July 11, 2008
A FEW BAD APPLES?
Lucifer. Image courtesy of wikipedia.
When the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse story became public, government sources were quick to say that the whole unfortunate affair was caused by a few "bad apples." Those at the lowest levels paid the heaviest price, while those who set up the situation and the system that made it possible have so far gotten a free pass.
It may be comforting (and self serving, in the case of the Bush administration) to put all the blame on a few bad individuals. If that were so, good people like us could never do such things no matter what. In reality, however, the line between good and evil is permeable and normally good people can cross the line when placed under extreme situational and systemic pressures.
History and the social sciences show plenty of examples of otherwise decent people who have done horrible things under certain conditions. Some of the things that make evil thrive and grow are obedience to authority, pressure to conform, ideology that justifies treating others with violence, anonymity, dehumanizing and labeling "the other," a slippery slope of gradually increasing aggression, huge power inequalities, unfamiliar situations, role identification and environmental stressors.
The situation that the untrained guards at Abu Ghraib faced--such as lack of training and supervision, ambiguous orders ("soften up" prisoners for further interrogation), physical danger, heat and cold, lack of adequate food and resources, lack of accountability, etc.--created a climate conducive to disaster.
This is one of the key arguments of Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. As mentioned in earlier posts, Zimbardo designed the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, in which psychologically normal students were randomly assigned to play the roles of guards and prisoners. The experiment rapidly deteriorated. Rampant abuses by the "guards" caused the experiment to be terminated in less than a week--and those conditions were almost ideal compared to the ones in Iraq.
In the real world, there are some bad apples, but the real danger is caused by bad barrels.
The point of all this is not to excuse the behavior of anyone, but rather to point out that situational and systemic factors can often override our ordinary moral restraints. Sadly, those who created the system and situation and who most deserve to be held accountable are protected by power and privilege.
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GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED