Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Ignorance, Malice, or Door Number Three

Prisoner abuse seems to be making a comeback in the headlines recently. The catalyst this time is the release of new documents cataloging complaints registered by FBI agents as they toured American detention centers across the globe. According to some, these new documents succeed in challenging the notion that the Abu Ghraib scandal was an isolated incident conducted by a few independent bad actors.

In fact, said [New York human rights lawyer Scott] Horton, the latest documents were potentially much more serious than the Abu Ghraib revelations because they strongly suggested that top administration officials not only knew about the abuse but approved it… “These memos completely demolish the administration's argument that abuses were carried out by a few low-level 'rotten apples,” he said. "The memos suggest they were deliberate policy."
It remains to be seen whether or not this revelation will finally close the credibility window on this administration's claims of ignorance. Given Bush's reluctance to accept responsibility for the negative consequences of any of his policy initiatives, you may color me skeptical. There seems to be no limit to the imagination of the Bush administration when the shit hits the fan.

But lest we get into a debate over who knew what when (a debate that we may ultimately be unable to definitively resolve), we should take a step back and ask ourselves if it matters who, if anyone, ultimately gave the orders.

US interests in the Middle East have been immeasurably damaged by the mere existence of the torture allegations (Publius at Legal Fiction beats the drum on this issue here and here). I can't see how establishing culpability for the incident could possibly affect the impression it has made on the Muslim street. Nothing short of a Bush/Rumsfeld conviction in the International Criminal Court (something schedule to occur right after my lunch date with Elvis) would even begin the process of redemption. And I fear that even that would have limited short-term success in rehabilitating our image abroad. The damage is done and we will have to endure its consequences.

Since no rational argument can be made to deflect the impact of the prisoner abuse revelations, discussion often turns on whether it was driven by incompetence or malice. Though they use differing terminology to describe their involvement, the Bush administration typically invokes incompetence as an excuse. It is an inglorious and, frankly, dubious justification, but it provides enough breathing room to escape the serious domestic repercussions that could potentially follow a more damaging admission of responsibility.

However, I believe that the incompetence/malice issue presents us with a false dichotomy. There is a third option, one that is potentially worse than the previous two. I argue that, if what occurred there was not the result of direct orders from civilian leadership, then it was the result of criminal negligence.

Let us assume for the moment that the Abu Ghraib abuse occurred independent of any official direction. Instead, let's focus on the conditions that were present at the detention center during the period in which the abuse occurred. Guard staffing was significantly, if not primarily, comprised of National Guard volunteers who had little or notraining related to the assigned duties. Their supervision, when present, was extremely light. Finally, the prisoner to guard ratio was extremely high. With these factors in place, how predictable was it that prisoner abuse would occur? Apologists would say that it was not predictable at all -- but they would be very, very wrong.

In 1971 Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo conducted a psychological study to determine the effects of the prison environment on those within its walls. To do this, he constructed a simulated prison in the basement of Stanford's Psychology Department building. The simulation protocol was developed in consultation with a group of experienced prison consultants (including one former inmate) in order to ensure an accurate reflection of the reality of incarceration. To populate the prison, Zimbardo placed an ad in a local newspaper offering $15 a day for participants. Respondents were screened to eliminate candidates with health issues, psychological problems, histories of drug abuse, or criminal propensities. The remaining sample of 24 was randomly split into two groups; one half would serve as prisoners, the other half as guards.

Originally Zimbardo had planned to run the experiment for two weeks. However, in merely five days, the situation in the faux prison had spun wildly out of control. The prisoners were beginning to exhibit serious psychological pathologies, including deep interpersonal withdrawal and hysteria. In contrast, the guards had become sadists, subjecting the prisoners to ever-increasing levels of cruelty and humiliation. For the safety of everyone involved, the prisoners were released and the prison disassembled.

In spite of the fact that the experiment participants were identical as the study commenced, a few short days in the prison transformed them in hyperbolic fashion. The prisoners began as healthy men, but left as broken shells. The guards began as kind and civil individuals, yet quickly evolved into hideously sadistic abusers. No pre-existing condition could possibly explain the manifestation of these behaviors.

Quite literally, the participants were transformed by the prison itself.

Free will is a concept near and dear to the hearts of everyone living in this highly individualistic society. It is not a concept that we relinquish easily. Nevertheless, the Zimbardo prison study and the Milgram obedience experiment (discussed here) demonstrate that there are limits to the absolute notion of free will. The behavior of human beings can be profoundly affected by the circumstances in which they find themselves. There are times when this effect is positive and beneficial. And there are times when it releases the darkest impulses within us all. As much as we would like to think otherwise, no one is immune to contextual influence.

For the record, the Zimbardo prison study is not an obscure piece of research, known only to those immersed in the arcane universe of theoretical psychological research. Every first-year psychology student learns of it during Psychology 101. If you are in the business of building and maintaining prisons, there is no excuse for ignorance. It would be akin to a NASA scientist who was unfamiliar with Newton's laws of motion.

And that is why, even without direct orders, the Abu Ghraib scandal is the responsibility of civilian leadership. The soldiers committing the abuse did not create the conditions inside the prison. The conditions were created by their superior officers, who in turn did so because of the resource limitations they faced. The abuse that occurred was a direct and predictable result of civilian policy directives. There is no question that civilian leadership should have known the likely outcome of their detention center design. In all likelihood, they did know. They just didn't care.

Of course, if you mix in abusive interrogation directives, it gets even worse. My personal belief is that much of the abuse that we became aware of in the spring of 2004 was not directly planned by the Bush administration. But, I believe that it occurred alongside abusive interrogation techniques that were planned. The explicit approval of torture within the prison walls simply greased the wheels for additional, unsanctioned abuse. Again, highly predictable.

There are many things that could have been done to prevent Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld & Co. knew what those things were (more training, more guards, more supervision). But, it would have required resources they were unwilling to expend. If that isn't criminal negligence, I don't know what is.

So -- don't get lost. Don't be distracted by those who claim that orders to abuse did not exist. Maybe they did, and maybe they didn't. Rumsfeld & Co. knew what they were getting into. And that alone is enough to demand accountability.
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