrific acts?
  • He says there are some men who are natural monsters, but most monsters are made
  • Dawes: The same steps used for creating monsters can show how to stop atrocities

Editor's note: James Dawes, director of the Program in Human Rights at Macalester College, is the author of "Evil Men" (Harvard University Press, 2013).

(CNN) -- A Syrian rebel carves the heart out of a dead man and bites it. His comrades nearby cheer: "God is great."

This is from a video that is circulating on the Internet. The appalling footage has all the world asking: What kind of people could do this?

We tell ourselves these men must be monsters, people utterly unlike us, people we could never understand. But we don't say this because it is true. We say this because it is comforting to think so. The far more frightening possibility we must face is that such evil is not diabolically inhuman or beyond understanding. It is human -- very human.

James Dawes
James Dawes

How can ordinary men commit such horrific acts? The war criminals I have met did not start out by desecrating corpses, torturing villagers or murdering children. They got there slowly. There are some men who are natural monsters, but most monsters are made.

This is how you make them.

First, take a man (and yes, it is most often a man) and isolate him. Separate him from his family and friends and put him in an information bubble, an echo chamber cut off from the outside world. Make him conform to the values of his new group by exploiting his insecurity and need for approval. This is the first step in any war.

Second, train him to think that the world is painted in black and white, not shades of gray. Train him in either-or, binary thinking. Either you are my friend or my enemy. Either you are pure or impure. Either the people you love are safe or they are in immediate peril. Either you are all right or you are all wrong.

Inside Syria's intelligence headquarters
Syrian refugees stuck in limbo

Third, physically exhaust him. Break down his body and spirit -- through brutal training or prolonged combat -- until he can't think straight. Subject him to a system of harsh and arbitrary punishment and equally arbitrary rewards. Condition him to feel helpless. A man who feels like he has lost control over his life is a dangerous man, because hurting others feels like control.

Fourth -- and this is the most important part -- start small. Work up to atrocity step by step. Put him into a strange and frightening environment with minimal regulation. Let the aggression escalate. Each violent act he commits while trying to survive will make the next act feel easier, more natural.

The first time he kills a villager, it is terrifying. The second time, it is hard. The third or fourth time, it starts to feel almost easy. Eventually, he finds himself competing with his fellow soldiers to see who can do it fastest, most often, most creatively.

Watching videos like this, and thinking thoughts like this, it is easy to lose hope. In war, are we doomed always to descend into barbarism?

The answer is no. The nightmare video from Syria is not inevitable. The very same steps used for creating monsters can also be used to stop monstrosity -- you just need to reverse the steps. Some people are born moral heroes, but most are made. And this is how you make them.

First, take a young man and start small. Work up to altruism and moral courage step by step. Each small thing he does to attend to the suffering of another or stand up against injustice will make the next act feel easier, more natural. Second, give him a clear system of rules with predictable consequences. Teach him he has the ability to make choices about his life, and that these choices matter. Third, teach him that the world's problems aren't as simple as us-versus-them, good-versus-evil. Teach him that there aren't easy solutions to complex problems. Teach him to tolerate, without fear and anxiety, life's difficult ambiguity and uncertainty.

And finally -- to those of you, like me, who are parents of young boys -- teach him to seek out "the other": Other clubs and groups, other sources of information, other places to see, other kinds of people, other cultural values. Spoil him with diversity, so that if there ever comes a time when he is called to war, he will always remember to see the world through the other's eyes. He will fight, but he will fight against an enemy that he sees as a person, like him. He will see their humanity, and in so doing, he will preserve his own.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Dawes.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT