May 7, 2004
Our Latent Cruelty
If there’s one story I can’t imagine writing as a journalist, it’s this — the hounding-of-the-family-members-after-someone-commits-an-atrocity story:
In one image, Private England is clenching a cigarette between her teeth while giving a thumbs-up in front of naked Iraqi prisoners. In another that became public on Thursday, she is holding a leash attached to a naked prisoner’s neck.
The photographs have left her family and friends aghast and searching for answers. They are convinced that she would never have thought up anything so cruel on her own and that she must have been following orders.
Of course they are. Few families walk around suspecting their own of harboring despotic tendencies. What are they going to say? “That Lynndie. She always tortured insects and small mammals as a kid. I knew no good would come of it.”
Not a comforting thought, but we are all probably much more capable of atrocious behavior than we can imagine. Another article in today’s NYT recalls a 30-year-old study:
In 1971 researchers at Stanford University created a simulated prison in the basement of the campus psychology building. They randomly assigned 24 students to be either prison guards or prisoners for two weeks.
Within days the “guards” had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of placing bags over the prisoners’ heads, forcing them to strip naked and encouraging them to perform sexual acts.
The landmark Stanford experiment and studies like it give insight into how ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, do horrible things — including the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
What is the distance between “normal” and “monster”? Can anyone become a torturer?
The answer to that last question, the article suggests, is “yes.” We aren’t all secret sadists, quietly wanting to inflict pain on our neighbors, but removed from our current frame of reference, quite a number of us — we should probably assume all of us — would do the worst.
Scary. Good to know?