Abu Ghraib

At the time of Abu Ghraib, I was asked to write an article for the New York Times about it. They decided not to publish it, which I found quite interesting in itself.

We speak of torture and cruelty as kinds of inhumanity. But they are human. They reflect deep parts of our nature. People do terrible things to “enemies” in war, but enmity is not necessary. The psychologist Phillip Zimbardo ran an experiment, where college students were randomly allocated to play the roles either of prison guards or prisoners. The experiment had to be stopped before time because the “guards” were treating the “prisoners” so badly. And many people are excited by the infliction on people of pain and humiliation, as much pornography shows.

There is this dark side of human nature, excited by cruelty. But there is another side. We have moral resources that help restrain our cruelty. We are able to imagine how the victims feel and to sympathize with them. We have respect for the dignity of other people. There is disgust at cruelty. There is also a sense of our own moral identity, for instance not wanting to be the kind of person who tortures or humiliates others. When atrocities like those in Abu Ghraib prison take place, this is partly because people’s moral resources have been anaesthetized.

Imagining and being moved by the suffering of others can be a casualty of war. Killing in war may be easier if those on the other side are not felt to be fellow humans. In the Iraq war this may have happened to the American and British planners who killed or wounded more than a thousand civilians by using cluster bombs on populated areas. Sometimes anger destroys sympathy, as in Falluja, when an angry Iraqi crowd killed four Americans and mutilated their bodies, or when American commanders responded by besieging and bombing the town, killing six or seven hundred people. Another sign of this unconcern is the lack of any clear figure for Iraqi civilian casualties during and after the war.

Respect for the dignity of other people is an important barrier against atrocity. It is recognition of their moral status as fellow human beings. Eroding this respect by humiliating people makes atrocities easier. Examples are the Nazi humiliation of Jews, forcing them to scrub pavements on their knees, and the humiliation of “counter-revolutionaries” in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Degrading people dehumanizes them and makes it easier to kill them. Expressions of contempt are a mild version, to a slight degree removing the protection of equal moral status. One version is the cold joke: contemptuous humor at the expense of someone’s distress or powerlessness. When Mr. Rumsfeld was asked about conditions of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, it was a cold joke when he said the camp was not meant to be a country club. Such comments in a small way gradually erode protective dignity.

Obviously those who carried out the atrocities in Abu Ghraib were not restrained by any sense of the dignity of their victims. Humiliation, especially sexual humiliation, was central.

What about moral identity? Did these men and women have no values that might have made them reject becoming sadistic torturers? Moral identity may fail as a restraint when many play a part in atrocity. No-one feels that they are personally responsible. In the Nazi genocide, this happened again and again: “I only arranged the trains”, “I only supplied the gas”, “I only took the Jews to the station”, “I only obeyed someone else’s orders”. In this way, someone can retain the self image of being a decent person despite participation in terrible things. In Abu Ghraib, the division between military police and intelligence people, and the practice of using outside contractors, may have left no-one feeling that the system in place was their responsibility.

A common way of weakening the restraints of moral identity is to evade recognition of the kind of thing you are doing. Cold, abstract language slurs over the fact that the topic is torture. At Abu Ghraib, the instruction was given that “it is essential that the guard force be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees”. When someone gives an instruction like this, the result is another human being having to stand in fear of death, hooded and attached to electrodes. Or the result is another person being deprived of sleep, or having dogs set on him, or having to submit to some public sexual humiliation, as in the nightmare photographs we have all seen. If the person giving the order had to spell all this out, he might see how disgusting a person he must be to command all this. It is more comfortable to stick to phrases about being “actively engaged in setting the conditions”.

In these ways, the restraints of sympathy, of respect for dignity and of moral identity can all fail. Does this mean that human nature is so flawed that we can never escape from torture and barbarism? For those of us who hope that the human race may grow out of its barbaric past, the last week has been a dark time. At the very least, even in countries where we flatter ourselves that we are civilized, we have a long way to go.

But there are a few chinks of light. William Kimbo, Master-at-Arms First Class, and US Navy Dog Handler, resisted pressure to participate in improper interrogations. SPC Joseph Darby found evidence of abuse and reported it. First Lt. David Sutton stopped an abuse and reported it. And Major General Antonio Taguba, in a brave report, called for appropriately severe disciplinary action. These good people show that, even in a dark place, it is possible to retain humanity and integrity. The better side of human nature does not have to be defeated. We need to know more about what makes the difference between those who become sadistic torturers and those who refuse. The hope that mankind may escape from these horrors depends partly on this.

But individual psychology is only part of the story. There is a whole culture that helps or hinders torture and atrocity. This culture depends on those higher up. The shadowy figures in the intelligence community who proposed “setting the conditions” are at least as harmful –and barbaric- as those who complied. Going further up, there are those in government who feared inspection of Guantanamo Bay and tried to block the protocol to the UN Convention on Torture that allows regular inspections of places of detention. This hardly suggests a climate of passionate hostility to torture. The same goes for the indefensible suggestion that US citizens alone should be immune to prosecution for war crimes in the International Criminal Court.

Torture has its origins in human nature. But this does not mean it is invincible. Its defeat requires policies that reflect the revulsion and disgust so many of us feel towards it. A start would be to turn over all places of political detention to the control of international authorities charged with the preservation of human rights. At the very least, bodies like the International Red Cross should have access on demand. And we, the electors in democracies, should judge severely politicians who are evasive on this. If we let torture creep in now, it will corrupt our life for generations.