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Linear connection from Abu Ghraib to the Stanford Prison Experiment


I should comment on my own tangential experience with prison camps. In our field, it was common to go to an "escape & evasion" school where you were released in the bush with limited resources and had to make good your escape, either reaching a 'rescue point' or remaining at large for three days, lest you be sent to the prison camp. What they don't tell you is no matter if you escaped or were captured, you go to the prison camp in order to understand what you could expect from incarceration by VC/NVA. Our camps were run by Hawaiians, nicknamed "pineapples," so as to better simulate likely Asian captors.

In short, we almost all wanted to kill those good folks as they did their jobs all too well and it was hard to separate the real from the simulation. One camp commander incited remarkable fear and hatred -- and he was on our side.

Now let me show you are effortless it is even for the trained to become prison monsters (the untrained have almost no hope of escaping the downward spiral). A now famous simulated prison experiment was carried out just a few years later (1971) in a Stanford University basement. Called the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), a group of 24 young men were randomly selected as guard and prisoner. Nine selected as prisoners were housed in three cells, monitored 24X7 by surveillance cameras, while three guards were assigned to an 8-hour shift. (Remaining prisoners and guards were on-call for replacements.)

Local Palo Alto, CA police added to the experiment's realism by making surprise arrests of the nine men selected to serve a two week prison term. The transformation occurred within 24 hours: acting guards became genuine, even sadistic, guards while acting prisoners became genuine passive or rebellious prisoners.

The SPE was filmed in its entirely and visitors to the SPE site can view film clips from the documentary, Quiet Rage, made from that film footage as well as a substantive photo slide show of the SPE with commentary by the event's creator, Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo.

Quiet Rage makes clear that:

"if you put "normal" people in a psychologically unhealthy environment like a prison or a jail, they will become infected by their exposure to the diseased situation. Professor Zimbardo is a prime example. In spite of his professional training he was so infected by his involvement as administrator of the SPE that if an outsider hadn't intervened to shake him back to reality, it would have gone on for days longer with perhaps catastrophic consequences - possibly even resulting in the physical injury or death of a prisoner or guard."

The events that terminated the experiment a week early was guards ordering prisoners to strip and using 'a rudimentary sex joke' to humiliate them. Sound familiar to Abu Ghraib? It did to Zimbardo who said, "I was not surprised that it happened… I have exact, parallel pictures of prisoners with bags over their heads [from SPE]." Zimbardo went on to say that in Iraq, as in Stanford, "It's not that we put bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts anything that it touches."

One guard was nicknamed "John Wayne" by prisoners due to his sadistic behavior, yet this fellow was gentle and polite outside of the prison basement. Transformation occurred when he put on his guard's uniform. Four Stanford prisoners suffered emotional breakdowns.

Such experiments as Stanford and the Yale Obedience to Authority electric shock "teaching" experiments (in which a white lab coated researcher (authority figure) ordered students to give increasingly more powerful shocks to victims (actors wailing under fake voltage loads) who gave incorrect answers) are considered unethical and no longer performed.

I think that it should be noted in the Obedience to Authority experiment, that while most students showed anguish as they complied, 65 percent still obeyed commands to administer the maximum, potentially lethal electric shock.

Getting to Abu Ghraib is effortless, especially for the untrained and unskilled in the proper interrogation of prisoners.  I would add that I class many of its actions as gratuitous abuse falling short of systematic torture in support of aggressive interrogation, i.e., it was ineffective for whatever outcome it was supposed to support.  In my experience, torture makes reassembly of the interrogatee problematic.

The video, Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment, is available for $110. It is worth the watching.

Simulated Prison in '71 Showed a Fine Line Between `Normal' and `Monster'
May 6, 2004
New York Times

Gordon Housworth

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