How could seemingly solid citizens become brutalisrs in Iraq?

Updated on May 17, 2004 08:00 PM IST

They appear to be mostly ordinary Americans from small towns: committed parents, a mechanic, a fisherman, a parade volunteer.

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PTI | ByAssociated Press, Boston

They appear to be mostly ordinary Americans from small towns: committed parents, a mechanic, a fisherman, a parade volunteer. Can a largely unremarkable assortment of decent Americans put on uniforms, cross the globe, and somehow degenerate into leering sadists once inside a sweaty, teeming prison near Baghdad? Yes, they can, according to researchers who study the psychological dynamics of prisons. And it could happen to many more people, if thrust into the same kind of dysfunctional surroundings. "You put bright, healthy, strong young Americans into a very difficult context, and it requires extraordinary strength of character not to get somewhat twisted out of shape," said James Campbell Quick, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington and a retired colonel in the Air Force Reserve. "War is a horrific kind of experience. It is in no way normal or healthy."

Researchers cited the climate of combat, harsh conditions of the prison, cultural chasm between the keepers and kept, and possible breakdown in command, as things that could have tipped some soldiers over the brink.

Photographs taken inside US-run Abu Ghraib prison show naked, sometimes hooded Iraqi prisoners forced into humiliating poses by smirking American soldiers. Some prisoners are piled in human heaps and forced to simulate sex acts. One stands on a box with wires trailing from splayed hands, apparently set to deliver an electric shock. Another lies on the floor with his neck in a leash held by a female soldier.

First shown April 28 in a CBS News report, the photographs from inside the American-run prison have caused disgust and outrage around the world, particularly in the Arab world. Characterizing it as an aberration, US President George Bush and other US officials have extended apologies and pledged to punish the wrongdoers. Seven soldiers have been charged with crimes; seven were reprimanded. The military and CIA are pursuing an expanding set of inquiries into treatment of prisoners at that prison and elsewhere.

Experts say the dominating power of guards over prisoners, exercised outside public view, has an inherent possibility of maltreatment almost anywhere. Guards confront real dangers and obstacles in controlling prisoners. Prisoners are inevitably degraded and devalued, to an extent, by their captivity, making them more likely targets. Guards have legitimate reasons to establish their authority, and the line between bossing and brutalizing can blur.

Some of the accused soldiers had been guards in civilian prisons. But most relatives and friends say they are not brutes. Some say they are scapegoats, who did what they were told and are now paying for the mistakes of higher-ups.

Some of the soldiers say they were encouraged by intelligence officers. Others who worked at the prison tell of overcrowding, scant food and sanitation, little guidance, long and mind-numbing shifts, and defiant rock-throwing prisoners who might be insurgents or violent criminals.

In a classic psychological test in 1971, ordinary college students picked by coin toss to play guards in a mock prison were treating pretend prisoners like real animals within a week. The experimenter, Philip Zimbardo, was later quoted as saying his experiment seemed temporarily to blot out the experiences of a lifetime, "and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced."

While excesses are not inevitable, "the literature of social psychology shows ordinary people can become cruel and abusive when given absolute power and authority over others," said Lt. Col. Thomas Kolditz, head of West Point's department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.

Obviously, not everyone will behave with cruelty in harsh settings. We are not all created equal in this way, researchers say. A personal history of abuse or violence makes people more prone to buckle under pressure.

Conversely, future soldiers and guards, like other people, are more resilient if they get strong moral grounding from parents and teachers. At Abu Ghraib, at least one soldier exposed the atrocities, and others reportedly helped investigators figure out what happened. Researchers say most civilian and military guards generally respect rules protecting prisoners.

Indeed, some evidence suggests that at least civilian prisons have become safer overall during the past 20 years, with less maltreatment by guards, according to researchers. But they credit organizational changes, more than shifts in the mind-set of guards, for driving the progress.

"To understand the reasons ... for bad behavior by guards, you don't have to imagine that everybody is a sadist," says New York University professor David Garland, a specialist in prison sociology. "The best-run prisons are established institutions that tend to be stable over time, with their own culture. A brand-new prison filled up with new inmates and guards is going to be a tinderbox."

Several experts stressed that weak leadership, the sense that no one is really watching, was
key to dissolving a guard's inhibitions. Prison atrocities are prevented by engaged managers who keep close watch, the experts said, adding that they are the ones who lay down clear standards and enforce them. When they fail, guards are placed in an extraordinary position of power.

"Really what you have to explain is not so much the aberrant psychology ... but the fact that they had the opportunity to act on these impulses." said Bert Useem, a University of New Mexico sociologist and prison researcher.

He added that, judging from many accounts, this prison looks like "a system out of control."

The horror and hardships of wartime can further blur the boundaries of human decency in a military-run prison. The captives are not just prisoners; they are the enemy. Sometimes, a soldier will do something as part of a military unit that he would never do alone.

Experts on managing prisoners also say cultural differences like those at Abu Ghraib can amplify the potential for conflict with guards. Arab norms tend to be especially attuned to honor, face-saving and sexual modesty, by the standards of many Americans. The disparities are likely to magnify tensions, especially in times of combat and without civilian courts peering over a guard's shoulder.

Some of the photographed poses, whether by design or ignorance, dehumanized the Iraqi prisoners in culturally charged ways. In one, an American woman points tauntingly at a naked prisoner's penis. "The very idea that not only would people do these things, but also take the pictures also says something about the culture" of guards inside the prison, said Ervin Staub, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst psychologist who has trained police and soldiers in dealing sensitively with other groups. "People are not saying, `We are doing this on the sneak, it's a bad thing to do.' It has already become normal ... to some degree at least."

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