Sometimes notions strike me out of an only partly-cloudy sky; the "sky" a couple of days ago was a programme on one of the Discovery/Science/History channel tier about the Stanford Prison Experiment and the general nature of human evil; Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D. was among the experts interviewed (I should note he's got a new book out on the topic) and the production included footage from his experiment at Stanford. --"Pretty standard stuff, really," as Dr. Evil says.
Not so the segments set in a war-torn part of Africa, where private armies do terrible things to civilians; watching that, I had the usual gunnie reaction, "Arm yourself and shoot these rats!" but face it, even the "dirt-cheap AK-47" of documentary and opinion-page fame is well out of the reach of most of these victims -- and they'd need more than one or two.
The juxtaposition of wanting decent normal folks to be armed and the "prison guards" of Stanford fame led me to ponder.
I don't buy all of Dr. Zimbardo's notion, that even the best of us can turn evil in the proper circumstances; but as a general trend, he's not far off the mark. And one of the reasons armies exist, one of the things that makes them work, is group reinforcement of values and behaviors. If the organizing authority happens to be decent and civilized, great effort is made to imbue the troops with a strong sense of civilized, Western ethical behavior but as generations of warlords and bandits have demonstrated, this is not an inherent part of the process.
If the only circumstance in which an individual handles arms is in a military band, if he learns there that "might is right" and the chain of command absolves him of all responsibility, atrocity will follow as night follows day. Even good and decent farm kids, brought up on well water, hard work and fresh air, can -- and most likely will -- end up maiming and raping once they join an organization that normalizes such behavior. This holds true if they volunteer or if they are
Conversely, the armed civilian generally receives no external positive reinforcement of initiated force, and will generally be far more reluctant to commit such outrages. He or she will find
...In practice, as a citizen militia become an underground and then overt resistance, as civil war rages, as the group takes precedence over the individual and the family, as the mob overtakes civil society, the likelihood of atrocity increases; and if the other side is predisposed to commit gruesome acts, the same is more likely to be perpetrated against them.
The armed individual with a vested interest in peace and quiet is a civilization's first line of defense against barbarism. If that line is not there, if response is delayed, the danger is far greater than if evil were to be nipped in the bud; for as conflict escalates, the danger of becoming what one opposes becomes greater.
This is why a cop walking a beat is better for a neighborhood than militarized policemen riding two to a car; and it is why, once that immediacy is lost, it is so terribly difficult to recover. This is why a shopkeeper with a smile and a revolver is better than a clerk in bulletproof Plexiglas box with a deposit-only safe and a squawking intercom; and why, once your neighborhood's gone to the latter, things will likely get worse before they get any better.
Evil takes many forms. A healthy society, a free society, a society in which no one segment has a monopoly on force, can correct itself. It has no rigid chain of command and that is the source of its strength. Decent men, with the means to do what is right and who must look their neighbors in the eye afterward, are the front-line troops of civilization.
(Edited for clarity)