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“The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”

- November 28, 2007

In my class called “The Political Psychology of Prejudice and Inter-Group Conflict,” we recently discussed the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, attempting to explain the guards’ behavior with reference to other famous experiments and studies of this subject. Two students recommended, and we subsequently watched, “The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” a documentary of the prisoner abuse that first appeared on HBO.

The film interviews many of the guards, whose comments confirm numerous social psychological findings about what facilitates brutality.

The role of situational factors. Javal Davis says that the prison “turned me into a monster.” Spending time there, he says, would turn a “docile jolly guy” into a “robot.”

The role of authority. The guards recount pressure from military intelligence to “soften up” prisoners. MI would say things like “This guy needs to have a bad night.” Megan Ambuhl then says that it was “not my place to question anything.” Javal Davis recounts the statement of Charles Graner, who received the longest sentence of any of the guards: “I don’t have a choice.” In the Milgram experiments, the experimenter would prod subjects to continue by saying “You have no choice.”

The routinization of brutality. When behavior becomes routine, people cease to question it. The guards saw their behavior as “just business” (Israel Rivera). Roman Krol says “It was normal. It was just like a day at work.”

The dehumanization of the prisoners. They are referred to by number or by nicknames like “Taxi Driver.” They are kept in an animal state—naked, smelly, lying in their own feces and urine, bloody, sick.

Ambiguity leads to conformity. People are more likely to conform to others’ behavior ambiguous situations, which make us unsure how we ought to behave and attentive to others’ behavior for information and cues. Certain of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, such as stress positions, appear to reflect deliberate policy, and the film lays out the familiar evidence from various DOJ and DOD memoranda. But other kinds of abuses, such as the infamous pyramids, seem to have been innovations. Krol says that there were “so many changes in policy…It was kind of confusing.” Rivera asks, “At what point do you say it’s enough?” Ken Davis was told, “Use your imagination.” The guards did not know what they could and could not do, and their superiors did not say.

Situational causes of behavior do not exonerate the individuals involved—a point that is sometimes lost on people—but do help explain why individuals behave as they do and why an ordinary, apparently genial MP like Javal Davis would say that he “was a different person” once he walked through the prison doors.

I highly recommend “The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.”