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Horrors revisited

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NILANJANA S. ROY   |   Published 16.05.04, 12:00 AM

These are souvenir snapshots from hell, the pictures from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Everyone’s seen them: unabashed shots of grinning US soldiers posing alongside their terrorised Iraqi victims.

On the Net, the Abu Ghraib pictures have mutated from news images to what I call “righteous porn”: graphic images of abuse and violence, justified as necessary viewing because they “tell a larger story”. Danny Pearl’s execution, the American contractor’s beheading, the images of terrified, naked Iraqi prisoners being menaced by guard dogs, or being forced to simulate sexual acts: all images that we would normally condemn as strongly as we condemn porn. In this context, we say we’re justified in clicking on what we would otherwise avert our eyes from.

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo conducted the now-infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. Eighteen young men volunteered for what was intended to be a two-week-long study of simulated prison conditions. Nine were selected to be prisoners, nine to be guards. Zimbardo and his colleagues screened out applicants with a high potential for violence. Six days later, it was shut down. The “guards” had displayed extreme sadism; they abused the “prisoners”; a “prison riot” had been foiled. Zimbardo had been drawn in too deeply to recognise the warning signs. It took a former student who came in late to sound the alarm.

In September 2002, after the WTC bombings and before the disclosures at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo was interviewed by a San Francisco paper and asked: “But isn’t our side right this time? Aren’t terrorists evil?”

He responded: “We like to think the line between good and evil is impermeable, that we’re on the right side of that line, and that people on the other side are different from us. That’s wrong. The question is, what are the conditions under which you or I could do the same thing? People say, ‘I would never do that.’ Put them in an experiment, and in 30 minutes they’re doing it.” Those who use the Stanford Prison Experiment to explain why there was such systematic torture of Iraqi prisoners by the army that was “liberating” them from Saddam miss the point. The SPE is supposed to prove that a prison situation can set up abusive patterns of behaviour, that evil is deep inside our souls. But it’s been 32 years since the experiment was conducted — long enough for generals and footsoldiers alike to learn a new set of rules.

We didn’t hear the SPE being cited to excuse the behaviour of Saddam’s thugs when they tortured their own people. Osama’s acts of terror aren’t explained away as the product of the situation he finds himself in. Zimbardo’s experiment is being used by US commentators as a lifebelt. The logic is that since everyone would behave this way if they had the chance, their soldiers are let off the hook.

For the Stanford Prison Experiment to spiral out of control, it required just a handful of people to look the other way. At Abu Ghraib, a whole army looked the other way — until a few soldiers shared their slideshow of How We Entertain Ourselves On Slow Evenings.

How could they do this? In the transcripts, many soldiers refer to their victims not as “he”, or even as “the prisoner” but as “it”. That is the way an army, a government, and an administration really thought of the Iraqis: individuals without identities, humans who could be called “it”.

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