Pictures from Abu Ghraib
By The Plaid Adder
week, the Bush administration was throwing its weight around
trying to censor pictures of the flag-draped coffins of American
soldiers being shipped home from Iraq. This week, you would
think, the Bush administration would be scrambling to splash
flag-draped coffins on front pages around the world, because
at least those images are marginally less disturbing than
pictures from Abu Ghraib.
To recap for anyone who hasn't been paying attention: Abu
Ghraib prison, which was the site of some of the worst atrocities
committed against prisoners under Saddam Hussein's reign,
is now under U.S. control and is being used as a prisoner
of war camp. Last month, the army charged 17 U.S. soldiers
with mistreating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Last week,
thanks to CBS, we found out why.
Not only have U.S. soldiers been stripping their prisoners
naked, putting bags over their heads, forcing them to masturbate
or to simulate sex acts with each other in front of their
American captors, attaching electrodes to their genitals,
beating them, and so on, but they have been posing for the
cameras while they do it. Disturbing as the bodies of these
naked and humiliated prisoners are, what's more disturbing
is the sight of their uniformed American captors smiling at
the lens as they show off their handiwork for the viewers
And it's only because these pictures were taken - and circulated
widely enough that they eventually encountered someone who
realized this was sick and alerted his superiors - that there
has been any investigation by the army - or that anyone in
America knows or believes that this happened.
Predictably, the Army is attempting to represent this as
an isolated anomaly. Here's Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt
commenting on this incident to CBS:
"So what would I tell the people of Iraq? This
is wrong. This is reprehensible. But this is not representative
of the 150,000 soldiers that are over here," adds Kimmitt.
"I'd say the same thing to the American people... Don't
judge your army based on the actions of a few."
Cokie Roberts was on NPR Tuesday morning repeating this
line, talking about the torturers of Abu Ghraib as "a few
bad apples" who have to be isolated and dealt with lest they
rot the whole barrel. When I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib,
I wasn't thinking about apples. I was thinking about the Stanford
prison experiment is one of those classic psychological
experiments from the bad old days when there weren't so many
controls on what you could do to your test subjects. The most
famous of these is the Milgram experiment in obedience, conducted
by Dr. Stanley Milgram at Yale in the early 1960s.
His idea was to try to test how far people are willing to
obey authority figures even if there is no external pressure
applied to them. So, he recruited a group of test subjects
and told them to ask the 'subject' - in reality, a hired actor
- a series of questions, and every time the actor got one
wrong, the test subject was supposed to administer an electric
shock. The intensity of the shocks increased gradually with
each wrong answer, until the actor started yelling in pain
and panicking about his heart condition.
The idea was to see how many of the test subjects would be
willing to keep shocking the actor even if they believed they
were hurting or perhaps killing him. Sadly for all of us,
the result was that only about a third of the test subjects
ever refused to continue with the experiment. The other two
thirds kept right on turning up the dial, even though nobody
had threatened to punish them if they didn't.
About ten years later, in 1971, a psychologist named Dr.
Zimbardo at Stanford University decided to find out what would
happen to 'normal' people if you put them into a prison environment.
So, he recruited eighteen college students from the area,
screened them for past criminal history or possible psychological
problems, divided them at random into 'guards' and 'prisoners,'
and put them into a simulated prison to see what would happen.
The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks. It was
called off after six days when it became clear that things
had gotten completely out of hand. The 'guards' were tormenting
and abusing the prisoners, the 'prisoners' were going crazy,
and Zimbardo himself had been so sucked into his role as prison
administrator that it wasn't until a visiting female colleague
expressed shock and outrage at what the experiment was doing
to the test subjects that he finally realized he had to pull
Both the Stanford prison experiment and the Milgram obedience
experiments were clearly inspired by a desire to understand
the biggest recent failure of Western civilization - the Holocaust.
Both of them were clearly attempts to answer the question
of how and why so many perfectly ordinary people became involved
in the mass murder of six million of their innocent countrymen
Because the thing that the Holocaust made perfectly clear
- and this is something that many of us have been strenuously
trying to forget ever since - is that evil is not the sole
responsibility of a few 'bad apples.' Bad as Hitler was, he
would never have been able to do what he did without the passive
cooperation or active participation of vast numbers of ordinary
Germans who, left to their own devices, would probably never
have become accessories to murder. So how did the Nazis manage
to turn an entire country into sociopathic serial killers?
