Shared Perspectives

Many Americans were shocked by the pictures of prisoner abuse in Iraq. But even if its precise form was unexpected, the existence of abuse was the understandable outcome of a combination of influences. These include attitudes that develop in war toward enemies, the social structure of prisons, policies set by civilian and military leaders, and the passivity of varied "bystanders." More specifically in this case, the influences leading to abuse include the following:

  • The creation of hostile images of an enemy. We can look at any war and see highly derogatory labels, drawings and descriptions of the enemy. Since we see our group and cause as virtuous, those who fight us must be bad. Soldiers are especially likely to become hostile. It is a response to the constant danger and the death of comrades, and it enables them to fight and kill. When some in the civilian population also fight against them, this hostility generalizes to all members of the enemy group. The tragic atrocities against civilians in Vietnam, not only at My Lai but beyond, attest to this. What leaders say, their guidance and the rules and regulations set by them can intensify or diminish the tendency to dehumanize and demonize the enemy.

  • Holding suspected terrorists without recourse. Our government introduced this practice at Guantanamo Bay--where prisoners were also excluded from the protection of the Geneva accords--as well as within the United States. This policy and practice deprives suspects not only of legal considerations such as the possibility of establishing their innocence, but also of moral and humane considerations. It tells Americans, and our soldiers, that something is deeply wrong with these people as human beings. Such devaluation is central to violence against people, whether in a prison or in a genocide.

The negative attitudes so communicated travel down the military chain easily. Many of those in Iraq who fight against us have been described as foreign fighters or terrorists who came to Iraq, others as aligned with the terrible regime of Saddam Hussein. Given the attitude toward suspected terrorists, if it is thought that they have information we want, they would be unprotected from abusive treatment.

  • The system inherent to prisons easily generates abusive treatment by guards. Given the power of guards, abuse is a constant danger in prisons. The more dehumanizing the rules are that guide the behavior of prisoners (whether having to ask permission each time a prisoner goes to the bathroom, wearing degrading clothes or hoods and no clothes), the less the guards will see them as people to whom moral considerations apply.

Violent systems evolve. Without constraining forces, violent actions become easier, justified by an increasingly negative view of the prisoners. They can lead to a transformation in prison guards. Some can become drunk on their unconstrained power over the body of another human being. This explains, at least in part, the broadly smiling faces in those photographs. Those smiles also say that the perpetrators believed they did nothing wrong.

This is a group process. In a close knit group, like the military unit the guards were part of, even those members who in their hearts and minds are against such actions usually remain passive bystanders. Over time some of them join the perpetrators. The power of violent groups over their members has been apparent in many instances, ranging from reserve police officers who were sent to kill Jews in Eastern Europe to terrorist groups to groups of young killers in Rwanda.

  • Supervision by those with authority is essential to prevent the evolution of a culture and system of abuse. But in this case the higher-ups were, from what we know so far, not just passive bystanders. They established rules of treatment of the prisoners that directly encouraged such abuse, presumably to soften them up for interrogation. These rules were perhaps a continuation, perhaps a further evolution of the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo, who, according to reports by former prisoners, have also been abused.

The words and actions of government and military leaders, both their commissions and omissions, were likely to greatly affect attitudes and the development of the system that created the abuse. But it is important to note that the role of the media and citizens is also important. Unfortunately, in most violence-engendering situations, bystand ers--people who are neither victims nor perpetrators--remain passive. A sufficient public response might well have reinstated some of the rights of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo and at home--and prevented the abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Ervin Staub is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a longtime researcher of the psychology of peace and violence prevention.