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Torture from the Top

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Message Lynne Glasner
As Rumsfeld gets battered from the ranks for his errant decision-making in military matters, we cannot forget the systemic practice of torture that has occurred, and is still ongoing, under his watch. Whether or not Bush and/or Cheney were directly involved in the planning or authorization of this egregious crime, it is obvious that neither has any interest in stopping it. After the President reluctantly signed the McCain Amendment banning torture practices, he basically nullified it by issuing a "Signing Statement" that gives him permission to override the law at his discretion. There would be no need for such a statement if the practice had been ceased, as was claimed; the Signing Statement gives Bush and the Administration legal cover. The President's original invocation of the axis of evil is ironic considering the evil perpetrated by the three most powerful men in the world: Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.

Whether or not Rumsfeld will have to leave his post has not, so far, focused on his knowledge of, complicity in, and indeed his role in directing the torture procedures used at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other holding pens run by the U.S. in its long war on terror. The absurdity of the denial ("we do not torture") both from the White House and Rumsfeld in various reports to Congress and statements to the media defies the meaning of civil rights and human dignity, not to mention responsibility. It demonstrates an extreme corruption of power, stemming from a perceived need to control people, and a willingness to treat people with inordinate disregard and disrespect. You have to wonder what kind of people would intentionally set the stage for torture chambers, allowing themselves to become the very thing they claim to fear.

The use of torture perpetrated in the name of the United States has left a stain on the American psyche from which recovery will not be easy. How could the land of the free and the home of the brave be party to the kinds of heinous acts that we associate with the absolute cruelty of depraved dictators? The Administration had to acknowledge the truth of the matter - it was hard to spin those Abu Ghraib images in any other context - and yet, since the first batch of photos made their way into the media two years ago, the initial shock and outrage has been reduced to mostly silence and an ongoing denial if the subject is brought up.

Rumsfeld was quick to order that cameras be taken away from the GIs, as if that were the real problem. Whistleblowers were considered leakers and were punished accordingly so there may be no further graphic documentation of what is going on behind the bars of the expensive prisons we have built. The victims' stories would not be told but for the human rights organizations that keep asking questions and demanding answers. The few prisoners who have had access to the outside world and the few organizational workers who have had even limited access to visit the prison sites have not dropped their complaints; in fact, some of the victims' families are bringing civil lawsuits in an attempt to get victims released, and also to attempt to get the attention of the world. The Administration has been careful to ensure that the torture takes place outside of U.S. borders, and therefore outside of the legal reach of our own criminal laws. It's a gray area. But coupled with a disassociation from the World Court and a disregard for the UN Committee on Torture, the axis of torture has for now at least effectively built a wall around the secret practices. How this strategy stands up in either jurisdiction remains to be seen; how it fares in the court of world opinion may prove to be more troubling. So far, only civil cases have been able to penetrate the legal system at all. But the world is still shy about dealing with this issue; it's simply unfathomable that the leader of the free world, the model for democratic values, could be guilty of orchestrating such barbaric acts.

Incredulous as it is, it appears that the Abu Ghraib syndrome was part of a Machiavellian strategy to begin with. Criminologists and those in human rights communities know what happens when ordinary people are given extraordinary power, along with a common mission and a rationale for dishing out punishment. Perhaps it is part of the human psyche - no one can really answer that question. But we do know from well-documented studies of human behavior that given the right settings, these behaviors are quite predictable. Yes, in fact, the exact behaviors that we have seen documented in Abu Ghraib. This was a known known.

For over three decades Philip Zimbardo, emeritus professor at Stanford University and recently appointed professor at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, has studied questions of dehumanization in prison populations. His work shines a light on Abu Ghraib. It's hard to know whether the Bush axis of evil turned a blind eye or used his work as a basis for policy, the parallels are that startling.

