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Power turns good soldiers into 'bad apples'

THE HORRIFYING PHOTOS of young Iraqis abused by American soldiers have shocked the world with their depictions of human degradation, forcing us to acknowledge that some of our beloved soldiers have committed barbarous acts of cruelty and sadism. Now there is a rush to analyze human behavior, blaming flawed or pathological individuals for evil and ignoring other important factors. Unless we learn the dynamics of "why," we will never be able to counteract the powerful forces that can transform ordinary people into evil perpetrators.

Those responsible should suffer severe sanctions if found guilty. However, we must separate guilt from blame. Should these few Army reservists be blamed as the "bad apples" in a good barrel of American soldiers, as our leaders have characterized them? Or are they the once-good apples soured and corrupted by an evil barrel? I argue for the latter perspective after having studied the psychology of evil for many decades. In fact, I have been responsible for constructing evil barrels that produced many bad apples.

Like Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib, I was once a prison superintendent with no experience or training in corrections. In 1971 I was in charge of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which randomly assigned student volunteers in a simulated prison role-played prisoners and guards. Although everyone knew it was just an experiment, the line between simulation and reality was breached as it became a psychological prison of incredible intensity.

The planned two-week study was terminated after only six days because it was out of control. Good boys chosen for their normalcy were having emotional breakdowns as powerless prisoners. Other young men chosen for their mental health and positive values eased into the character of sadistic guards inflicting suffering on their fellow students without moral compunction. And those "good guards" who did not personally debase the prisoners failed to confront the worst of their comrades, allowing evil to ripen without challenge.

The terrible things my guards did to their prisoners were comparable to the horrors inflicted on the Iraqi detainees. My guards repeatedly stripped their prisoners naked, hooded them, chained them, denied them food or bedding privileges, put them into solitary confinement, and made them clean toilet bowls with their bare hands.

As the boredom of their job increased, they began using the prisoners as their playthings, devising ever more humiliating and degrading games for them to play. Over time, these amusements took a sexual turn, such as having the prisoners simulate sodomy on each other. Once aware of such deviant behavior, I closed down the Stanford prison.

Human behavior is much more under the control of situational forces than most of us recognize or want to acknowledge. In a situation that implicitly gives permission for suspending moral values, many of us can be morphed into creatures alien to our usual natures. My research and that of my colleagues has catalogued the conditions for stirring the crucible of human nature in negative directions. Some of the necessary ingredients are: diffusion of responsibility, anonymity, dehumanization, peers who model harmful behavior, bystanders who do not intervene, and a setting of power differentials.

Those factors were apparently also operating in Iraq. But in addition there was secrecy, no accountability, no visible chain of command, conflicting demands on the guards from the CIA and civilian interrogators, no rules enforced for prohibited acts, encouragement for breaking the will of the detainees, and no challenges by many bystanders who observed the evil but did not blow the whistle.

We must learn from this tragic event so it is never repeated. And we must not permit the authorities to deflect the blame and responsibility from themselves by pointing fingers at those soldiers who went into the administration's preemptive war as proud Americans and return now as disgraced prison guards.

The arrogance of power that spawned the "shock and awe" of military might one short year ago has been humbled by the dismay and disgust over these revelations of abuse. It is time for all Americans to reflect on the justification for continuing the war in Iraq that is killing, maiming, and demeaning our young men and women who have been put in harm's way for spurious reasons. Before more of our youth are corrupted, perhaps the time has come to empty out the vinegar of needless war that has filled that evil barrel.

Philip G. Zimbardo is emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University. 

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