Wired magazine just released a batch of ten new Abu Ghraib photos (warning, they’re graphic), among them a picture of a naked detainee bleeding profusely from his left leg and another of a female soldier smiling and giving the thumb’s up sign next to a corpse. The magazine obtained these photographs from psychologist Philip Zimbardo, an emeritus professor at Stanford University and an expert witness for one of the soldiers accused of abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib, Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick. In 1971, Zimbardo conducted what is now popularly known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which a group of college students were assigned the role of guards or prisoners—an experiment that was stopped when the “guards” took to their roles with too much gusto. When asked how the results of his experiment compared with what transpired at Abu Ghraib, the psychologist told the the magazine:
The military intelligence, the CIA and the civilian interrogator corporation, Titan, told the MPs [at Abu Ghraib], “It is your job to soften the prisoners up. We give you permission to do something you ordinarily are not allowed to do as a military policeman —to break the prisoners, to soften them up, to prepare them for interrogation.” That’s permission to step across the line from what is typically restricted behavior to now unrestricted behavior.
In the same way in the Stanford prison study, I was saying [to the student guards], “You have to be powerful to prevent further rebellion.” I tell them, “You’re not allowed, however, to use physical force.” By default, I allow them to use psychological force. In five days, five prisoners are having emotional breakdowns.
The situational forces that were going on in [Abu Ghraib]—the dehumanization, the lack of personal accountability, the lack of surveillance, the permission to get away with anti-social actions—it was like the Stanford prison study, but in spades.