In 1971, Zimbardo led a team of researchers in creating a mock prison in which to study behavior in a prison environment. The subjects were healthy male undergraduate volunteers who were divided into groups of "guards" and "prisoners." Within days, normal young men with no prior history of any kind of antisocial behavior or abnormal or even unusual psychological problems became abusers as they acted out their roles as "guards." To control their "prisoners," the student "guards" resorted to some creative techniques: they stripped them, put hoods over their heads, and forced them to simulate sodomy.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. Not because these young students were told how to deal with their wardens (they weren't); not because they had seen examples of this behavior before (they hadn't); not because they watched some TV show that demonstrated this type of situation prior to the experiments (they hadn't); but because, it seems, when the right conditions are at play, most people succumb to these baser instincts.

Speaking about his studies, Zimbardo explained that "any situation that makes you anonymous and gives permission for aggression will bring out the beast in most people. When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel." Harsh as that sounds, subsequent research and a look at prisons both in the U.S. and around the world, confirms the thesis.

Zimbardo explained the parallel:
"At Abu Ghraib you had the social modeling in which somebody takes the lead in doing something. You had the dehumanization, the use of labels of the other as inferior, as worthless. There was a diffusion of responsibility such that nobody was personally accountable. The Stanford prison study identified a whole set of principles, all of which you can see are totally applicable in this setting. "When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel. You could put virtually anybody in it and you're going to get this kind of evil behavior."

It's not that the military was unaware of some esoteric academic study conducted 30 years ago. Zimbardo's work is renowned. In fact, military regulations for treatment of prisoners and procedures for reporting torture are part of standard military training, though not for the National Guard whose mission is historically different. These regulations are based on research that documents how ordinary people can all too easily get caught up in perpetrating abuse and torture. The Zimbardo studies are included in the body of research that the military uses as a basis to counter soldiers' instinct. However, this training was noticeably missing in the training given to the volunteers in Iraq. In fact, the Taguba Report, the investigative review conducted by the U.S. Army, "found no evidence that the Command, although aware of this deficiency [in training], ever requested specific corrections training."

Even the Schlessinger Report, the tepid Pentagon review of the Abu Ghraib scandal conducted after the photos were made public, states that the "Stanford Prison Experiment should have served as a forewarning to those running Abu Ghraib Prison of the potential dangers of excesses by guards in such settings."

What took place at Abu Ghraib and, what is reported to be an ongoing practice at other prison sites as well, was entirely predictable. The Abu Ghraib photos are eerily similar to the reports from Zimbardo's original studies. Can we add Abu Ghraib and its sister camps to the growing list of things "no one could have predicted"? For a President who seems bent on preemptive action, his track record for predictions is frightening.

Zimbardo was interviewed on several occasions after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, several stories relating his work to the prison scandal were published, and he penned a few op-eds at the time. But shortly after the buzz from the photos, the Nicolas Berg beheading took over the headlines, offering the public a rationale of revenge in defense of torture, alleviating collective guilt. The torture story lost its luster and it was back to the news headline du jour. From bogus findings of evidence of sarin gas in Iraq, to the handover of the Iraq government to the Iraqis, to election campaign issues, the torture scandal was put on the backburner. All of which served to quell Zimbardo's criticism of the Cheney and Rumsfeld characterization of Abu Ghraib behavior as a few "bad apples."

Zimbardo adamantly explained how that assessment is wrong on all counts:
"It's not the bad apples""it's the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that 'little shop of horrors.'"

Firing Rumsfeld won't fix the problem. Rumsfeld is carrying out Bush policy. This Administration has sanctioned torture in the name of terror. The problem is systemic. Major changes from the top of the pecking order, including the Bush signing statement, must be instituted. After the removal of King George, it looks like we'll need a period of Reformation and Restoration. A good starting place would be the reinstallation of due process and apologies and restitution for those who have been harmed, both the victims of the torture and those who were tools of the policy.

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Lynne Glasner is a freelance writer/editor based in New York City. She has edited numerous books, fiction and nonfiction, many on political subjects. Her essays have appeared in Commondreams,, and Huffington Post as well as OpEd (more...)
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