Milgram thought he had found one answer: about sixty percent
of the time, human beings will obey the voice of authority
over the dictates of their own consciences, even when they
are not given any material incentive for doing so. The Stanford
prison experiment suggests that the trouble goes even deeper
than that - that individual identity, itself, is tremendously
fragile; that most of the time, the institution is stronger
than the individual. For all the talk in American culture
about rugged individualism, Zimbardo found that identity was
something that his subjects could be persuaded pretty easily
to abandon - in order to survive, in order to escape punishment,
or simply in order to escape disapproval.
The moral of Zimbardo's story is that it doesn't matter
who you put into the prison, on either side of the
bars. The situation itself forces people to act out roles
that are determined by the institution and not by the the
individuals inside it. And this is true even in a situation
where all the participants know that in the grand scheme of
things, there is absolutely nothing at stake.
Zimbardo keeps going back to this in his narrative: all the
participants knew the experiment had a time limit, they knew
they had homes to go to after it was all over, they knew that
it was being directed by an academic who presumably would
see to it that nobody was seriously harmed, if only to protect
himself and the university from lawsuits. The 'guards' knew
they would be paid $15.00 a day whether they had the 'prisoners'
under control or not. There were no pre-existing ideological
or demographic distinctions between the 'prisoners' and the
'guards.' The 'guards' had no motivation for controlling the
prisoners; controlling them became an end in itself.
In light of current events in Iraq, certain other elements
of Zimbardo's experiment spring into relief. Here's Zimbardo's
description of how the 'guards' were prepared for their role
in the experiment:
The guards were given no specific training on how
to be guards. Instead they were free, within limits, to do
whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order
in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners.
The guards made up their own set of rules, which they then
carried into effect under the supervision of Warden David
Jaffe, an undergraduate from Stanford University.
If the idea of turning over the operation of a prison -
even a simulated one - to a bunch of college undergraduates
scares you, the idea of a real prison located in the
middle of a war zone being run by men about the same age who
also have had "no specific training on how to be guards,"
are getting very little input from their superiors, and have
been told to do "whatever they thought was necessary" to break
them down for interrogation ought to scare the shit out of
you. It certainly ought to worry more people in the military
than it seems to have bothered up to this point.
Even more ominous is Zimbardo's explanation of his decision
to end the experiment early:
We had learned through videotapes that the guards
were escalating their abuse of prisoners in the middle of
the night when they thought no researchers were watching and
the experiment was 'off.' Their boredom had driven them to
ever more pornographic and degrading abuse of the prisoners.
Zimbardo doesn't give details or video, but we don't need
that. We have the pictures from Abu Ghraib.
I have seen a lot of hand-wringing about these photos, but
so far I haven't seen anyone discuss them as pornography.
I don't have a whole lot of personal experience with pornography,
but it seems to me like these pictures would pass most of
the tests: naked bodies, stripped of individual identity by
the bags over their heads, simulate sex for the cameras while
the only clothed subject who still has a face - the American
soldier who is symbolically fucking these bodies - grins with
Like many strains of pornography, these pictures display
all that dehumanized flesh not so much for its own sake as
to titillate the viewer's lust for power. They're assuming
a viewer who will get hard over humiliation, who will be more
gratified by the sight of a degraded Iraqi body than he would
be by any image you could find of any Playmate of the Year.
One of the first questions I had, after I saw the pictures
from Abu Ghraib, was "Who's behind the camera?" CBS says the
pictures were taken by American soldiers working as military
police at the prison. But the real reason they're so disturbing
- even more disturbing than the pictures of the much more
seriously maimed and mutilated civilian bodies that have been
destroyed by the violence we unleashed there - is that those
pictures put us all behind the camera.
When we look at the pictures from Abu Ghraib, we put ourselves
in the position of the American soldiers who took the photos.
