TV UK, 7 September

'We're used to thinking about how ordinary German soldiers found themselves taking part in genocide during the war. We are less used to considering the mindset of those on the right side.'

Dolan Cummings

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Last week on The West Wing (E4), five US agents were kidnapped by a Colombian drugs cartel, and as seems to be the way with Democratic presidents faced with military situations, Bartlet turned into a stone killer.

Having heard one plan to rescue the men, the president asked absentmindedly, ‘How many Frente (the baddies) casualities would there be?’. His Chief of Staff looked at him: ‘Do you care?’ Pause. ‘No.’

Such an attitude is vicious and, when you think about it, racist. But in certain situations these things become quite respectable. We’re used to thinking about how ordinary German soldiers found themselves taking part in genocide during the war, for example. We are less used to considering the mindset of those on the right side.

Channel 5 is always churning out World War II documentaries with footage of goosestepping troops and trundling tanks. Despite its title, Servants of Evil: the Waffen SS (Monday 3) was a more subtle piece, looking at the lot of the average Fritz who happened to find himself in an SS division. Contrary to popular belief, the SS was not made up of diehard Nazi volunteers. But in the aftermath of the war, anybody in an SS uniform was singled out for special treatment by embittered Allied soldiers.

It seems strange to talk about the SS being scapegoated, since the force was explicitly established as a tool of the Nazi party, and it was SS soldiers who ran the concentration camps. Once we brand a group of people as evil however, we give ourselves a licence to treat them as less than human. Moreover, separating the sheep from the goats is a messy business.

One soldier (who ironically had been rejected by the SS on account of his dodgy surname) found himself branded a Nazi after the war because the only clean shirt he could find happened to be brown. Those identified as SS men were often shot on sight, or sent to the camps recently vacated by their victims, where they were starved and beaten. It would be foolish to suggest a moral equivalence with the Nazi treatment of the Jews, but we ought to recognise the potential of righteousness as a motivation for brutality.

Mind of a Murderer (BBC2, Tuesdays at 9pm) examines the less troubling idea that murderous behaviour is caused by abnormalities in the brain. This week’s episode, Damaged (Tuesday 11) explores the familiar notion that abuse in childhood can make people violent in later life. At the simplest level, it is suggested that a bash in the head can damage the brain’s frontal lobe, which affects our capacity for self-control.

The examples given of people who have suffered dreadful abuse, both physical and emotional, are actually quite convincing. But their crimes were exceptionally irrational. The suggestion that the problem of violence more generally can be accounted for by looking inside the heads of individuals is much less convincing.

Most violent crimes have reasons rather than causes, even if not especially good reasons. Anybody who has seen TV pictures of Loyalist attacks on Catholic schoolgirls in Northern Ireland will be tempted to label them as psychopaths, and perhaps the idiot who threw a bomb last week was dropped on the head as a baby. Then again, maybe he thought he was being presidential.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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