The Pictures from Abu Ghraib
May 5, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

Last 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 the 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 at home.

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.

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 the plug.

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 and fellow-Europeans.

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 evident pleasure.

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 be right.

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.

The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.