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Why not everyone is a torturer

“So groups of people in positions of unaccountable power naturally resort to violence, do they?” Psychologists Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam write for the BBC that we may be deluded in comforting ourselves with the thought that those who committed the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were depraved monsters and that we ourselves would not have acted similarly under those circumstances. A series of major psychological studies over fifty years, sadly, say differently. Most notorious, Philip Zimbardo’s controversial but sobering 1971 Stanford prison experiment had to be aborted because the seemingly well-adjusted students assigned to roleplay prison guards quickly became sadistically abusive to the students chosen to play prisoners.

So the Abu Ghraib torturers were victims of circumstance, losing preexistent moral standards and doing things they would normally abhor, for example because the prison environment was dominated by the insistent goals of military intelligence and their orders to “soften up” the prisoners for interrogation? Was there something exceptional about this context that caused them to see their captives as subhuman? Where does the responsibility lie for the cultural influences?

Reicher and Haslam liken the photographs taken of the atrocities to the postcards that lynch mobs circulated advertising their actions “proudly and with a grotesque sense of fun”, seeking the approval from their viewers that makes heinous actions more possible. They went so far as to replicate the Stanford experiment for the BBC and, finding that their subjects did not replicate the cruelty and abuse of the 1971 iteration, concluded that the crucial variable is how they are instructed by their leadership. What message was promulgated by the commanders of the Abu Ghraib torturers? What pressure was there against the expression of disapproval or objection? Did the command structure and the military culture actively promote abuse? create a permissive environment in which transgressors know that they will not be held accountable because their superiors will turn a blind eye or file a report of no consequence? or simply fail to promulgate any standards at all, abdicating their responsibility to fill a moral vacuum?

” Our own findings indicated that where such a vacuum exists, people are more likely to accept any clear line of action which is vigorously proposed. Often, then, tyranny follows from powerlessness rather than power. In either case, the failure of leaders to champion clear humane and democratic values is part of the problem.”

But it is not only the military culture but the values promulgated in the society as a whole which should be examined. Anti-Muslim sentiment, the demonization of our enemies, the subtle linguistic cues in public statements by political leaders, and perhaps most important the marginalization of those who would stand against such dehumanization encourages the perpetration of atrocities and the belief by the perpetrators that they are doing a noble service rather than committing a heinous outrage. It is almost indubitable that the Abu Ghraib torturers felt they were behaving well, obediently, doing a service. It is difficult to disentangle the contributions of the individual, group and social psychological influences that coalesced in this instance, but none can be ignored.

“We need an analysis that makes us accept rather than avoid our responsibilities. Above all, we need a psychology which does not distance us from torture but which requires us to look closely at the ways in which we and those who lead us are implicated in a society which makes barbarity possible.”

Those of us who stand against such barbarity need to go further than just condemning the perpetrators and lulling ourselves with the moral superiority of that condemnation. We must take on the soul-searching examination of ourselves and our culture, and we must take it outside the “echo chamber” of the weblogging community on the Internet.

Related: More Rumsfeld lies about respecting the Geneva conventions and the rule of law:

“Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended military interrogation techniques in Iraq today, rejecting complaints that they violate international rules and may endanger Americans taken prisoner. Rumsfeld told a Senate committee that Pentagon lawyers had approved methods such as sleep deprivation and dietary changes as well as rules permitting prisoners to be made to assume stress positions.” —Toronto Star

Also: William Saletan argues in Slate that the Stanford experiment doesn’t explain Abu Ghraib, that the differences are instructive. At Stanford, what occurred was humiliation; at Abu Ghraib, torture. Beyond the context of proffered power and its power to corrupt, the Iraq situation involves racial hatred and the individual psychologies of the prison guards were not as benign as those of the Stanford experiment student subjects. Moreover, the input from supervisors was different. Zimbardo pulled the plug on the experiment because he essentially couldn’t stand the fact that he had turned from a benign psychological researcher into a prison warden, and that gentle and bright students under his tutelage had become monsters. At no level at Abu Ghraib were any such compunctions in play.

But Saletan agrees with me that the primary pitfall in using Stanford to explain Abu Ghraib was this:

The point of the Stanford experiment, after all, was to discredit personal responsibility. “Individual behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than ‘personality traits,’ ‘character,’ ‘will power,’ or other empirically unvalidated constructs,” Zimbardo told Congress in 1971. “Thus we create an illusion of freedom by attributing more internal control to ourselves, to the individual, than actually exists.”

We are about to see, in a range of inquiries about the prison torture, the transgressors blaming the system. We may get caught up in tortuous discussions about which level of the system it was that failed. In so doing, the first casualty will be any notion of personal responsibility. To be sure, you will to hear pronouncements about the personal responsibility of the Abu Ghraib guards — from the government, not in the service of the promulgation of an ethical standard, but merely to deflect the political liabilities it faces. The first casualty of the invasion of Iraq has been the poor unfortunate citizens of that country (yes, Virginia, even in light of the fact that they have been freed from Saddam Hussein). The second casualty appears to be America’s soul.