The Iraq prisoner abuse scandal has generated global outrage. Pictures of American soldiers humiliating naked prisoners kindle justifiable disgust.
What factors prompt such abuse? What happens inside abusers’ minds?
Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo was not surprised by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse. He had observed similar behavior in his famous 1971 experiment involving a mock prison in Stanford's psychology building. The experiment showed that otherwise normal people can behave in surprisingly outrageous ways.
Zimbardo and his colleagues charged volunteer “guards” with maintaining control of volunteer “prisoners.” Eventually, guards subjected prisoners to excessive solitary confinement, nakedness and degrading sexual simulation. They dressed prisoners in smocks, chained them together and blindfolded them with paper bags on their heads. Sound familiar?
Zimbardo halted the experiment early for ethical reasons.
Accused prison guards often claim they were only obeying orders. Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram discovered that many ordinary people – about 60 percent – would inflict what they thought were dangerously high electric jolts to others when an experimental scientist ordered it. (In his rigged experiments, subjects administered fake shocks but thought they were real.)
Milgram wrote that “relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” even when obedience violates morality. Fears of appearing rude, desires to please an authority and aspirations to do one's best can all cloud judgment. But could there be something deeper, something in human nature that influences abuse?
Nobel laureate William Golding's short novel, Lord of the Flies, illustrates through a fictional story how similar flaws can manifest in society. A film version of the book helped inspire the popular television series Survivor.
Lord of the Flies opens on a remote, uninhabited island on which some British schoolboys, ages six to twelve, find themselves after an airplane crash. The island seems idyllic with fresh water, fruit, and other food. Best of all, the boys discover, there are no grownups!
Though initially civil, the group soon deteriorates into feuding tribes. Power lust trumps reason. Painted tribal members carry spears, dance and yell like savages, kill two boys and hunt down a third.
Lord of the Flies is filled with symbolism, both biblical and from Greek tragedy. Golding called one of the boys a Christ figure. The phrase, “lord of the flies” translates the Greek word, “Beelzebub,” the biblical prince of demons. Golding said his novel was “an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.”
Jesus of Nazareth was, of course, quite clear on this point. He said, “From within, out of a person's heart, come evil thoughts … theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit … envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within….”
The Iraq prisoner abuse scandal smacks of fraternity hazing on steroids; Animal House meets Lord of the Flies. Amid our anger, might it be appropriate to also look inside ourselves? Might we be capable of similar actions? If so – and significant psychological research supports such risk – could a divine remedy be worth considering?
Rusty Wright is an author and university lecturer with Probe.org who has spoken on six continents.
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