Skip to main content

Why a man eats another man's heart

By James Dawes, Special to CNN
May 16, 2013 -- Updated 1051 GMT (1851 HKT)
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
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT