What is the reason that some individuals have a social conscience that operates even when facing the ultimate in a fearful situation, and others do not? What makes some people confront a dangerous situation to save someone else, even at the risk of their own skin? Think of the brave women who ran out into the hallway to confront the Newtown elementary school shooter last December. They heard gunfire, they knew the building was full of young children, and their first thought was to protect them; they did not think of their own safety. They paid the ultimate price for their decision.
With Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, Eyal Press presents a meticulous, measured observation on just what is it that makes some individuals place themselves in mortal danger in order to save others. The book is divided into four sections, each which examines a person who made a moral choice to go against the grain even though this action could -– and in some cases, did -– destroy them.
One is a Swiss police officer who deliberately disobeyed the orders of his superiors, falsifying documents so that Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis could enter Switzerland. Another is an Israeli soldier who refused outright to be assigned to the Occupied Territories. Yet another, a Serb, deliberately lied about the ethnic background of his Croat neighbors, thereby saving their lives. A financial adviser risks her lucrative livelihood after pointing out to her superiors that something is not right about the financial practices they’re engaged in, becoming a whistleblower for what eventually emerged years later as the second largest Ponzi scheme in American history. All of those profiled faced dangerous, if not fatal, repercussions for their actions.
These people are not saints. They have feet of clay like anyone else. What distinguishes them from their peers is that, when it counted, they pushed back against the status quo and followed their consciences. They knew something was wrong and they acted on it. It’s one thing to do that when you’re safely wrapped in the arms of a democratic society, where dissent is not against the law. It’s another thing entirely to defy authority when the orders are coming from your government and your government is working with the Nazis; being caught means prison or death – not just for you, but for your family, as well.
This is Eyal Press’ second book, his first being a more personal story—that of his father’s abortion clinic coming under attack from right-to-life protesters (Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America, 2006). His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and The Nation. What he has fashioned with Beautiful Souls is a deep journalistic work that minutely examines the psychological reasons behind dissent.
Press references the Milgram Experiment several times in his treatise. This was a series of experiments that were conducted by Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, during the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann for Nazi war crimes. Milgram devised a test in which subjects were asked a series of questions and told that each wrong answer will result in an electric shock to someone in an entirely different room that they could not see.
The person in the remote area who received the shocks was actually an actor, and there were no electric shocks actually being administered. The test subjects were also told they could not, under any circumstances, halt the test, even when they understood that their actions caused physical pain to someone. The study had been devised to try to understand the psychological reasons behind Nazi soldiers’ motivation to follow the orders of their superiors.
The Milgram experiment results, widely controversial at the time, pointed to the strength of the crowd mentality. Milgram showed that the majority of subjects preferred the easy way out even if it caused harm to someone else, someone they could not see.
From childhood, when we first learn to operate within a society of our peers, we learn the power of the group. Press points out that one of the basest and most universal human emotions is “the desire to feel a sense of belonging.” That sentiment, chillingly, is at the core of genocide and ethnic cleansing: uniting against a common enemy. “Man has a horror of aloneness. And of all kinds of aloneness, moral aloneness is the most terrible kind,” wrote Balzac.
In his introduction, Press states: “Such stories merit attention not only because we live in a world sorely lacking compelling examples of moral courage but also because of something too often lost in contemporary accounts of evil, which is that deciding whether to conform or resist is just that: a choice… It is never easy to say no, particularly in extreme situations, but it is always possible, and so it is necessary to try to understand how and why ordinary men and women sometimes make what is difficult but possible real.”
The four people profiled in Beautiful Souls all share something in common besides their ability to clearly see right and wrong in a world gone mad around them. Each of them accepted the risk that they might be found out and punished for their actions. They broke ranks and by doing so showed extraordinary courage and conviction. The deeper question remains; what would each of us do if we were faced with a similar situation? Would we able to buck the system and speak truth to power, knowing that we might lose everything?