Prison Guard Syndrome

Some of the American and British soldiers charged with torturing and humiliated Iraqi prisoners were working under orders to “soften up” prisoners for future interrogation. That’s one of those terms that’s left entirely up to the MP on duty to interpret.

Former Army interrogator Mike Ritz refers to the famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment in which regular college students were asked to role play prisoner/guard for an extended period. After five days, the study had to be cut short because the students in the role of guard were becoming sadistic.

The media offers explanations for these MP’s behavior dissmissively (“A few bad eggs”) or suggests a power chain encouraging the behavior. The Stanford study suggests something even more frightening, and in my mind, more probable — that ordinary people put in a position of control will often become sadistic and abusive.

This of course not meant to somehow excuse.

Music: Lead Belly :: Where Did You Sleep Last Night

9 Replies to “Prison Guard Syndrome”

  1. Wait… how does that go? “Absolute power corrupts…” Absolutely?

  2. Some of the American and British soldiers charged with torturing and humiliated Iraqi prisoners were working under orders to “soften up” prisoners for future interrogation. That’s one of those terms that’s left entirely up to the MP on duty to interpret.

    So, if the end goal was really future interrogation, and not just the infliction of pain as an end in itself, why didn’t they….?
    http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2002/4/6/202647.shtml

    The Stanford study suggests something even more frightening, and in my mind, more probable — that ordinary people put in a position of control will often become sadistic and abusive.

    “The ordinary man with extraordinary power is the chief danger for mankind – not the fiend or the sadist.” — Erich Fromm
    http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/erichfromm151849.html

    “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” — Lord Acton
    http://www.bartleby.com/59/13/powertendsto.html

    Beware the dark side

  3. About the ’71 Stanford Prison Experiment, I highly recommend the german film “Das Experiment”, based on those events (if I’m not mistaken). Very good film and it’s really impressive to see the human psyche at work, the way the guards slowly change into sadistic tirants. Like it was mentioned before: “Absolute power…”

  4. It is good that these methods of torture and humiliation are being investigated and exposed. But I wonder if the same kind images (readily available on the internet) of sexual humiliation that stem from international pornography and sexual slavery rings will ever generate the same protest.

  5. I’m not sure its fair to compare college students to trained miltary personel. There is a level of sadism that is allowed in “safe” group activities (such as in a classroom or workshop) that is unlikely to occur (without genuine provocation) under real life and extreme circumstances. Certianly there is truth in the fact that we can all go Lord of the Flies on each other given the right set of pressures, but it strikes me as a bit too unrealistic for us civilians to sit back and say, ah yes, soldiers in Iraq are just like a bunch of upper middle class 19 year old acedemics with imaginary guns and tape on the floor for jail cells.

    During a hearing with Rumsfeld I heard that the soldiers in question were part of reserve troops that, it happened, did not receive certain training in regards to the Geneva convention, and issues related to the treatment of detainees. If this is true (I admit to not having reserched this information further) then it seems to me that the burden of responsiblity if that much more so laid at the feet of commanding officers – especially those present in the facility.

  6. I agree responsibility for the crimes should include commanding officers.

    According to the International Red Cross, the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners is systemic. They have been isssuing complaints about 10 prisons since February.

    The release of damning photos and videos has been crucial in this case, otherwise people simply chalk it up to anything goes in war.

  7. Annie, that isn’t how the graduate-school experiment was done. The physical experimental setting was quite elaborate, far from “tape on the floor”. It was very far from a safe environment. The grad students believed fully that they were inflicting real pain on the subjects, to the point that the subjects fainted. They protested and some grew highly agitated…BUT they kept increasing the voltage and shocking the subjects. And, worst of all, they were persuaded to do so only by suggestion, not reward or coercion–the experimenters were very careful on this point.

    It is not a pretty story, but it is quite well documented.

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