Ever heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment?
Long story short, back in the 70s- before psychologists got serious about using ethical practices in their research- this guy named Philip Zimbardo did a psychological experiment at Stanford. Some of the study’s participants were given the role of prisoner and the rest became the guards. Guards, of course, were supposed to keep watch over prisoners, but they ended up doing so much more. Essentially, the guards totally took advantage of the prisoners (remember, everybody in this situation is just a student participating in a psych study to earn some extra cash!). Guards practiced verbal abuse, invented rules and forced prisoners to follow them, and generally acted in accordance with the idea that, if given power, even “good” people can and will go nuts with it. People talk about this study in conversations about how there’s no hope for humanity because we all have the ability to turn totally evil.
Two summers ago I visited New York City with my brother and we spent a day at the 9/11 Memorial, which was still under construction at the time. We were able to walk around the two enormous fountains, which have victims’ names engraved upon them. The memorial was beautiful, but the most touching moment was when I heard, “Here she is.” Someone had finally found their loved one. I witnessed a reunion of sorts, and the aura was nothing but happy.
In the gift shop, footage of New Yorkers telling their 9/11 stories played on screens around the store. One story in particular has stayed with me. It was about a father with two sons, one who was a firefighter and the other who was in the NYPD. Both sons responded to the falling of the towers. At various times before going, both spoke with their father on the phone. That day, both died. “I have no regrets,” the father said, telling the story. “My last words to both of my sons were ‘I love you.’ You can’t ask for more than that.”
Today, as my own way of remembering, I read some more 9/11 stories. In each one I saw the same things: happiness. Pride. Love. A sense of duty to others. Unimaginable bravery.
I see 9/11 as the anti-Stanford Prison Experiment. This event is a case study in what happens when we are reduced to our humanity and forced to confront our strongest beliefs and values. Communities banned together; people willingly gave their lives; our country, so often divided, in many ways stood as one. In short, we saw how people could be simply good. History shows how people came together, and even in the stories I read fourteen years later, I am overwhelmed by how have come to remember the experience in the most positive way. I can certainly think of some other ways a father might respond to losing his two sons on the same day.
In no way am I saying that it’s good that 9/11 happened. In no way am I reducing its impact to the level of some ill-advised psychology experiment. I believe that, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, nothing like 9/11 should ever happen again. But it did happen, and I think the most respectful thing we can do is learn from it.
Yes, if given the opportunity, people can be extraordinarily bad. People have it within them to become villains. But- maybe more importantly- if given the opportunity, people can also be extraordinarily good. We can become heroes.
We can find plenty of examples of the bad things people do to each other every day of the year. But every year on 9/11 I choose to remember because I want to be floored by everyday people’s heroism. And why should we look at the bad so much more often the good? I propose that we all flip it. Let’s find a way to see the hero in people every day.
And let’s never forget.