Completely fascinating article over on Wired.com featuring psychologist Phillip Zimbardo. He served as an expert witness during the Abu Ghraib trials, and was behind the now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. The experiment, which involved undergraduate students playing the roles of prison wardens and prisoners, had to be terminated after five days due to the increasingly depraved behaviour of the participants. Zimbardo is giving a TED Talk this year on how otherwise normal people can commit monstrous acts, a topic he also explores in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Wired.com has posted a video from that presentation featuring unreleased pictures from Abu Ghraib (extremely disturbing and NSFW- features torture, simulated sex acts, and soldiers posing with decomposing corpses), as well as a really interesting interview.
I found Zimbardo's take on heroism particularly interesting, that it is in fact a form of social deviancy:
To be a hero you have to take action on behalf of someone else or some principle and you have to be deviant in your society, because the group is always saying don't do it; don't step out of line. If you're an accountant at Arthur Andersen, everyone who is doing the defrauding is telling you, "Hey, be one of the team."
Heroes have to always, at the heroic decisive moment, break from the crowd and do something different. But a heroic act involves a risk. If you're a whistle-blower you're going to get fired, you're not going to get promoted, you're going to get ostracized. And you have to say it doesn't matter.
Well worth a read.