Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » May 2004 » Back when the Abu Ghuraib debacle surfaced....

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05/13/2004: Back when the Abu Ghuraib debacle surfaced....

The first thing I thought of was The Stanford Prison Experiment. William Saletan, in Slate yesterday, posted an interesting article claiming that the Prison Experiment really doesn't "explain" Abu Ghuraib.

But science, particularly social science, isn't all scientific. Every experimenter begins by drawing a box. Inside the box are the factors he decides to control or measure. The rest—including him—are left out, either because he can't control or measure them, or because he doesn't think they're important. The box-drawing process is seldom scientific and often cultural or political. Consequently, excluded factors often turn out to be more important than included ones. That's why the Stanford experiment doesn't explain—or excuse—Abu Ghraib.
Saletan's argument is interesting, and worthy of a bit more study than I can devote to it immediately. But having read through it a couple times, I'm not completely convinced by it.

Saletan notes that the abuses in the prison experiment were less extensive than the abuses at Abu Ghuraib, and then details a number of reasons that this was the case:
  • personality of the participants (both "guards" and "prisoners" were selected to be the most emotionally stable, mature, and non-violent of the potential participant pool)
  • race (the prison experiment involved "guards" of the same race as the "prisoners"
  • supervisors' input (a number of supervisors were worked into the experiment in the roles of counselors, parole officials, chaplains, etc., and these supervisors intervened when the guard's abusive behavior got out of hand)
Of course, the differences between these factors in the experiments and the real life Abu Ghuraib situation redounded to the detriment of the detainees at Abu Ghuraib:
  • far from being the most emotionally stable, mature, and non-violent of military personnel in Iraq, the guard corps appeared to be reservists, many of whom were prison guards in civilian life, augmented by rawer recruits with little experience in either corrections or the criminal justice system
  • at Abu Ghuraib, the guards were Westerners, while the prisoners were ethnic Arabs (for the most part), and earlier reports had indicated that many U.S. military personnel (even those outside the correctional/detention context) were viewing and treating Iraqis as subhumans
  • and lastly, far from there being supervisory interventions in the event abusive behavior went too far, supervisors seemed concerned to either facilitate the abuse (i.e., the intelligence officers who are alleged to have encouraged the Abu Ghuraib guards to "soften up" the detainees) or to play Sgt. "I know nut-zink!!" Schultz and to keep themselves more or less willfully ignorant of what was going on (e.g., BGEN Karpinski, based on her public statements that I've seen)
Given these factors, it's no wonder that the Abu Ghuraib abuse was so much more horrific.

That being said though, Saletan's primary purpose in denying that the Prison Experiment "explains" Abu Ghuraib is to insure that nobody connected with it uses the Experiment as an excuse or a defense:
Why do we create this "illusion"? Zimbardo's colleague in the experiment, Craig Haney, says we do so because "if we can attribute deviance, failure, and breakdowns to the individual flaws of others, then we are absolved." Maybe so. But if we blame the situation, the perpetrators are absolved, too.
I don't think that the analogy needs to be pushed that far. Basically, what the Prison Experiment shows is that in unusual, authoritarian situations, very non-violent, emotionally mature and stable individuals can turn ugly and abusive. That being the case, it is no surprise that the jailers at Abu Ghuraib became as abusive as they were, since they were hardly selected for their commitment to non-violence and their emotional maturity and stability (hint: emotionally mature, stable persons who shirk from violence don't tend to seek employment as prison guards). Thus the Prison Experiment does "explain" Abu Ghuraib, in the sense that it shows that given the situation and lack of supervision such abuses should have been expected. Such explanation doesn't necessarily amount to legal excuse or condonation, as well it shouldn't. There is a danger, which I think Saletan appreciates, that sympathetic court martial panels may elect to acquit individuals based on the situation they faced at Abu Ghuraib. That is, alas, a danger of leaving determinations of factual guilt or innocence to fallible individuals.

Len on 05.13.04 @ 08:00 AM CST

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