Court and I attended a lecture last night by Dr. Philip Zimbardo. He is known throughout the world for his many accomplishments in the world of psychology. One of his most famous experiments include ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’.
In 1971 Dr. Zimbardo assembled a group of ‘normal’, average, everyday, well adjusted college students and divided them randomly into two groups. One group were designated ‘prisoners’ and the other, ‘guards’. The two groups were to co-exist in a prison setting for two weeks. The experiment had to be stopped after six days because the ‘guards’ began to perpetrate unimaginable cruelty upon the ‘prisoners’. The lessons of that experiment continue to reverberate in our world today.
In 2004 photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq began to circulate. These photographs depicted images of unimaginable cruelty by US military guards upon the Iraqi prison population. In the ensuing scandal, the Bush administration blamed the mess on ‘a few bad apples.’
Stalin, Chairman Mao, and Hitler are credited with killing a combined 51 million people. It’s easy to see these men as ‘Evil’. They gave the orders… but who executed them? Over zealous ‘believers’ in the cause, or common, ordinary, everyday soldiers?
The cruelty perpetrated at Abu Ghraib over three months was limited to a single night shift of 11 individuals, in a single section of the prison. What made this shift so uniquely inhumane?
Before the Iraq war, these eleven individuals were common, average, everyday American citizens who worked as truck drivers, retail clerks, and laborers. They were reservists who answered the call to arms, and they were shipped to Iraq to guard Iraqi prisoners.
The lessons learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) of 1971 were very much in play at Abu Ghraib, but shockingly, those lessons were turned upside down. Instead of looking at SPE as a long list of what NOT to do, the Bush Administration used it as a mechanism to create an environment where specific conditions would facilitate a desired outcome.
The 11 reservists who guarded the prisoners on the night shift had no training for this task and they were left unsupervised. They were told to treat the prisoners like dogs, to humiliate them because this strategy of dehumanizing them would make the prisoners more inclined to ‘talk’ during interrogations by the CIA, Military Intelligence, and one other private intelligence gathering firm. Those reservists committed grave inhumanities towards other human beings. They deserve the punishment they received. But what does that say about the rest of us?
Could you execute a person because you were given an order? Could you humiliate someone because it was your job? Could you fire a gun upon defenseless women and children in a village because everyone around you was doing the same thing?
The answer is yes. That capability is in all of us.
The line between good and evil, between moral and immoral, between right and wrong, is almost invisible. It begins with the slightest infringement upon it. It begins with a thought, a slur, a sense of duty. Each step beyond the line is a small one, a rationalized one. We always see ourselves as doing the right thing. We always see ourselves as working towards the greater good. We lose ourselves in ‘the cause’ as our perspectives narrow and our actions swell.
When we give up our individuality to a cause, when we surrender our perspective to an ideology, when we rationalize our actions with a herd mentality, we surrender our humanity. We begin the process of destroying ourselves.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.