Lords of the Flies
What happens when people are placed in extreme situations, such as a group of boys stranded on an island as portrayed in the 1954 allegorical book Lord of the Flies by William Golding. (The title is a literal translation of “Beelzebub” (Satan’s second-in-command.) The book, written with the memory of the formidable excesses of Nazi Germany and fears of the Cold War looming, depicts what can happen when a group of boys is left to its own devices on an island without adult supervision and no societal structure. In the early days of their abandonment, the boys, led by Ralph, try to survive and thrive, all the while maintaining a smokey signal fire to attract the attention of a hoped-for ship at sea. Paranoia soon engulfs a growing faction of the boys led by Jack. By time they are rescued, Piggy, the boy whose eyeglasses were used to start the signal fire and were later broken (he could hardly see without them), is killed. I have often wondered if his death was a form of disability cruelty spurred into literary reality by the author’s own unconscious bias. Later, another boy (Simon)is killed by the boys in a frenzy of paranoia. While the boys form an army to kill a non-existent “beast”, the fire is allowed to die. At the end, the navy man who discovers the boys is disappointed at their plummet into anarchy.
Then there were the famous social psychology ‘authoritarianism’ experiments by Stanley Milgram, first reported in 1963. Memory of the traumas of WWII still vibrating, Milgram strove to understand the power of authority-figures to induce heinous behaviors in relatively normal people. His most famous social psychological “experiment” had students playing the role of teachers and his staff playing the role of students. Whenever the student gave an incorrect answer to a teacher’s question, the teacher gave the student an electric shock. The teachers did not know that the shock devices were fake and that the “students” play-acted the pain. Teachers dosed out horrendous amounts of shock. Many teachers, the “experimental subjects”, later suffered emotional trauma. Even though they were assured they had not really shocked their “victims”, their willingness to do so haunted them. Milgram concluded that people primed to follow authority are especially vulnerable to exhibiting very bad behavior under pressure.
Then there was the artificial prison situation at Stanford University in 1971, led by Professor Philip G. Zimbardo, designed to test the hypothesis that institutional support of power-imbalances will lead to injustice and cruelty. In a university basement, students were divided into two groups, guards and prisoners. The experimenters were later shown to have put extraordinary pressure on the “guards” to punish prisoners for non-compliance. As hypothesized, human cruelty spilled out all over the place. The experiment had to be shut down in order to stop the inhumanity. To their credit, many “guards” refused to continue once they saw what was happening; however, many became “beasts”.
Then there is the group of police specially tasked with knocking down serious crime in Memphis, TN. Officers were placed into a unit called SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods). In its first three months in late 2021, it scored numerous arrests, gun removals, and vehicle and cash impoundments. It was praised by the Memphis mayor in a key speech. A year later and a few days ago as I write, one of the 10-officer sub-units participated in a protracted encounter with Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old black man and apparently caused his death. SCORPION was immediately disbanded and 7 of its officers fired. Some fire department medics and sheriff’s office personnel have been fired or suspended and cited for wrongdoing. The officers did just about everything one can do to a human short of directly killing him. They used their tasers, batons, fists, screaming voices, and boots. The video footage shows them ordering Mr. Nichols to do things he was already doing or could not do such as to lie on the ground when they meant lie on your stomach or show your hands when officers were holding his hands. Three days later, Mr. Nichols died in a hospital. As of the most recent autopsy reports, he died from the results of internal bleeding.
As many readers know, I am continually amazed at and curious about the overall human condition. I believe there is such a thing as human nature. The recent example of human nature driven to its lowest level occurred in Memphis. There were warnings that the marching orders of the SCORPION group coupled with relative lack of guidelines and supervision were a formula for disaster. It finally happened with the death of Mr. Nichols. Although the warnings went unheeded, they were not totally unheard. The police chief has pulled the plug on this misbegotten unit.
People in my home town (New York City) are aware of its police department’s “stop-and-frisk” policies wherein an officer can accost anyone, usually a black person, who looks the least bit suspicious. All this power, policy, authority, and lack of societal structure led to abusiveness and these practices have been curtailed in recognition of the racially biased excesses they permitted. Too bad this didn’t happen sooner in Memphis.
When it comes to politics and policy, we must be continually vigilant about the depths to which human nature can sink. Police are particularly vulnerable. They have power as individuals and authority backing them up. Many police are simply not well-enough trained to balance good and necessary police work, including, inevitably, occasional violence, with ways of treating people with humanity. One critic believes that the video footage made by the Memphis officers was staged to build a defense against what they already knew was indefensible behavior. So, on top of hurting Tyre Nichols beyond repair and for reasons not warranted by their tasing, punching, cuffing, and bludgeoning, the officers proceeded to get themselves on camera giving orders which looked good individually, but when taken as a whole, were contradictory and impossible for Mr. Nichols to follow. Human nature had sunk to a level worthy of Beelzebub: heinous acts with built-in justification and gas-lighting to make all of us think they did nothing wrong.
What do we make of the fact that all of the SCORPION police officers were also black? Statistics appear to indicate that black police officers are not collectively different in their approach to black suspects than white police officers are. Does this mean that black police officers have similar biases toward black people as many white people do? Since police forces are accused of excessive focus on black people and since many believe police officers overly focus on them, there can be no other conclusion. This is a form of what has been termed “black-on-black violence” and is a part of the severe damage the American colonies and young American nation did to blacks when they ripped them away from Africa in the name of cheap labor by way of enslavement. The damage runs deep and in so many directions it will probably take another century to begin to undo it.
We would be safe to think the SCORPION officers did something wrong, but we should also wait for all of the facts to be revealed. Then we can deal with our human nature in realistic ways, first by dealing with our inhumanity. This should include not only punishing the guilty, but by accepting our tendency to sink as low as we too often do. It is the only way to prevent such behaviors from happening to begin with.
Anthony R. Candela, Author
Saying aloud what should not remain silent.
January 31, 2023