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Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Prisoner Abuse

Why are we surprised at the abuse of prisoners in Iraq? We should not be. Since there were prisons, there has been abuse of prisoners. This was revealed most publically in the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 to the mistreatment of John Geoghan in Concord Prison two years ago. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanford students were randomly assigned to role play Guards and Prisoners. Each were outfitted in appropriate uniforms. The experiment had to be terminated after a few days because “guards” were mistreating “prisoners” and “prisoners” were experiencing psychological distress; fortunately short-lived. What is happening here is a common form of inter-group dynamics: a bonding with the in-group and a rejection of the outgroup. This was coupled with two other things: the gross power imbalance between guards and prisoners and the de-humanizing effects of the uniforms so that people in both groups were not individuals, Joe, and Bill, and Alf – they were Prisoner 123, Guard 789, etc. Guards came to view the prisoners as lesser beings and therefore mistreating them was not the same as mistreating a human being. These tendencies to devalue the “other” are of course even stronger in the case of Geoghan who was a convicted pedophile. These tendencies must also have been strong in Iraq where the prisoners’ status as enemies, as Moslem, and as Iraqi all created differences between themselves and their captors. The dehumanizing effect was exacerbated by the hooding of the prisoners. Those hoods are not just to confuse the prisoners they are to ensure that the guards do not see them as individual human beings. With all those forces operating, it is no surprise that there was abuse. What IS surprising, given all we know about the potential for abuses is that the Army and others in the Administration did not take strong proactive measures to ensure that the abuse did not occur. After all, even the Bush Administration should have been able to foresee the explosive political and international effects that would occur if such abuse were to be revealed. Or perhaps it is not so surprising given this Administration’s cavalier attitude to civil rights, to the Geneva Convention, and to the International Criminal Court - the Bush Administration’s opposition to this Court makes sense in the light of all that has passed since March 2003.

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