What does the Stanford experiment tell us about Abu Ghraib? I don’t think it absolves the low-level MPs from moral responsibility, but it should steer us away from explanations which depend on their moral exceptionality. The Stanford experiment tells us that there needn’t have been anything psychologically or morally deficient about these MPs at the outset of the war, just as the “guards” in Zimbardo’s experiment were psychologically indistinguishable from “prisoners” when the study began.
If anything, the Stanford study damns the leadership of the 800th MP Brigade even further than they’ve already been damned. We know that, in the absence of continuous training, supervision, and strict controls, people given absolute power over others will tend to become vicious. No one in that chain of command has any business acting surprised that their failures of leadership led to exactly what anyone who’s taken Psych 101 at any time since the mid-1970s could have predicted.
William Saletan makes a similar argument, adding to the list of things that make the situation in Abu Ghraib exceptional:
Why did guards at Abu Ghraib, unlike guards at Stanford, go beyond humiliation to violence, severe injury, and rape? To answer that question, you have to look not at the factors Zimbardo studied, but at the factors he left out.
One of those factors struck me in particular:
Race. At Stanford, with the exception of one Asian-American, the prisoners, like the guards, were white. At Abu Ghraib, the guards were Americans, but the prisoners were Iraqis. The guards didn’t understand Iraq, hated being there, and were under constant assault from Iraqi mortars outside the prison walls. To them, the inmates seemed a foreign enemy.
See my earlier post on untermenschen. Also, Muninn recently had a post on an instance of this word being used without irony by a conservative blogger. And there is an interesting discussion about irony in the comments to this post on Pedantry.
UPDATE: This eloquent post by Billmon seems relevant to the above discussion, especially the above-mentioned post on Pedantry:
There is a small school of German historians — classic examples of those “revisionists” Bush claims to dislike so much — who have tried to justify, or at least rationalize, Nazi atrocities in Russia during World War II as inevitable byproducts of an inherently “cruel” war with Stalin and his regime. Such arguments are, of course, despicable, but they can have a powerful attraction for those who want to absolve their own side of guilt for conduct that can’t be excused in any other way. And we don’t even have to go as far afield as Operation Barbarossa to find examples — the war in the Pacific against Japan was also widely accepted (on both sides) as a “cruel” war, which helped lay the psychological groundwork for the Bataan death march and the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of John Kerry’s critics are still defending Vietnam-era war crimes on similar grounds.
The invasion of Iraq was advertised as exactly the opposite: a “humanitarian war,” in which America would reap the gratitude of a liberated people. But now that the promise of humanitarian war has proven false, can public opinion be persuaded to support a cruel and dirty one?
Make sure to read the whole thing, there is a part about wristbands at the beginning which is particularly salient to what I’m trying to say about “untermenschen.”