Abu Ghraib: Our Surprise is the only Surprise

As pictures and videos surface showing young American soldiers humiliating and dehumanizing Iraqi prisoners, we, as a society, recoil in disgust and disbelief. Friends and family of those charged with such crimes, shake their heads in bewilderment and assure the world that the perpetrators are normal, caring, loving individuals without any prior sadistic or bullying traits.

As the picture of prisoner degradation develops, the only surprise is that we are surprised.

Where have the American people, the Military, the Security Agencies, the Administration, and the Media been hiding for the past 30 years?

Research in Social Psychology is rampant with experiments clearly demonstrating the impact of situational influence on behavior. From Zimbardo's famous prison experiments at Stanford University (1971) and Milgram's extensive body of work on obedience (the administration of electrical shock torture by non-pathological students (1974 and following), the dangers of placing untrained, well-meaning but naïve individuals into a system where the cues of social acceptability have been perverted, has been shown to lead to exactly that behavior which the world has been watching over the past few months.

The killer children of Golding's Lord of the Flies, the torturers of the Inquisition, the Jew killers of Reserve Battalion 101 (Browning, 1993), are not inherently evil people, somehow different from you and I. They ARE us ? placed into an intolerable, stress-laden pressure cooker where daily norms no longer apply. Systematically, they are praised and rewarded for aberrant behaviors, pushed on the road to doom with a small first step, taught to dehumanize their victims in an atmosphere where responsibility is diffused, anonymity guaranteed, and the absolute need for obedience to gain the goal (information, safety of other soldiers, National Security) is demanded.

Under such extreme conditions, the behaviors exhibited by the Abu Ghraib MPs should have been completely expected. The Military and Governmental agencies involved have behavioral experts and 30 years of research at their fingertips. To anticipate what might occur, and to plan accordingly ? ensuring that supervision was relentless, prohibitions against improper behaviors were clear and unambiguous, training provided, and readily-accessed mechanisms provided for reports of questionable activity ? was the job of the Army, the Government, and the Administration, listening to their own psychological experts.

Courts-Martial of individual guards for their unacceptable and abhorrent behaviors are warranted to the extent that the individual always bears ultimate responsibility for their personal actions. However, the primary responsibility must fall on those who directed and developed a system almost guaranteed to produce those actions which have recently appalled all Americans and degraded our National image.

Not knowing the research, not reading long reports, not having the time to focus on a small area of an enormous task, does not excuse nor absolve of guilt. The top commanders are where the buck stops and where accountability truly lies.

Virginia Bola is a licensed clinical psychologist with deep interests in Social Psychology and politics. She has performed therapeutic services for more than 20 years and has studied the results of cultural forces and employment on the individual. She is the author of an interactive workbook, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a monthly ezine, The worker's Edge. She can be reached at http://www.virginiabola.com

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