Adam Ash

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

How circumstances can make evil m'fuckas of us all

A Conversation With Philip G. Zimbardo
Finding Hope in Knowing the Universal Capacity for Evil

SAN FRANCISCO — At Philip G. Zimbardo’s town house here, the walls are covered with masks from Indonesia, Africa and the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Zimbardo, a social psychologist and the past president of the American Psychological Association, has made his reputation studying how people disguise the good and bad in themselves and under what conditions either is expressed.

His Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, known as the S.P.E. in social science textbooks, showed how anonymity, conformity and boredom can be used to induce sadistic behavior in otherwise wholesome students. More recently, Dr. Zimbardo, 74, has been studying how policy decisions and individual choices led to abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The road that took him from Stanford to Abu Ghraib is described in his new book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” (Random House).

“I’ve always been curious about the psychology of the person behind the mask,” Dr. Zimbardo said as he displayed his collection. “When someone is anonymous, it opens the door to all kinds of antisocial behavior, as seen by the Ku Klux Klan .”

Q. For those who never studied it in their freshman psychology class, can you describe the Stanford Prison Experiment?

A. In the summer of 1971, we set up a mock prison on the Stanford University campus. We took 23 volunteers and randomly divided them into two groups. These were normal young men, students. We asked them to act as “prisoners” and “guards” might in a prison environment. The experiment was to run for two weeks.

By the end of the first day, nothing much was happening. But on the second day, there was a prisoner rebellion. The guards came to me: “What do we do?”

“It’s your prison,” I said, warning them against physical violence. The guards then quickly moved to psychological punishment, though there was physical abuse, too.

In the ensuing days, the guards became ever more sadistic, denying the prisoners food, water and sleep, shooting them with fire-extinguisher spray, throwing their blankets into dirt, stripping them naked and dragging rebels across the yard.

How bad did it get? The guards ordered the prisoners to simulate sodomy. Why? Because the guards were bored. Boredom is a powerful motive for evil. I have no idea how much worse things might have gotten.

Q. Why did you pull the plug on the experiment?

A. On the fifth night, my former graduate student Christina Maslach came by. She witnessed the guards putting bags over the prisoners’ heads, chain their legs and march them around. Chris ran out in tears. “I’m not sure I want to have anything more to do with you, if this is the sort of person you are,” she said. “It’s terrible what you’re doing to those boys.” I thought, “Oh my God, she’s right.”

Q. What’s the difference between your study and the ones performed at Yale in 1961? There, social psychologist Stanley Milgram ordered his subjects to give what they thought were painful and possibly lethal shocks to complete strangers. Most complied .

A. In a lot of ways, the studies are bookends in our understanding of evil. Milgram quantified the small steps that people take when they do evil. He showed that an authority can command people to do things they believe they’d never do. I wanted to take that further. Milgram’s study only looked at one aspect of behavior, obedience to authority, in short 50-minute takes. The S.P.E., because it was slated to go for two weeks, was almost like a forerunner of reality television. You could see behavior unfolding hour by hour, day by day.

Here’s something that’s sort of funny. The first time I spoke publicly about the S.P.E., Stanley Milgram told me: “Your study is going to take all the ethical heat off of my back. People are now going to say yours is the most unethical study ever, and not mine.”

Q. From your book, I sense you feel some lingering guilt about organizing “the most unethical study” ever. Do you?

A. When I look back on it, I think, “Why didn’t you stop the cruelty earlier?” To stand back was contrary to my upbringing and nature.

When I stood back as a noninterfering experimental scientist, I was, in a sense, as drawn into the power of the situation as any prisoners and guards.

Q. What was your reaction when you first saw those photographs from Abu Ghraib?

A. I was shocked. But not surprised. I immediately flashed on similar pictures from the S.P.E. What particularly bothered me was that the Pentagon blamed the whole thing on a “few bad apples.” I knew from our experiment, if you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples.

That was why I was willing to be an expert witness for Sgt. Chip Frederick, who was ultimately sentenced to eight years for his role at Abu Ghraib. Frederick was the Army reservist who was put in charge of the night shift at Tier 1A, where detainees were abused. Frederick said, up front, “What I did was wrong, and I don’t understand why I did it.”

Q. Do you understand?

A. Yeah. The situation totally corrupted him. When his reserve unit was first assigned to guard Abu Ghraib, Frederick was exactly like one of our nice young men in the S.P.E. Three months later, he was exactly like one of our worst guards.