We are, like them, forced to identify not with the faceless
pile of flesh on the other side of the camera, but with the
American soldier pointing to it. We watch that American soldier
smile at us as we click the shutter. That soldier looks out
at us with a wink and a smile, confident that we're sharing
the joke, that we're enjoying this as hugely as he is. Or
she. And something in us is afraid that that soldier might
It could be us. That's the lesson of the Stanford prison
experiment: that the average person does evil not because
somehow he is intrinsically evil, but because he has been
put in an evil situation. It's easy enough to sit there and
say that you would never do a thing like that. The
Milgram and Zimbardo experiments say that if you were put
in the same environment, the chances are you would. The torturers
of Abu Ghraib are no better or worse than their fellow-soldiers,
no better or worse than you or me. We're all human, we're
all weak, and we are all programmed to adapt for survival,
and to learn to live with and even like obscene conditions
if that's the only way we know to get home.
Which is not to say that these people shouldn't be punished.
It may be that they were never trained for their job - that
would be totally par for the course in terms of how this invasion
has been run - but you don't have to fall off a cliff to know
it hurts, and you don't have to be familiar with the fine
print of the Geneva Convention to know that torture is wrong.
At the end of the day there is still some room for individual
responsibility; the same environment doesn't affect all of
its inmates equally, as Zimbardo discovered.
According to him, the guards were about evenly divided into
three categories: the "tough but fair" guards who stuck to
the rules, the "good" guards who broke the rules to do favors
for prisoners, and the sadistic and cruel guards who seemed
to go out of their way to think up terrible things to do to
the prisoners. But anyone who thinks that you could put a
different group of people into the same situation and have
different results is dreaming; and anyone who thinks that
Abu Ghraib is the only place in the world where American soldiers
are treating people this way is in for a rude awakening. One
wonders, for instance, what the pictures being taken right
now in Guantanamo look like.
There will be no more experiments like Zimbardo's or Milgram's.
Years ago the profession finally decided that no matter how
many consent forms you give people to sign it is simply not
ethical to force a person to learn something like this about
himself. You cannot prepare someone for the shock of discovering
that he was willing to electrocute another human being simply
because someone in a lab coat told him to. The justification
given for putting people through something like the Stanford
Prison Experiment is that it teaches us not to trust our illusions
about individual identity and personal responsibility, and
gives us knowledge we can use to try to set up conditions
that will promote good behavior instead of bad.
Unfortunately, we don't learn. Or at least some of us don't.
One of the things that has distinguished the right wing over
the past half-century is a refusal to accept the argument
that environment can determine behavior. They're "the party
of personal responsibility" precisely because they reject
the idea that people might do bad things not because they
are inherently bad people, but because they have been put
in a situation in which you would have to be Superman or a
saint not to do them - and therefore, of course, they reject
the idea that one way to try to make society better is to
try to change the environment instead of punishing the individuals.
And therefore, they will prosecute the torturers of Abu Ghraib
as vigorously as they can, and they will allow the situation
that created them to get worse and worse. And then the next
time something like this happens, they will all act surprised.
Well, we didn't send 150,000 saints and supermen to Iraq.
We sent 150,000 human beings. So far, when we talk about the
damage that has been done to those human beings, the focus
has been on the more than 700 who have come back dead. The
cameras have by and large been turned away from the thousands
more who have come back seriously wounded. But even they will
get more recognition, and more sympathy, than the tens of
thousands who will have been transformed by Bush's Iraq experiment
into something they never should or would have otherwise been.
In addition to the deaths, the woundings and the maimings,
Bush has to answer for this too - the corruption of the men
and women under his command, the perversion of their consciences,
the evil they have done because they were told to do it.
So go ahead. Try the torturers of Abu Ghraib. And then for
God's sake let us follow the black river back to its source
in the White House, and put those bastards on trial too. And
let's do it before we all become subjects in Bush's Iraq experiment,
and discover in our own hearts the same capacity for cruelty.
Let's do it before we get so used to these conditions that
we have forgotten what life is like outside. Let's do it before
the black river drowns us all, and we can no longer remember
why it ever bothered us to look at the pictures from Abu Ghraib.
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