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Silence of the Lambs

There was an article by Richard Dawkins in last Friday’s WSJ , which was itself a condensed version of an L.A. Times article of Jan 4: www.latimes.com…

Here’s the headline:

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Saddam should have been studied, not executed.

Sparing Hussein and studying his makeup could have provided valuable research.

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Here’s a precis, mostly in his own words, of Dawkins’ article.

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Hussein’s mind would have been a unique resource for historical, political and psychological research, a resource that is now forever unavailable to scholars. Similarly, historians and psychologists would love to have Hitler alive rather than have executed him, would give their eyeteeth to try to understannd how an individual human being could be so evil and so devastatingly effective at persuading others to join him. The most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological.

What were the formative influences on these men? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels? Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist? How would Hitler or Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don’t have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.

The only way to answer these questions is by research. It is in the nature of research on ruthless national dictators that the sample size is small. Wasn’t the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had and a prime specimen at that an act of vandalism?

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There’s something about the assumptions behind this point of view that I find stunningly naive (unless it’s just posturing), and I know a lot about naivete myself. I have a hard time putting my finger on the precise nature of the naivete. But, for a start:

It’s immensely simplistic to fantasize that you can learn how to avoid the creation of monsters by a series of linear questions. You can’t learn how to create Einsteins or Nabokovs by questioning them either. Motivation is a garden of forked paths with a complexity that can’t be traversed linearly. And even if you believe in psychoanalysis and think it can reveal deep motives, those motives too cannot be elicited by questioning. They must be discovered by the person himself, voluntarily, over a long time. And anyhow, I doubt that Saddam or Hitler, were they alive, would consent to a 5-year introspection.

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