Thirty-six years ago, Philip Zimbardo, a young psychologist at Stanford University, set up an experiment intended to explore how normal young men would behave if put into a prison setting.
Zimbardo's team advertised for paid volunteers, screened the applicants for mental abnormalities and personality disorders, divvyed up the chosen ones into guards and prisoners, and then kicked off the experiment.
Over the next few days, in the basement lab of the psychology building, the uniformed "guards" - getting increasingly caught up in their role - thought up ever-more creative ways to assert their dominance over the jumpsuit-wearing "prisoners". They paraded them around with bags over their heads; removed the prisoners' clothing as punishment; took away their bedding; made them scrub toilets with their bare hands; insisted they do huge numbers of press ups, sometimes with other prisoners sitting on their backs; threw them into a dark, locked closet that was supposed to serve as an isolation unit; made them scream obscenities at each other; even forced them to pretend to be engaged in sexual activity with other brutalized prisoners.
The experiment was supposed to last two weeks. By day five, however, four of the prisoners had begun showing signs of nervous collapse; and by day six, the "Stanford Prison" had to be closed. What had started out as a low-key academic project had degenerated, in a remarkably short space of time, into a real-life version of William Golding's book Lord of the Flies.
Sound familiar? Over 30 years later, many of the same techniques, amplified by the horrors of war and the terrors of guerilla insurgency - some of them simply bizarre demonstrations of sadism, others clumsily thought-through control strategies - surfaced in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Zimbardo has long been haunted by the events that his experiment precipitated. The realization that he and his fellow-experiment designers had created an utterly toxic environment, in which decent people playing guards speedily degenerated into brutes and decent people playing prisoners became abject, cowering, hysterical captives, has informed Zimbardo's career ever since.
Now, he has finally written a book on the Stanford Prison Experiment, tying it in with the slide toward torture that has occurred in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Titled The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo's volume argues that it's futile to put all of the blame for these violent episodes on "bad apples" in an otherwise good barrel. Quite the opposite, he writes. If senior political, military or correctional officials create a "bad barrel," signify to underlings that abuse will be tolerated, turn a blind-eye to wanton acts of humiliation, then the chances are pretty high that many "good apples" that get dumped into the situation will swiftly go rotten.
A few years back, Zimbardo was approached by the defense team for Sergeant Ivan "Chip" Frederick, one of the reservists on trial for the Abu Ghraib abuses. Frederick was in charge of Tier 1A, the infamous tier in which men were electric-shocked, had attack dogs set on them, and were made to engage in various humiliating sexual rituals. He wasn't one of the prime abusers, but he was responsible for letting the cycle of brutality go unchecked. He was also a man of limited initiative, used to taking orders, and desperate to fit in, to be one of the boys.
Zimbardo came to believe that Frederick was, essentially, a fall-guy for "The System" (his capital letters, not mine). After 9/11, he argues, the higher ups in that system, whether it be political leaders, top military brass or shadowy intelligence bosses, were all giving a nod-and-a-wink to acts designed to physically and mentally break detainees. As the editors of the book The Torture Papers documented, getting "actionable intelligence" from suspects being interrogated came to be more important than respecting the niceties of the Geneva Convention or the various prohibitions on torture signed onto by congress over the years.
In the second half of The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo develops arguments for why Bush, Cheney, then-CIA chief Tenet and Geoffrey Miller - the major general who arrived in Abu Ghraib determined to have the prison there implement Guantanamo methods of interrogation - should stand trial for the atrocities that occurred in Abu Ghraib. If a man like Frederick is going to go to prison for years for his actions, Zimbardo argues, then the higher-ups who allowed this to happen on their watch should most assuredly be held accountable too.
Of course, Bush isn't about to stand trial anytime soon. Congress isn't going to muster the cajones to impeach the man, let alone hand him over to any international court of justice. But that doesn't make Zimbardo's line of reasoning any less valid: bad situations or systems do lead to atrocious actions, not by every participant but by enough to cause tremendous damage. Political climates created by those in power do have a trickle-down impact throughout society, rendering previously unthinkable acts normal.
In the long-run, President Bush's casual acceptance of the need for the state-as-torturer, his willingness to embrace a means-justifies-the-ends philosophy, will likely be his most shameful legacy.
George W's poll numbers are now so utterly dismal that it's hard to work out which actions are most repellant to ordinary voters. I'd like to think - though, admittedly, without the data to back up the hunch - that his and Cheney's implicit condoning of a climate in which torture has flourished ranks up there. After all, most Americans, like most people everywhere, are not innately bad. Maybe for a while they accepted the notion that Abu Ghraib was the product solely of a few twisted, amped-up lowly reservists. Not anymore. Zimbardo and others have done too good a job of showing up the connections, of insisting we look at the nudge-nudge, wink-wink nature of the Bush administration's relationship to torture.
Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at the New York-based think tank Demos. He writes regularly for the Nation, Mother Jones, and several other publications. His most recent book, on the issue of the disenfranchisement of felons, is titled Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House. It was published in April by The New Press, and is available in England and the U.S. His next book will be published by Beacon Press in May, and is titled American Furies.