Guarding against the guardians

Posted: Aug 01, 2004 12:00 AM

After the first weeks and months of furor over the Abu Ghraib prison revelations, after the official protestations of innocence and shock, and after Congress did its bit in front of the cameras, the issue of torture has calmed and Americans have moved on to other issues.

It will not likely slip entirely from mind, though, especially as new revelations emerge. There are many reports from around the world ? not all of them equally believable, but in toto impossible to dismiss ? that paint the torture policy as both broader and deeper than the government would like us to believe.

Seymour Hersch, in the middle of his own investigation, shakes his head and speaks darkly of a vast array of crimes against humanity, of greater brutality than so far made public. We hear of deliberate religious defilements, of children being tortured ad used as leverage against their parents, of systematic cruelty added onto sexual humiliation, and even sodomistic rape.

In May, when the issue was still quite hot, I hotly excoriated the policy of torture, and argued that it was corrupting both morally and practically. I note now that the extent of the practice could hardly be justified on any sane ground. Most of those subjected to torture were and are innocent, and the so-called reasoned cases for torture rest upon it being an exceptional thing, applied only to the demonstrably guilty. Torture as a way of "information retrieval" (shades of Orwell's 1984, shades of Gilliam's Brazil) has been far more extensive than a coherent (if reprehensible) policy would have allowed.

So why did the policy degrade into a widespread catastrophe?

The answer, I hazard, is linked to two related topics:

  1. Why human beings in some circumstances behave in horrible ways, so readily.
  2. Why we need a rule of law and a strict adherence to it.

Shock Without Awe

"I can't believe people could do this. I can't believe Americans could do this." This was a common litany after the first revelations. It is not, alas, very common outside America. Elsewhere the belief in American depravity comes much more readily.

But to speak of American depravity formulates the problem exactly wrong. The question is one of human depravity.

And one might think Americans ? ostensibly among the most religious peoples on the planet ? would understand this. Man is not, according once-revered Augustinian teaching, a perfectible being, much less "basically good." He is Fallen. And this fallen-ness is evidenced in the ease with which human beings succumb to temptations to vice and cruelty. No matter how well supported a person may be morally, in certain conditions the descent into outright depravity can be quick and startling.

This was demonstrated in the Stanford Prison Experiment, led by Philip Zimbardo in the early '70s. Twenty-one civilian volunteers ? chosen for their psychological "normality" ? were put in a prison environment, and randomly selected to "play the parts" of prisoners and guards. Almost immediately the play-prisoners were behaving as real prisoners behave, insolent, paranoid, and rebellious.

Even more alarmingly, the play-guards embraced the authoritarian and brutal methods we've come to expect in prison guards, engaging in systematic intimidation and abuse. Their chief method became terror, with their sadism all the more cruel at night, when they thought the cameras were off. The mentalities of the participants changed dramatically and quickly, with even pacifists turning into tyrants. Zimbardo called the experiment to a halt earlier than he'd planned. His conclusion? In some situations, human beings did not behave according to character but according to situation.

So if normal citizens can, in a faked prison environment, metamorphose into stereotypical tyrants and victims, how much more so must real prison guards in real prisons become tyrannical and abusive?

Further, given a warrant ? an excuse, even a justification ? to torture, we should not be surprised when torture becomes pandemic.

The Moral of The Story

I find the prison experiment to be very unsettling. I'd like to think that my morality is strong enough that, were I to be made a prison guard, I would resist the brutality that prison guards in America and Abu Ghraib and elsewhere too readily practice, with gusto.

It is heartening to note that not all of the workers at Abu Ghraib participated. Some even reported the abuses, leading to the breaking of the story.

Human brutality is not a constant, no matter how "fallen" (or merely adaptable) people may be. Situations differ. On the tragic day of 9/11/01, in New York, thousands of civilians cooperated on many fronts to help the escapees from the fallen towers. Civilization did not break down in this time of crisis. It strengthened, and without much help from the government, without even the guiding hand of an over-arching plan (there were few for such devastation).

So it seems that human beings are often at their worst not in "states of nature," where chaos temporarily reigns, but in "states of coercion," where organization itself is triumphant.

This is why the rule of law is so important ? something I often explain in more familiar contexts in my free Common Sense e-letter. Yes, we need laws, we need prisons, we need prison guards. But we have to realize their dangers, and constantly guard against them. Who guards us from the guardians? We do, through our laws. As our first Commander in Chief put it, government "is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." It's so not by magic, but by the power of the contexts that governments routinely create. So we must always be on watch for abuse of power. And the laws must not be merely men acting in legal capacity, but simple, straightforward rules written close to the heart of the best in human nature, while suspiciously eyeing the worst. That's what "a nation of laws, not of men" means.

We must always resist calls for justifying torture. Western governments in modern times had been remarkably (though certainly not uniformly) successful in curbing the use of torture in warfare. Recent calls ? sadly even within our government, and not only in the pundit class ? for the removal of this check on government power are extremely misguided.

In May I wrote that "a war on terror must not be a war of terror." The reason for this should be clear, for an embracing of institutional terrorism in the fight against insurgent terrorism will create the very situation that will transform our behavior, as well as that of others, with tyranny begetting tyranny.

How much better the philosophy and practice of limited government, of republican virtue, of civilization! For only these will yield lasting peace. That's Realism 101.