Psychological and Sociopolitical Factors Contributing to the Creation of the Iraqi Torturers

Welcome to IBPP Online (Psychological and Sociopolitical Factors Contributing to the Creation of the Iraqi Torturers: A Human Rights Issue) — via Metafilter —

A fascinating article by an expert in torturers. The author suggests that there is little evidence that the offenders in Abu Ghraib were in fact “bad apples” — particularly sadistic individuals. Most of them seem to have been pretty normal until they found themselves in Abu Ghraib. He invokes Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo and his own experience investigating Greek and Brazilian torture, to point out that almost certainly the widespread torture in Abu Ghraib was a matter of ordinary people becoming torturers because of situational factors — in other words, most of us would have done the same thing in the same situation. Most of us would have delivered apparently fatal electrical shocks in Milgram’s experiment, most of us would have abused the pseudoprisoners in Zimbardo’s experiment; most of us would have at least stood by and watched the Holocaust if not actually participated. Normal people trusting in authority can be turned into torturers if the authority they trust chooses to do so. That’s just a fact.

The question is — why was there a situation in Abu Ghraib which was such as to turn people into torturers? (Many of the techniques they used, according to this article, are not obvious torture techniques. They would have been well known to people familiar with Nazi, Stalinist, Greek, or Brazilian torture techniques, and not to ordinary soldiers. Somebody had done their homework and taught the soldiers well.)

Who was responsible, and more important, what can be done to prevent it from happening again?

Or stop it from happening in other places where it may still be happening, such as Guantanamo Bay?

3 thoughts on “Psychological and Sociopolitical Factors Contributing to the Creation of the Iraqi Torturers”

  1. In the Zimbardo experiment, they found that many of the major abuses of prisoners occured at night when the “guards” were unsupervised. That experiment simulated a prison, taking normal college students and dividing them into prisonars and guards (randomly, I think). The experiment was stopped after the “guards” began getting violent and simulating sexual abuse of the prisoners.

    The possibility that it was lack of supervision dovetails nicely with the RAND study that showed that successful occupations in the past used a ratio of troops to population that in this situation would require us to have 500,000 people on the ground. We have 135,000.

    We’re unlikely to get 500,000 because we have something like 450,000 people available for this sort of duty in total all across the world.

  2. I read Zimbardo’s account of the experiment. Apparently he found *himself* getting drawn into the prison guard mentality, and it was only when he talked to a colleage about the situation and they looked at him in shock and disbelief that he realized what had happened and called off the experiment.

    There’s a great short article about it here:

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