The School Bus and the Banality of Evil

Reprinted from Ethics Newsline

by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman

By now, you are no doubt familiar with the story of the 68-year-old bus monitor in Greece, New York, who was taunted viciously by four seventh-graders in an incident captured on a student’s cell-phone. But in case you missed it, here’s an overview:

Karen Klein has spent decades as a bus driver and monitor in the town of Greece, a large (population about 100,000) suburb of Rochester. About three weeks ago, she was verbally set upon by four young men, who taunted her with vile ridicule of her weight, graphic threats involving weapons and breaking into her house, and even a sneering reference to the suicide of her son a decade ago.

Klein was reduced to tears but did not respond with anger to the taunting, which persisted for about 10 minutes.

The incident was captured on a student’s cell-phone and posted to YouTube, where it went viral. Something about the event touched nerves worldwide, and an internet-based fundraising effort intended to raise $50,000 for a vacation for Ms. Klein soon raised more than 10 times that amount.

Meanwhile, the ramifications of the event got even uglier, with death threats pouring in against the students and their families. Police appealed for calm, noting that death threats are a form of bullying, too. Late last week, as noted below in this week’s Ethics Newsline, the school district suspended the students for a year. Criminal charges were not brought, in part because of Ms. Klein’s reluctance to press them.

The story raised appropriate speculation about the repulsive actions of the young men who, even though they legally are children, obviously should know better. The story also caused some in the news business to scratch their heads over why, in a world full of repulsive actions mercilessly recited in the drumbeat of every day’s headlines, this incident captured international attention, headlines in major newspapers, and coverage by all major U.S. television networks.

Well, here’s what captured my attention: Unlike the vast majority of stories that flicker across my terminal each day, this one didn’t carry the dateline of an unfamiliar city or exotic war zone. It didn’t feature frightening caricatures of thundering menace, such as uniformed soldiers or gang members bristling with muscle and tattoos. Instead, it happened in the same town where I went to middle school. For all I know, it could have been on the identical bus route I took. And the perpetrators were children about the same age as one of my sons. For all I know, they could be the children of my classmates from a generation ago.

To co-opt a phrase that was applied famously in an entirely different context, the Greece bus incident drives home the “banality of evil.”

German political theorist Hannah Arendt used that terminology to back her theory that atrocities, including those committed by the Nazis, are committed not just by fanatics or psychotics, but by regular people who simply become acclimatized to the deplorable.

Various research projects have bolstered the idea that the complex dynamics of human interaction can send ethics and morals off the rails. The notorious Milgram experiments, which were conducted at Yale shortly after the trial of Adolf Eichmann (the subject of Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil), demonstrated that lab assistants were willing to torture subjects if an authority figure assured them that he would assume responsibility for their actions.

About a decade later, the Stanford Experiments demonstrated that students recruited to become “guards” in a mock prison could succumb to peer and supervisor pressure and begin brutalizing their captives.

We know that interactive social pressures can produce the most extraordinary changes in people. Even the bullied Karen Klein said as much when she told CNN that she does not believe her harassers were bad kids, deep down, “but when they get together, things happen.”

But the looming question is why things sometimes don’t happen. Other students on the bus chose not to participate (although none apparently took action to stop the harassment), and one felt moved to post the video.

Not all Germans were Nazis, and not all participants in the Milgram experiment delivered the shocks per their supervisor’s instructions.

One subject who refused to carry out instructions in the Milgram experiment was Joseph Dimow, an editor and columnist who attributed his lack of cooperation to his upbringing and education, which he said made him sympathetic to the oppressed and willing to challenge assumptions.

Is that one of the keys to unlocking the puzzle of how apparently ordinary children, described as “not bad” even by their victim, could lapse into such horrifying behavior?

Had they somehow missed the combination of upbringing and education that should have cued them to throw the off-switch as their behavior devolved?

What sort of training in ethics, critical thinking, or some other area could have prevented this incident? I don’t have the answer, but I’m hoping you do. Please weigh in using the comments box below.

©2012 Institute for Global Ethics