Monday, November 26, 2007

Taser Footnote

In the comments to one of my earlier posts, Larry E of Lotus, Surviving a Dark Time provided a link to all of his posts relevant to the discussion of the human consequences of Taser use. You'll notice that those posts go back as far as March 2004, which should serve as a reminder that this is hardly a new issue.

While were at it, check out RickB of Ten Percent, who makes the following observation:
The technology itself has been in use enough to see comparisons with results from classic experiments on sadism and authoritarian dysfunction.
In other words, what we've been witness to in the US is a phenomenon quite predictable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of social psychology and who can recall the basics of Milgram's obedience experiments and Zimbardo's infamous Stanford Prison experiment. Those experiments, along with other field and lab studies, suggest a number of environmental factors that facilitate the perpetration of torture, which is something I have written about before. Although the remarks that I wrote regarding proximate environmental factors that facilitate torture back in June, 2007 were most immediately aimed at the human rights situation in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, they apply as well to the use and abuse of Taser stun guns by police:
Proximate Causes of Torture
In discussing torturers’ “obedience to the authority of violence,” Haritos-Fatouros (2003; see also, Huggins, Haritos-Fatouros, & Zimbardo, 2002; Zimbardo, 2004) outlines a number of proximate causes designed to increase compliance and bonding with those in authority as well as with peers, and to reduce stress and strain.
1.) Harassment, compliance, and conformity. If the perpetrators feel sufficiently trapped in the situation, authorities are better positioned to order them to continue escalating destructive behaviors against their victims. If the perception is that there is no viable recourse but to continue doling out the abuse, then it’s not terribly surprising that the perpetrators will do precisely as they are told.
2.) Deindividuation of the torturer. Destructive obedience is much more easily carried out if the perpetrator can distance himself or herself from the victim (Milgram, 1965, 1974). This can be facilitated by deindividuation (e.g., uniforms, etc., that make one blend in with the group, thus decreasing accountability; see Zimbardo, 1970).
3.) Dehumanization of the victim. Victims may be dehumanized in a number of ways, including the use of racial epithets, claims that the victims are “savages” or “have no souls” or are “sub-human”, thus reducing the perpetrator’s ability to empathize with the victim. Disguising victims with hoods or masks can also achieve similar effect (Zimbardo, 2004). The photos that documented the torture in Abu Ghraib showed prisoners who were hooded, whose faces were covered by female undergarments, or completely stripped of clothing altogether (Hersh, 2004) – which itself can have a dehumanizing effect to the extent that they are being stripped of their identities and their cultures. We can also look at the rampant racism and ethnocentrism that appears to be endemic in the U.S. military culture. The organization itself promotes the use of racial and ethnic slurs (e.g., Hajjis, ragheads) and stereotypes (e.g., Islam as a religion that is inherently violent) that serve to dehumanize their victims (see, e.g., Rockwell, 2005). The more psychological distance that can be created in such an environment, the more difficult it is for military personnel to have empathy with the prisoners and it is this loss of empathy that may pave the path to torture.
4.) Victim blame. One means of reducing the psychological strain of destructive obedience is to shift responsibility to the victim. In Milgram’s (1974) obedience experiments, for example, participants often blamed the victim for having volunteered for the experiment in the first place, or blamed the victim for being stupid or obstinate. Haritos-Fatouros (2003) observes a similar phenomenon among Greek torturers. The psychological function of blaming victims of torture for their humiliation is to make the torture victim appear less than human, which in turn reduces the perpetrators’ inhibitions. In fact, such victim blame is likely facilitated by techniques in which the victims’ pain or humiliation appears self-inflicted (McCoy, 2006). By releasing the psychological constraints regarding how to treat fellow human beings, torturers find it easier to engage in the cruel treatment of their victims.
5.) Belief in a higher cause. Atrocity perpetrators often believe that they are acting in the name of some higher cause. The Greek military junta of the late 1960s and early 1970s trained recruits to believe that they were serving a sort of “Greek Christianity” and that they were “pillars of the state” whose actions were necessary in the struggle against evil, inhuman dissidents (Haritos-Fatouros, 2003). Belief in a higher cause enables torturers to align themselves with those in authority while at the same time viewing torture victims as tangible threats to that order. To the extent that torture can be perceived as “just, moral, and worthy,” torturers can deceive themselves into believing that their actions are ultimately good.
6.) Social modeling. The modeling of torture may be done either formally (as in the case of the Greek military police; Haritos-Fatouros, 2003) or informally (as in the case of Brazilian torturers and executioners; Huggins, Haritos-Fatouros, & Zimbardo, 2002). Role modeling may be either direct or indirect, and may be either explicit or implicit. As part of formal or informal training, recruits may be directly involved in acts of abuse against victims or merely brought along as observers. In the case of Abu Ghraib, it is plain that the organizational culture was primed for human rights abuses. It appears that at every level of the US military organization there was an acceptance of cruel treatment. General Sanchez, for example, obviously had no problems with activities that were known violations of international law as recent news reports have shown (American Civil Liberties Union, 2005). He led by example. Of course we also know that the military was highly secretive about its treatment of POWs, as has been discussed in detail elsewhere (see, e.g., Ratner & Ray, 2004, for more detail).
7) Trivialization and routinization of evil. Destructive obedience does not occur overnight, but rather the perpetrator must be eased into increasingly brutal behaviors over a period of time. Both Milgram (1965, 1974) and Zimbardo (1970) aptly demonstrated this point with their own experimental research, and historically we’ve seen this point documented time and time again (the atrocities committed by the Germans during the Nazi era come most readily to mind). By gradually escalating the abuses against the victims, those who will perpetrate those abuses don’t realize what’s going on until it is too late. They become increasingly desensitized to the horrors that are going on around them, and that they too may be perpetrating.
Diffusion of responsibility is another vehicle for trivializing torture. Destructive obedience is most easily facilitated under conditions where the perpetrators can pass the buck to someone else. Perhaps the authorities in charge give their assurances that they, rather than the perpetrators, are in charge and responsible for whatever outcomes occur (Milgram, 1965, 1974). Diffusion of responsibility may be accomplished by compartmentalizing tasks sufficiently so that one has only a small role in the abuse that is perpetrated. Some individuals in a prison camp may be merely assigned clerical duties, whereas others have some other limited role in the process of torturing or harming their victims. This provides the basis for the so-called “Nuremberg Defense” in which one can claim to be merely following orders, or simply involved in filing paperwork, taking photos, or other routine tasks. Diffusion of responsibility can also be facilitated by group size. In large groups where individuals feel relatively anonymous, it is easier to engage in cruel behaviors, such as lynchings (e.g., Mullen, 1986).
That of course leaves out a discussion of the distal causes, but suffice it to say, one could call to mind examples of US cultural norms, violent media and propaganda (action movies, cops & robbers shows on TV), and potentially a tendency for right-wing authoritarians to self-select into fields such as law enforcement.

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