Q. Aren’t you absolving Sergeant Frederick of personal responsibility for his actions?

A. You had the C.I.A. , civilian interrogators, military intelligence saying to the Army reservists, “Soften these detainees up for interrogation.”

Those kinds of vague orders were the equivalent of my saying to the S.P.E. guards, “It’s your prison.” At Abu Ghraib, you didn’t have higher-ups saying, “You must do these terrible things.” The authorities, I believe, created an environment that gave guards permission to become abusive — plus one that gave them plausible deniability.

Chip worked 40 days without a single break, 12-hour shifts. The place was overcrowded, filthy, dangerous, under constant bombardment. All of that will distort judgment, moral reasoning. The bottom line: If you’re going to have a secret interrogation center in the middle of a war zone, this is going to happen.

Q. You keep using this phrase “the situation” to describe the underlying cause of wrongdoing. What do you mean?

A. That human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The “situation” is the external environment. The inner environment is genes, moral history, religious training. There are times when external circumstances can overwhelm us, and we do things we never thought. If you’re not aware that this can happen, you can be seduced by evil. We need inoculations against our own potential for evil. We have to acknowledge it. Then we can change it.

Q. So you disagree with Anne Frank , who wrote in her diary, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart?”

A. That’s not true. Some people can be made into monsters. And the people who abused, and killed her, were.

2. Torture, individuation – from archive : s0metim3s

Some excerpts from Rebecca Wittmann’s “Torture on Trial: Prosecuting Sadists and the Obfuscation of Systemic Crime”, South Central Review, 24:1, 2007, and some remarks below:

“With war come war crimes.There is no documented war not accompanied by atrocities, torture, and excessive cruelty toward innocent civilians. […] Since the appalling and sensational example of the Abu Ghraib scandal, journalists and scholars have unearthed documentary evidence proving that torture, in the guise of “enhanced interrogation methods,” is standard US military policy in the so-called war on terror. In fact, the CIA began developing sophisticated forms of torture in the 1960s which they continue to use today.1 As I write, President Bush and the Senate are in a heated debate not about whether torture occurs, but about which methods of torture should be acceptable within the Geneva Convention in the American military’s quest for intelligence.

“I am less interested here in whether states condone torture and whether it is actively applied policy. We know that states condone torture — from Algeria to Abu Ghraib — whether they admit it or not. What interests me more is the way that governments — specifically democratic ones — deny their use of torture, after the fact, by staging trials. The official, public condemnation of a few “bad apples” is the preferred mode of catharsis that governments offer to their citizens. In general, the public is ready and willing to swallow this mendacious message. […]

“What relevance does this have for current discussions of torture and war crimes? When we take the prison guards at Abu Ghraib, we are not dealing with soldiers within a genocidal dictatorship, volunteers working at death camps designed especially for extermination. But the soldiers who engaged in the tortuous crimes at that prison have been demonized and held up as monstrous animals whom we condemn for their brutality and inhumanity. The US military publicly prosecutes them as examples of exactly what it does not want among its ranks. They will be punished, justice will be served, and the good war can go on. And yet these soldiers did not appear out of nowhere; they are fighters in an ideological battle against “evil.” They have learned to see their prisoners as potential threats to our “way of life” and have been instructed to destroy this enemy—but only after they have extracted intelligence from them. The soldiers interrogated, humiliated, and tortured their enemy, all smilingly in front of the camera. This photographing highlights two important things. First, these soldiers believed they would be cheered for their actions, for they otherwise would not have documented their “crimes”; second, as Mark Danner correctly points out, humiliating the enemy has always been shown to be an effective way to break them, and the US military was exploiting Arab sensitivities to public humiliation of a sexual nature. The cameras served that purpose perfectly. As did the “stress positions,” “water-boarding,” “hooding,” and “light and sleep deprivation” that the International Committee of the Red Cross documented as “routine” and “systematic” in their 2004 report on the “coalition” prisons in Iraq.4 The soldiers who carried out these “methods and techniques” to “soften up” detainees did not demonstrate mens rea, a covert, sadistic desire to do harm to others. These prison guards did what their military expected of them in order to “set the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees.”5 Mark Danner calls them “amateur stooges of ‘the process.’” They were crude and caught, perhaps not because they had acted out of order, but more likely because the exigencies of this supposedly long war had strapped the military to the maximum and put soldiers with “little or no training” into the position of interrogators.6 But their trials sent a completely different message: the army and society would not tolerate such horrors, especially when they became public. In fact, the actions of the prison guards at Abu Ghraib were tolerated and ordered. But the trials of Lynndie England and her colleagues did nothing to address the systemic problems which created the atmosphere at Abu Ghraib.

