Monday, May 10, 2004

On Torture

Is torturing detainees un-American? Are those that torture just a few bad apples that ruin the whole barrel? Is the recently revealed torture in Iraq and Afghanistan some new perversion that has only now infected the armed forces of the United States and Great Britain?

Yes and no, naturally. It wouldn't be surprising if torture has become more common in the last few years, given the tenor of the war on terror and the simplified messages we have been fed about the responsibility for the 9/11 atrocities, and it's probably true that the worst cases of torture shown all over the newspages and television screen are not representative of the whole armed forces. In that sense torture may indeed be seen as traditionally un-American or un-Western.

But. Human beings have the capability to torture other human beings and animals as we well know. If a situation is carefully constructed to induce torture, that's what we will observe. Consider the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. It picked a group of young male students, carefully vetted for good mental health and 'normality', and it then randomly assigned some of them to be prisoners and some of them to be guards. The prisoners were expected to participate in the experiment for its whole duration of two weeks, while the guards worked eight hour shifts.

The prisoners were housed in rooms made to look like a real prison, they were arrested by real police officers and taken to real police stations. They were searched, stripped and deliced before being committed.

The guards were told that it was their duty to maintain prison order but that they should not use violence.

The experiment had to be discontinued after only six days, because the prisoners (who first had revolted) had become depressed and the guards cruel. In particular, the night shift engaged in gratuitous abuse of the prisoners. This was the shift with no oversight by the experiment's creators.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is well known, both for its findings about the fragility of what we regard as 'civilized' behavior and as an example of the ethical problems inherent in this type of research (four of the participants suffered mental breakdowns). What it tells us is that torture can be induced, and quite rapidly, if the circumstances are correct: dehumanization of the other side, anonymity and strict hierarchical structures all increase the likelihood of abusive behavior.

This is not meant to serve as an apology for those who torture, but to point out, as the creator of the Stanford Prison Study did, that it might be the barrels that ruin good apples. Maybe almost all of us are capable of torture under the right circumstances?

And what would those circumstances be? I suspect that a war far away from home in a totally different culture might contribute to the necessary feelings of alienation, especially as it is combined with continuous attacks by the other side and an implicit justification of the whole campaing as a revenge for even worse butchery three years ago. Maybe some people can go out and kill others logically, coolly and rationally, and then simply remove all the necessary instincts like a uniform that needs laundering. Maybe. I doubt that this is very common, however.

What is likely to be much more common is exactly what we are now observing: a real life repetition of the Stanford Prison Study.