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Abu Ghraib Revisited

Philip Zimbardo’s TED Talk on Abu Ghraib and “The Psychology of Evil” is up to 2,374,000 hits. Apparently people are hungry to know about the deep psychology of American foreign policy.

And perhaps they’re hungry to look, again . . . again . . . at the Abu Ghraib torture photos that first surfaced in 2004. Cruelty and evil inspire a twisted awe; they pull us into the black hole of our own heart, where we see ourselves in hideous distortion.

“Nothing is easier,” said Dostoevsky (quoted by Zimbardo in his presentation), “than denouncing an evildoer. Nothing is more difficult than understanding him.”

Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted the famous, or infamous, Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, and subsequently wrote a book called The Lucifer Effect, has devoted his career to studying the systemic nature of human violence and the corrupting effect of power, especially anonymous power, over others. The experiment, in which some college-student volunteers acted as guards in a simulated prison environment and others acted as prisoners, had to be called off after five days, well ahead of its planned duration, because the abuse of power had gotten seriously out of hand. Some of the “prisoners” had emotional breakdowns, the situation had deteriorated so badly.

All of which has a certain relevance to real life, you might say. When the Abu Ghraib scandal hit the fan nearly a decade ago, the Bush administration higher-ups immediately singled out and prosecuted a few low-ranking guards for committing such garishly photogenic, PR-damaging abuses against their Muslim prisoners. No matter that their orders were to “soften up” the prisoners for interrogation. No matter that they had been encouraged and praised by their superiors until the photos were leaked to the public.

The situation was suddenly messy. Uh oh, scapegoats needed.

And slowly the horror of the scandal dissipated. The issue became the prosecution and punishment of the isolated, low-ranking evildoers and, for some, fury at the hypocrisy of the military and the Bush administration.

But what about the torture itself? The photographs showed hell on earth, evidence of a social and spiritual cancer that had dangerously metastasized. And we were the agents. This was all happening in the middle of our war on terror . . . our war on evil itself, and here were American soldiers, acting, excuse me, as though they were the evil ones. The dehumanized Muslim prisoners tore open our hearts with their fragile humanity, and the American guards, laughing at their pain, seemed completely devoid of humanity.

We haven’t absorbed the shock of this, much less pondered the implications, much less adjusted national policy. We’ve just suppressed it, normalized it (that’s war for you) and moved on. Except, of course, we haven’t — any more than we’ve moved on from much else in our national past.

As Zimbardo notes, the proper question to ask about Abu Ghraib isn’t who but what is responsible? This is the question we haven’t asked at anywhere close to the level of national decision-making — because, of course, we can’t. The implications are too large. Foreign policy isn’t supposed to be rational; the Department of Defense is a medieval priesthood, pursuing its ends in ritual and secrecy.

Why are we waging this war? Why are we continuing to terrorize parts of Central Asia with our drone strikes? Why did we kill five children last month, along with five adults, with a drone strike in eastern Afghanistan, within hours of President Obama’s State of the Union address?

“The NATO-led coalition declined to confirm whether there had been an air strike in the area overnight, saying only that it was looking into allegations of civilian casualties,” the Guardian reported the next day. And this is all we’ll ever hear of the incident.

If the bodies are too public, we’ll get an official expression of “deep regret,” such as NATO’s International Security Assistance Force gave us several days ago, after Australian soldiers killed two Afghan children during a firefight. For good measure, they added assurances that ISAF remains “committed to minimizing civilian casualties,” according to Agence France-Presse.

Somewhere in the collective psyche there is unchecked internal bleeding over the killing and the indifference and the lies. We’re trapped in a nation that can’t stop wielding its lethal power.

And this, I think, begins to explain the consuming and continuing curiosity about Zimbardo’s TED Talk and Abu Ghraib. At a level beyond geopolitics and beyond nationalism itself, we can’t let go of the question, who are we?

Pain and death should deepen us. To remain shallow and banal in the face of death is perhaps the greatest sin of all. When I look at the Abu Ghraib photos I think of a book called Without Sanctuary — a compilation of lynching postcards and photos from the early 20th century, which came out in 2000. The same insanity is present in the photos, the same happy smiles, as corpses dangle from trees and light poles.

This is what we’re capable of when we go to war and choose to live in hate. We know it because, when we look at the photos, we recognize ourselves.