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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT