Massacre at Mountain Meadows
by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr, Glen M. Leonard
Oxford University Press
For a short synopsis of the book please see the Ensign article buy Richard Turley.
This book is an excellent case study of how seemingly good people can commit acts of horrific evil. Phillip Zimbardo in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil, documenting his work The Standford Prison Experiment, theorized that we feel comfortable seeing bad acts as if committed by a few bad apples; that we are above such things. As if to say "I would never had done that." That we would have been the hero, standing up to all those weak people who went along. The truth though is just a bunch of ordinary apples in a bad barrel, all susceptible to going bad. Anotherwords, if you can create the right environment, just about everyone can and will be corrupted.
This book lays out very nicely the events surrounding the southern Utah pioneers, from the harsh rhetoric of Brigham Young, to the widespread rumors and false gossip of the citizens, and the old grudges that killed the soul from within. This led to an atmosphere that made such a heinious crime seem reasonable, but as Juanita Brooks said:
"Exaggeration, misrepresentation, ungrounded fears, unreasoning hate, desire for revenge, yes, even the lust for the property of the emigrants, all combined to give the justification which, once the crime was done, looked inadequate and flimsy indeed"
Typically 3 social factors are in place for great violence to take place.
1. Limited authoritative leadership
2. Conformity (often enforced) among the group
3. Dehumanizing of the victims
All three were strongly present in southern Utah during 1857.
As to the individuals who participated they tried to excuse themselves that they were just following orders (page 180), the past the moral buck forward (page 189), but in the end the guilt and shame for what they had done stayed with them (pages 209 & 214). For me two of the take away points were:
If any leader, Priesthood or otherwise, tells you to do something that you feel is wrong by saying "If it is wrong and I told you to do it, don't worry the punishment will fall to me", you can know of a surety that they are wrong. All great tragedies are begat by leaders who were sure they were right and demanded blind obedience (page 189). And as the participants above can tell you, the guilt never leaves.
Second, having the attitude that you are somehow better and above it all is precisely the attitude that leads you to such great crimes. Pride comes before the fall, and as the Milgram Experiment shows, you the regular citizen are not above it all. You are all in the same barrel and if we are not constantly on guard we will just go along with the flow with everyone else.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said:
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiuosly committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who wants to destroy a piece of his own heart."
The Memorial at Mountain Meadows