“The guards were escalating their abuse of prisoners in the middle of the night,” says the report, when they thought no one was watching. “Their boredom had driven them to ever more pornographic and degrading abuses of power.” Those sentences aren’t from a report on the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. They’re the words of Stanford University psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo, past-president of the American Psychological Association, describing what happened during his classic experiment that simulated prison life in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University.
By placing a newspaper ad in a local paper, Zimbardo got 70 college students to apply to be volunteers in a study on the psychology of prison life. After eliminating candidates with crime records, drug use, or psychological problems, the researchers were left with 24 college students who were, according to testing and observation, “an average group of healthy, intelligent, middle-class males.”
With a flip of a coin, half the group was assigned to be guards, the other half to be prisoners. Things ran out of control so quickly that Zimbardo prematurely ended his planned two-week study after only six days. The guards were outfitted with mirror sun glasses, khaki uniforms, cop whistles and billy clubs — and given no specific training. “They were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect of the prisoners,” explains Zimbardo. “The guards made up their own set of rules.”
The uniform of each prisoner was a stocking cap made from a woman’s nylon, a foot chain, and a smock-like dress with a prison ID number on the front and back — and no underpants. “As soon as some of our prisoners were put in these uniforms,” reports Zimbardo, “they began to walk and sit differently, and to hold themselves differently — more like a woman than a man.”
On the first day, each prisoner was systematically searched, stripped naked, and sprayed down with an anti-lice disinfectant. On the morning of the second day, a rebellion broke out, with prisoners tearing off their ID numbers and stocking caps, cursing the guards and barricading their cell doors with their beds. The guards responded by shooting the prisoners with carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher, breaking into the cells, and again stripping the prisoners naked.
With each passing day, the guards stepped up their surveillance, harassment, and intimidation, restricting prisoners to solitary confinement, forcing them to urinate and defecate in buckets, and, responding to a rumor of an escape plot, chaining the prisoners together and putting bags over their heads. “After just four or five days,” reports Zimbardo, “the guards are doing homophobic things to the prisoners.”
In less than a week, the guards had become so abusive that the experiment had to be stopped — and this was all a fake, just an experiment on Stanford’s campus, just a matter of play acting in the psychology department for a few extra dollars. There were no incoming mortars to put the guards on edge. No guard had a buddy on the outside who’d been killed in the previous few days or weeks by someone who looked a lot like the guys he was now guarding. None of the guards suspected any of the college prisoners of being part of a gang of international evil-doers.
The photos we’re now seeing from the Abu Ghraib prison are mirror images of what happened at Stanford some three decades earlier. In the campus experiment, the guards “made up their own set of rules.” No checks and balances existed until Zimbardo pulled the plug. Antonio Taguba, the army general who first investigated the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his recent testimony that the mistreatment resulted from defective leadership, a “lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no supervision.”
The lesson from Stanford is that things run out of control when no one is in charge. The lesson from Abu Ghraib is that no one was in charge. President Bush says the mistreatment was the result of “the wrongdoing of a few” — just a few bad apples in the barrel who need some good court-martialing. Wrong. It’s the barrel that’s wrong — the top, the big picture guys who tossed our troops into a hell-hole in inadequate numbers with no training and no supervision.
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