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 world that perpetrators are normal, caring, loving individuals without any prior sadistic or bullying traits.
As picture of prisoner degradation develops, and spreads, only surprise is that we are surprised.
Where have American people, Military, Security Agencies, Administration, and Media been hiding for past 30 years?
Research in Social Psychology is rampant with experiments clearly demonstrating 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 based on administration of electrical shock torture by non-pathological students (1974 and following), dangers of placing untrained, well-meaning but naïve individuals into a system where cues of social acceptability have been perverted, has been shown to lead to exactly that behavior which world has been watching over past few weeks.
The killer children of Golding’s Lord of Flies, torturers of Inquisition, 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, started on road to doom with a small step, victims are dehumanized, responsibility is diffused, anonymity guaranteed, and absolute need for obedience to gain goal (information, safety of other soldiers, National Security) is demanded.