It is four years and a few days since CBS News published the first photos documenting the systematic abuse, torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. The Bush administration and the American military have worked hard to firmly establish the “few bad apples” explanation of what happened. Eight low-ranking soldiers were convicted, and Staff Sargent Ivan Frederick II, who was found guilty of assault, conspiracy, dereliction of duty and maltreatment of detainees, is now halfway through his eight-year prison sentence.
But there are very good reasons to think that Frederick and the others, however despicable their actions, only did what many of us would have done if placed in the same situation, which puts their guilt in a questionable light. Can someone be guilty just for acting like most ordinary human beings?
In a famous experiment back in the 1970s, Philip Zimbardo and other psychologists at Stanford University put college students into a prison-like setting in the basement of the psychology department. Some of the students played prisoners and others guards, with uniforms, numbers, reflecting sunglasses and so on. The psychologists’ aim was to strip away the students’ individuality and see what the situation might produce on its own.
What happened was truly disconcerting — the guards grew increasingly abusive, and within 36 hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown, crying and screaming. The researchers had to stop the experiment after six days. Even normal kids who were professed pacifists were acting sadistically, taking pleasure in inflicting cruel punishments on people they knew to be completely blameless.
These were ordinary American college kids. They weren’t monsters, but began acting monstrously because of the situation they were in. What happened was more about social pattern, and its influence, than about the character of individuals.
Emeritus professor at Stanford, Zimbardo has argued in a recent book, “The Lucifer Effect,” that what happened in these experiments is also what happened at Abu Ghraib. As he points out, in lots of the photos the soldiers weren’t wearing their uniforms; they were anonymous guards who referred to the prisoners with dehumanizing labels such as “detainees” or “terrorists.” There was confusion about responsibility and little supervision of the prison at night.
The more the soldiers mistreated the prisoners, the more they saw them as less than human and even more worthy of that abuse. In both the experiments and at Abu Ghraib, most of the abuse took place on the night shift. In both cases, guards stripped prisoners naked to humiliate them and put bags over their heads. In both cases, the abuse involved the forced simulation of sexual behavior among the prisoners.
Frederick hooked up wires to hooded detainees, made them stand on boxes and told them they’d be electrocuted if they fell off. He stomped on prisoners hands and feet. He and others lined up prisoners against the wall, bags on their heads, and forced them to masturbate. His actions were indeed monstrous.
But when Zimbardo, as an expert witness, interviewed Frederick during his court-martial, these were his impressions:
He seemed very much to be a normal young American. His psych assessments revealed no sign of any pathology, no sadistic tendencies, and all his psych assessment scores are in the normal range, as is his intelligence. He had been a prison guard at a small minimal security prison where he performed for many years without incident. … there is nothing in his background, temperament, or disposition that could have been a facilitating factor for the abuses he committed at the Abu Ghraib Prison.
If someone chooses to commit an illegal act, freely, of their own will, then they are plainly guilty. Conversely, the same act performed by someone acting without free will, compromised by mental illness, perhaps, or the coercion of others, draws no blame. Far less clear is the proper moral attitude toward people who do illegal things in situations where the social context exerts powerful, though perhaps not completely irresistible, forces.
Can a person be guilty of a crime if almost everyone, except for a few heroic types, would have done the same thing? This is a question for legal theorists, and one likely to arise ever more frequently as modern psychology reveals just how much of our activity is determined not consciously, through free choice, but by forces in the social environment.
But the more immediate question is why those who set up the conditions that led to Abu Ghraib, or at least made it likely, haven’t also been held responsible. When Frederick arrived at Abu Ghraib, abusive practices, authorized from above, were already commonplace. Prisoners were being stripped, kept hooded and deprived of sleep, put in painful positions and threatened with dogs. On his first day there, Frederick recalled, he saw detainees “naked, handcuffed to their door, some wearing female underclothes.”
The conditions cited by Zimbardo, the situational recipe for moral disaster, were already in place.
The conclusion isn’t that Frederick and the others didn’t do anything wrong, or that they somehow had an excuse for their actions. They could and should have acted better, and Frederick has admitted his own guilt. “I was wrong about what I did,” he told the military judge, “and I shouldn’t have done it. I knew it was wrong at the time because I knew it was a form of abuse.”
But you and I cannot look at Frederick and the other guards as moral monsters, because none of us can know that we’d have acted differently. The evidence suggests that most of us wouldn’t have. The coercion of the social context was too powerful.
The second conclusion is that those really responsible for the abuse, on a deeper and more systematic level, still should be brought to justice. They’re in the upper tiers of the military chain of command and its civilian leadership; they’re in the White House.
Today, Frederick will wake up in prison, have his breakfast, take some exercise and face the daily monotony of prison life, something he can expect for the next 1300 days or so. He can be justifiably angry that those responsible for putting him in that setting at Abu Ghraib, where almost anyone would have done the same thing, are today walking around free.