Picture this scene: Young prison guards in khaki uniforms and reflecting sunglasses herd a larger group of inmates down a hallway, each prisoner chained to the next by his ankle, each dressed in a shapeless smock that exposed his pale legs.
You cannot see the prisoners’ faces because paper-bag blindfolds cover their heads.
No, this is not a scene from the Abu Ghraib prison abuses that were committed under the authority of the American armed forces in Iraq in 2003. It is a scene from a makeshift prison in the basement of a Stanford University building in August, 1971.
The guards and their prisoners were college students and other young men who responded to a newspaper ad that offered $15 a day for an experiment on prison life. The study was funded by the Navy and conducted by psychology Prof. Philip Zimbardo to help explain conflict in military prison systems.
The famous and controversial Stanford prison experiment, which now has its own Web site (www.prisonexp.org), is worth remembering these days as the Bush administration publically condemns torture, yet balks at illegalizing its use.
Before it was over, the Stanford experiment showed how even a group of guards and prisoners handpicked as “most stable (physically and mentally), most mature, and least involved in anti-social behavior” can revert like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” or William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” into guards-gone-wild in the fashion of Abu Ghraib.
The experiment, planned for two weeks, was shut down after only six days. By then, the civilized, well-educated guards had degenerated, despite frequent warnings to refrain from violence or humiliating tactics.
Among other abuses that ring with eerie familiarity these days, the volunteer prisoners were forced to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands, sleep on the concrete floor without clothing, go without food, endure forced nudity and engage in homosexually suggestive acts of humiliation.
The Stanford experiment came to many experts’ minds after photos revealed similar abuses in Abu Ghraib prison under the authority of American armed forces. Whether the guards at Abu Ghraib behaved out of individual character flaws or by direct orders from the Pentagon, as reporter Seymour Hersh alleged in The New Yorker, the Bush administration officially deplores such behavior.
Yet, curiously the President has threatened to veto a measure backed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and passed last week by the overwhelming vote of 90 to 9 in the Senate that would prohibit the “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners in the custody of the U.S. military.
Current Bush administration policy puts the U.S. in that awkward situation. The binding Convention Against Torture, negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the Senate, prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. But the Bush administration argues that the law against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment does not legally apply to foreigners that America holds outside of the United States.
Does that mean that foreigners held outside the country can be treated in a cruel, inhumane and degrading manner? Why, then, do we court-martial our guards-gone-wild at Abu Ghraib?
McCain proposed to close the loophole and end the confusion with an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would prohibit the “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners in U.S. military custody.
Having endured beatings and two years of solitary confinement during his five years in Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp after his Navy fighter jet was shot out from underneath him, McCain knows a thing or two about prisoner abuse.
Among other things, he learned that countries that allow torture during prisoner interrogation gain less in useful information than they lose in moral standing and popular support. This is especially true of countries that allow torture while telling the world that they don’t allow it.
Since Bush holds the record for having served longest in the White House without vetoing any legislation, breaking his streak on an anti-torture bill would send an awkward message to the world. It also sends a confusing message to our troops that maybe we’ll look the other way on torture, unless you get caught.
While the Senate debated McCain’s bill, by coincidence Prof. Zimbardo’s scientific work received an award in Prague from the Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation for its contributions to cultural enrichment. The House and President Bush could further enrich humanity by passing and signing McCain’s bill.
Our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay certainly do not torture and kill with the blood lust that Saddam Hussein or our other terrorist enemies do. But a great nation should measure itself by higher standards than that.