Thursday, February 28, 2008

More Abu Ghraib Photos Surface

If you go to Wired's website, you'll find some previously unissued Abu Ghraib photos taken from a recent talk that Phil Zimbardo gave. The pictures are as disturbing as the others that have been made public.

Something I wrote about three years ago:
Recently, I've begun reading a couple books on torture that are a bit unique. Most of the research on torture has looked at the victims of such violence. These books differ in that they offer case studies of the perpetrators of torture. Violence Workers, by Martha Huggins, Mika Haritos-Fatouros, and Philip Zimbardo (2002) examines Brazilian police torturers and murderers; The Psychological Origins of Institutionalized Torture, by Mika Haritos-Fatouros (2003) is a systematic case study of those who carried out torture during the Greek military dictatorship of the late 1960s-early 1970s. What these researchers are doing is to build upon some of the experimental work conducted by folks like Stanley Milgram & Philip Zimbardo back in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the theoretical work of folks like Hannah Arendt. In the process they put a human face on a very inhumane practice. One of the features of both of these books is the inclusion of a few photos of some of the torture as it occurred and some of the sites of the abuse. Those, along with the extensive stories, help to shed some light regarding what causes people to perpetrate such acts along with the long-term psychological effects on both the perpetrator and the victim. I won't say a whole lot about the books just yet as I am still in the process of reading and absorbing them, but a few things do stand out for me. Most notably, both case studies help to put to rest the myth that torturers are psychopathic monsters. If anything, potential torturers are strikingly average, and from Haritos-Fatouros' work it appears that there is typically an effort by the governments sponsoring torture to screen out people who are psychologically disturbed. We also learn a good deal about how potential torturers are trained, and just how extensive the training is. It turns out that there has to be rather strong institutional support for torture in order for it to occur as a general rule of thumb. Finally, both books lay out a tentative theory of torture that owes a great deal to the social learning theoretical approach (an approach I happen to find reasonably useful).

Typically, as Haritos-Fatouros (2003) notes, there are a number of ways that governments and their respective societies can react to the news that their state police or military personnel are engaging in torture. One is denial. The release of the first set of pictures last year makes denial a moot point. It's obvious it did occur. Another approach is to minimize the torture, by simply villifying and punishing the supposed "few bad apples" who typically are the low men and women on the totem pole. Both of those approaches are certainly self-serving for the government, which would prefer to keep its current policies in practice. My take on the Abu Ghraib photos, then, is one of illumination. I see their release to the public as a means of shedding some light into what is going on in our US run prisons in Iraq (and perhaps elsewhere). By knowing what has happened, and learning how and why it happened, we have some hope in preventing future acts of torture.
From about two years ago, coinciding with the release of what were then some new Abu Ghraib photos:
... I note that the so-called "bad apple theory" is inadequate as an explanation for the abuses perpetrated at Abu Ghraib (and also Guantánamo Bay & Baghram). In fact, I've tried to note periodically news articles depicting the widespread practice of torture against not only adults but kids at Abu Ghraib. Rather, there are some strong situational factors that serve to foster widespread practice of torture:
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 the very excellent Guantánamo: What the World Should Know [Ratner & Ray, 2004] for more detail).
Of course there is much more to the story than that. In a post a few weeks ago, I mentioned some of the distal causative factors involved in producing torturers: cultural norms favoring violence, as well as pervasive media violence and propaganda. Those factors certainly seem present in social and cultural Zeitgeist of our torturers, just as they were for the Greek and Brazilian torturers that Haritos-Fatouros and Huggins have studied.
Or, as Zimbardo might say - it's not the apples that are rotten, it's the barrel that's rotten.

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