March 1

Written for a class assignment.

The email arrived Thursday afternoon. “The terrorist cell simulation has begun”, it read. “These are the members of your cell:”. Five names and emails of Stanford students, including mine, followed. And so began my life as a terrorist.

Professor Zimbardo’s psychology class has had more than its share of fun hands-on projects. But surely the terrorist cell simulation, for the unit on the psychology of evil, is its most memorable. The idea is simple: the class is split up into a series of small terrorist cells which must work together to plan to blow up a building. (Instead of actually blowing up the building, we will just paste a duct tape X up.)

To get us to fear government infiltration, half the groups will have a double agent – a student who pretends to be working for the group but is actually spying, looking for evidence to send back to the CIA. (The informant can’t just tell the CIA what’s going on – that would be too easy – instead they need to provide “hard evidence” like audio recordings or documents written by other members or emails or something.)

Frankly, this bit is a bit unrealistic. Terrorist cells (”affiliance groups”) are made up of people who know each other well and so the government (and wouldn’t the appropriate agency here be the FBI?) never manages to infiltrate them. And if it did, it would never require hard evidence – or any evidence at all, these days – they’d ship everyone right off to Gitmo. But hey, I guess you have to make a few changes for a simulation.

After the email, for a long time there is nothing – hey, terrorists are people too – and then someone finally suggests we should meet to plan things out. We meet in the basement of the dorm, in a private room. We try to figure out what our motivation is, but we agree that it’s probably best to figure out what we want to blow up first. The overpriced bookstore and the IHUM building are popular suggestions, but we eventually settle on the clocktower. While nobody really hates the clocktower, it does have strong symbolic value and it’s pretty easy to hit (two sides are covered by bushes and benches.)

However, despite our lack of hatred, our ideology is obvious: we’ll be in favor of the present hedonistic time perspective, against the future-oriented tyranny of the clock. I wish that, at this point, I could say we developed some large revolutionary theory of direct clocktower action and penned anti-clock manifestos, but we did not. However, if you’re into that stuff, it doesn’t get much better than the Biotic Baking Brigade (whose terrorist actions consist of throwing pies in people’s faces) campaign of “global pastry uprising” of “pie-rect action” to deliver “just deserts” to pompous power. (“If the people pie,” they shout, “the leaders will swallow!”)

That out of the way, we begin assigning roles. I get head of security, which I appreciate, because I can’t stop thinking about how easy it is to evade the “hard evidence” requirement through dedicated paranoia. I quickly learn, however, that simply being paranoid in your head is not enough. A good security officer has to be assertive enough to chew out other people for being insufficiently paranoid and blabbing about our plans to blow stuff up. And I am far too shy to be assertive.

Not that it matters yet – people don’t find out if they’re a double agent or not until after the first meeting (I have no idea why this highly unrealistic requirement was added) so it’s unlikely that anyone would be spying yet. So we agree on a set of codewords to use in future conversation. The clocktower is “Sigma Nu”, the bombing is a “party”. “Party at Sigma Nu” we say to each other in that knowing way that only terrorist colleagues can. It’s so fun, one’s almost tempted to practice it in the hallways. “Party at Sigma Nu, eh?” you say to a passing stranger, adding a conspiratorial wink for emphasis.

We agree on a time but since one member didn’t show up, we set another meeting to confirm. ‘I feel so close to all of you,’ one girl comments. ‘Planning a terrorist attack really brings people together.’ ‘Yeah,’ I say, ‘everybody should do it.’ And then off we go, back into our everyday lives, casually forgetting our secret terrorist life.

As I go about my day-to-day activities, I find it hard to resist the urge to make references to this secret identity. “Well, I have to blow up a building that morning but my afternoon is all free,” I want to tell people. And when the person is really close, and I can trust them, I do say so. They just sort of stare at me, as if to say, “not funny”. They’ll never understand.

Soon enough is our second meeting. As security officer, I sweep the room for bugs. Well, I look around for obvious recording devices. Someone could still be carrying a recording device on them. I consider patting everyone down – no, actually I’m too shy to even consider the idea.

However, I do keep a watchful eye. There’s that girl who didn’t show up to the last meeting. Maybe she’s the spy. And she does keep asking about what we’re doing and when. (Of course she’s asking questions, you might say, because she missed the meeting! To you my friend, I have only this to say: your actions simply aid the counter-terrorists.)

Aha! She has her cell phone out. It could be a recording device, even though it’s closed. Or maybe it’s calling the CIA on speakerphone so they can listen in our meeting. I should definitely confiscate the cell phone. Or maybe just ask to see it. Well, I suppose I can just watch to see if she turns it off after the meeting. (She does not.)

The best we can do is to simply not mention the precise time, then the recording device will have nothing to pick up. We can just whisper the time in people’s ears. Wait – what if they have recording cochlear implants? OK, we’ll write the time down on a piece of paper. But what if someone steals the paper? Well, we’ll write down a bunch of times and just say “the second”. And then we’ll burn the piece of paper. That should do the trick.

