Posted on August 27th, 2008 in Books, Computer Security, Entertainment, Life, Music, Television | No Comments »
Ordinary Men by Christopher R. Browning is a book on Nazi Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101, which participated in the Holocaust. The primary discussion in the book is on how a group of ordinary, middle-aged Germans became mass murderers. He attempts to understand how this transformation took place, and he uses insights from the Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison experiments. However, he is quick to point out in the forward of the book that “explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving.”
The book was recommended to me by Lucas Layman after a discussion on the importance of the human element in computer security led to a discussion on the Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison experiments. Certainly there are many elements of computer security and computer crime that can be better understood through studying human psychology. For example, the simple fact that as the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were removed from direct participation (e.g. pulling the trigger themselves) to indirect participation (e.g. leading Jews to death trains) they were more easily able to cope with their actions psychologically. Similarly, computer crime is easily disassociated because of the impersonal nature of dealing with computers rather than humans. However, after reading the book my strongest reaction has been broader than just computer security.
When I was in high school I had to read quite a few books on the Holocaust. It seemed that every year we read a different book on the subject, and I tired quickly of the extremes that were pushed. Nazi Germany in general and Hitler in particular have become famous for being the most extreme extreme. This is perhaps best identified by Godwin’s Law.
Ordinary Men suffers from over-extremism to some extent as well. For example, Browning causally refers to the Holocaust as the “most extreme genocide in human history” without offering much in the way of proof or comparison. The number of Native Americans systematically killed by Europeans and the number of Russians killed by Stalin’s regime could each easily exceed the numbers of Jews killed by the Holocaust. The rate of killing in Rwanda could easily surpass the rate of killing in the Holocaust. The brutality of groups like the Khmer Rouge and leaders like Genghis Kahn could be argued to be greater than that found in the Holocaust. Is it even possible to classify something like the “most extreme genocide in history?”
My point is that our only reaction to events like these cannot be the emotional one; we must attempt to understand why and how these things happen so that we can learn from them. We aren’t good at rationalizing emotions, and we are rarely able to draw objective conclusions based on them. However, if we can take a look at some facts, then we may be able to learn important lessons. For example, before the brutality caused by Nazi Germany and in former Yugoslavia, we see extreme hyperinflation. Do we know anywhere else in the world where that is happening right now? I think so. This is something to be concerned about.
More generally security is a field that suffers from extremely emotional reactions. The air travel response to the September 11th attacks is a good example. How many of these responses have been the result of reason rather than emotion? How many of them have actually improved airport security? These are questions that we will probably continue to struggle with for years because of the highly charged emotional response most Americans have to the September 11th attacks.
On the whole though, Browning does a good job of ensuring that we don’t view the people of Reserve Police Battalion 101 as caricatures of themselves. As a result, there are many lessons to be learned from this book. The Holocaust should not be thought of as an abstract evil thing, but instead as a real consequence of human plans and actions. As Browning says, “Ultimately, the Holocaust took place because at the most basic level individual human beings killed other human beings in large numbers over an extended period of time.” The book offers an objective take on how ordinary people are capable of such a thing. I found it to be a very worthwhile read.