PZ called my attention to the fact that former US Army 2nd Lieutenant William Calley has, for the first time, publicly apologized for his conduct at My Lai. Something that Paul wrote got me thinking, particularly while I was running some errands on base this morning:
There is no doubt that Calley was a bad man and a weak man -- he was the lieutenant who led the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians in 1968 -- but at the same time, he was one of the pawns in a game dictated at the highest levels of American policy.
I'm absolutely certain that PZ is at least half right - at a time and in a situation that demanded extraordinary strength and courage, William Calley exhibited neither. He was, at absolute best, weak. But I'm not sure about "bad".
There is no doubt that Calley was deeply, personally involved in carrying out an atrocity that beggars the imagination. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocents, and he personally killed many of them. It took him over forty years to apologize for what he did, and there is hardly any way that an apology could remotely be considered adequate.
On the surface, saying that William Calley is - or at least was - a bad person is a no-brainer. But we might be giving ourselves too much credit.
A bad person is someone who has done something that's beyond the pale - something that everyone knows is wrong, and something that only a bad person would do. When we talk about someone being a bad person, and not just a person who has done something bad, we're thinking about someone who is more flawed than most people.
Or at least more flawed than us. Because we know that we wouldn't do what he did.
We know that. But are we right?
There's actually good reason to wonder if we are - to wonder, in particular, if we would really be able to do what we know is right when the chips are down. The Milgram experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, the behavior of entire communities of Germans during the 2nd World War, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and far to many other cases suggest that we should not be quick to assume that we would be able to do what's right.
We, as a species, have a tremendous ability to do great wrong when told to by someone we perceive as a superior. It would be nice to think that most of us aren't like that. It's comforting to think of William Calley as a bad man, and not as someone who did something that many other ordinary human beings - people like you and I - might have done under the same circumstances. But we draw that comfort from our hopes, not our knowledge, and we do so at our own peril.