Of course, I am too shy to say any of this and we do none of these things. We say the time out loud, the phone sits on the desk the whole time, I do nothing to stop or even investigate it. I do, however, rationalize: I don’t really want to stop the CIA, the CIA catching us will make everything more fun. I sleep soundly that night.

The day of the attack fast approaches. I bring a backup camera, just in case, and get to the scene early, before anybody else. I notice that right next to the clocktower is an entire, actually quite large building, right there in the very center of campus. I can’t believe I never noticed this building before – it’s so large and centrally located (right next to the bookstore, the library, etc.). And it’s entirely empty. Most of the windows are barred but I manage to peek through one and it’s just completely bare. I imagine squatting in the building – it’d certainly be a spacious loft. How weird.

Eventually the rest of the group shows up, with the necessary duct tape. The same girl who missed the first meeting is again missing. We wait a little but but decide to proceed without her. It is at this point I notice that the clock has apparently stopped, before we’ve even done anything. It is not moving and the time is really wrong. Oh man.

Photo of clocktower
Fig. 1: CIA agents attempt to foil the plot at the last minute.

We decide to go ahead and duct tape it anyway. We wait a few minutes and start taking photos. Someone is sitting on a bench near the clock reading a book. We ask him to take a photo of us with the X and he obliges. I decide to go out for a long shot of the whole thing (see Fig. 1, right) and as I’m framing it I notice two girls walking in from the right side of the frame.

How odd, I think. Maybe they’re lost and need directions? I walk back over to see what the fuss is about. The two girls are both rather short and very cute with similar features. They are certainly not dressed in black suits and sunglasses, as the handout said CIA agents would be. Nonetheless, they claim they are CIA agents and that they have foiled our plot.

But, we cry, we had our five minutes! We had our photo! You’re too late! It does not matter. One does not argue with the CIA. Oh man, I think, all that rationalization and I didn’t even get to see them bust in. I was too far away, taking the photo.

We ask the CIA who their informant was. They say they can’t tell us, but the man comes forward. It’s the guy who appointed himself our leader. Figures. How’d you do it? Turns out he taped a recording device to his chest for our second meeting. And apparently he was really obvious about it too – he kept repeating the time in loud voices so that the microphone would pick it up. So much for my post as head of security.

Terrorism always seem like such an unknowable, something incomprehensible, but if psychology has taught us anything it’s that this is not the case. Milgram’s experiments showed that 90% of people can be made to electrocute an innocent until he’s unconscious and psychological research on terrorism similarly finds that terrorists, even suicide terrorists, have no particularly unusual personality traits. Terrorists are just regular, even honorable people, dedicated causes and beliefs that compel violence.

And, having been through the simulation, I can almost see being part of it myself. You can lose yourself in the details of planning the attack and hiding from the government so that you forget the human consequences. And you can justify ignoring those consequences to yourself in terms of larger ideologies. I mean, really, who’s going to get hurt if the clocktower falls down? Nobody lives in the clocktower. And won’t it be worth it to free Stanford students from the tyranny of being a slave to their quarter-hourly chimes?

(Except, of course, for the fact that the clock was stopped before we blew it up. But that’s a minor detail.)

This is not to say I support terrorism or plan to engage in any. But it’s always useful to fully understand and empathize with something you oppose or criticize.

posted March 26, 2005 06:42 PM (Education) (3 comments) #


Stanford: Another Post You Don’t Have to Read
Michael Scheuer on Imperial Hubris
Stanford: Unscripted
Stanford; Home Alone
Stanford: Private Meeting
Stanford: My So-Called Terrorist Life
Stanford: Schoolwork
Stanford: To the Hypnotist
Stanford: Stop Hiring Me
Stanford: Textbooks for Idiots
Stanford: Feats of Memory


Frankly, this bit is a bit unrealistic. Terrorist cells (”affiliance groups”) are made up of people who know each other well and so the government (and wouldn’t the appropriate agency here be the FBI?) never manages to infiltrate them.

Not always true; note the story of Emad Salem, who knew of the WTC bombing beforehand — as well as the plot to bomb a variety of NYC landmarks — and warned the FBI. There are questions about his role, but the FBI did successfully recruit someone who was within the trusted circle.

This wasn’t an isolated case; Ali Mohamed, an Al Qaeda terrorist who was involved in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa also acted as an FBI informant, and was reasonably close to Osama bin Laden.

Just a small FYI! True, a well-managed terrorist cell won’t fall victim to informants, but the Ben Franklin dictum still holds — three men may keep a secret, if two of them are dead!

posted by Dan Hartung at March 27, 2005 11:01 PM #

A funny read… I just stumbled upon you blog today… Keep on writing its awesome

posted by Mark Ellul at March 31, 2005 10:30 AM #

I agree with Mark… That is awesome. Keep up the good work!

posted by Angela Wilson at April 9, 2005 05:18 AM #

Subscribe to comments on this post.

Add Your Comment

If you don't want to post a comment, you can always send me your thoughts by email.

(used only to send you my reply, never published or spammed)

Remember personal info?

Note: I may edit or delete your comment. (More...)

Aaron Swartz (