Since reading about the leaked Iraq war logs I keep thinking about the role of the individuals in all this. Why does an Iraqi security guard continue practices that we hoped would die with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime? Why did American soldiers not do more to end the systematic torture they witnessed? And why did it become so routine for American soldiers to kill innocent women and children at check points or during raids on their homes? Why, in other words, is hurting a fellow human-being so easy? And are we immune?
According to the late Alison Des Forges, a human rights activist and historian who tried to call the world’s attention to the looming genocide in Rwanda, such behaviour lies just under the surface of any of us. “The simplified accounts of genocide allow distance between us and the perpetrators. They are so evil we couldn’t ever see ourselves doing the same thing,” she once explained. Des Forges knew from investigating countless atrocities that minds can be so efficiently brainwashed that formerly peace-loving citizens can be persuaded to massacre their neighbours.
This idea is supported by Prof Philip Zimbardo. In The Lucifer Effect, he explains how easily those in power can generate a “hostile imagination” through stereotyped conceptions of “the other” as worthless, demonic, or monstrous. “With public fear notched up and the enemy threat imminent,” writes Zimbardo, “reasonable people act irrationally, independent people act in mindless conformity, and peaceful people act as warriors.” Zimbardo’s sobering verdict is that just about anyone could do just about anything.
In 1971, his Stanford Prison Experiment (in which students were allotted roles as prisoners or guards in a mock prison) proved the point as in less than a week the ‘prisoners’ turned pathological and the ‘guards’ sadistic. This was not the first study of its kind. An earlier experiment, just as ethically questionable and just as revealing, conducted by Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to administer painful electric shocks on volunteers. “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study … Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process,” concluded Milgram. Such experiments go a long way to explaining why US soldiers in Abu Ghraib became devoid of conscience and moral responsibility, and why the Iraqi forces appear – in their callous brutality – little better than the regime they sought to defeat.
I’m reminded of Nietsche’s comments when he warned “be careful lest in fighting the dragon, you become the dragon.”