“There is a lesson to be learned here about the tendency, in democratic societies, to condemn only the most extreme perpetrators of violence and torture and to turn a blind eye to the system that created them. Why do we accept the message that the US government is horrified by these actions, when we have proof that they were deeply involved? Perhaps the problem lies with our inability to accept our own responsibility for bringing into office people capable of ordering such barbarities. In that sense, postwar democratic West Germany is no different from the United States today, except that the West German judiciary was implicated in crimes that took place twenty years beforehand, not just twenty weeks beforehand. We desperately want to believe that the laws of our country are being defined, applied, and upheld in a humane and moral way — after all, the laws of a democratic society are supposed to and generally do reflect the will of the people — and we show this through our tacit acceptance of the decisions and pronouncements of our lawmakers. But we need to recognize that when we place such unquestioned trust in the legal system, in the motives of our governments, we allow them to define for us what is “normal” and “abnormal” and a vacuum is created in which the public loses its ability to see that justice is not served. Even worse, we accept the message that the “enemy” is threatening our “way of life.” We therefore stage trials that lend us an air of morality while shielding us from the need for systemic change, simply because we are frightened that it might drive oil prices even higher and hence disrupt our comfortable lives.

Wittmann’s analysis is, by far, one of the more interesting I’ve come across on torture. To be sure, there are those who remark on the pornographic aspects in play here, but such analyses, while noting a certain depoliticisation of the image, its deployment within an aesthetic, moral circuitry of responses (and responsibility), it seems to me that they too become limited to this circuitry, though as denunciation.

Wittmann’s remarks, while she doesn’t elaborate, point to what I think is an interesting structuration of responsibility and legitimation.

While democracies posit the representation of a unity - the American people, and so on - they disavow collective responsibility. ‘Bad apples’, an excess situated in individuals and limited to them.

And, the inverse is the case in the justification of war. Collective punishments are inflicted where there are determined to be despots, bad leaders, in short, where there is not democracy.


Very interesting indeed, there’s a good article by Naomi Klein about torture as a method of social control here:

Max [April 4, 2007 @ 9:10 pm ]

Last week Amy Goodman did a program on one of those infamous psychology experiments in which good people become torturers when encouraged to use power.

The experiment takes place in 1971 at Stanford University, with university students, who moreover are anti-Vietnam war activists. For two weeks, half of the students are to act as prisoners and the other half as guards. Because violence grows faster than predicted the professor cancels the experiment on the 5th day.

I couldn’t listen to the whole thing, cause I feel there’s sth sickening and contagious in even listening to it. It expands in a spiral from the prison guards, to the professor himself, and from him to the listener (even to Amy goodman i thought). You find yourself on the same seat as power insofar as it is impossible to occupy the position of the tortured.

At the end of the show was a striking moment when months later a student that acted the prisoner role urges one of the “guards” to account for his behavior.

pomegranade [April 5, 2007 @ 10:46 am ]

The first few sentences you quote are somewhat problematic - de jure belli ac pacis is a historical object that changes throughout time. It’s rather trivial to say “there are war crimes in every war” and then move directly into a discussion of torture. As we all know, through history it has more often been the case than not that torture was acceptable. Manuals on the proper conduct of torture, the relation of torture to the crime, the relation of torture to the confession, the relation of torture to the proof has a length history. What we are no doubt seeing, then, is an attempt to assert the successor to the jus publicum Europaeum . Her question seems trapped between international positive law and human rights taken as natural law: you just don’t torture people (natural law), but international positive law seems increasingly willing to allow it.

Ultimately, it seems torture is caught in what Agamben calls “the biopolitical horizon” and “democratic” desire to transform zoe itself into a bios .

Craig [April 5, 2007 @ 11:57 am ]

I didn’t read it in those terms - I doubt, for instance, that Wittmann is arguing (or would argue) that what is defined as a war crime does not change. Nor that torture, or indeed what amounts to torture, has not been legitimated or has changed over time. And I could be wrong, but I didn’t really pick up a sense of natural right contra positive law either.

Her argument is that democracies posit a very particular structure of legitimation of systematically authorised torture simultaneous with the individuation of responsibility for what, at particular moments, assumes the scandal of a war crime.

As I said, I think she doesn’t elaborate as she might - but I think this specific argument does point toward what is something more than the operations of the biopolitical, at least as Agamben, Foucault and others have given an account of it - indeed, neither of those have really talked about democracy. Around it, but not quite about it.

s0metim3s [April 5, 2007 @ 5:51 pm ]


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