25 November 2006


This showed up on Daily Kos:

"MADRID (Reuters) - Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the prison's former U.S. commander said in an interview on Saturday."

This was hinted at back in '05 on Democracy Now, and the ACLU has known for some time that torture at Abu Ghraib/ Guantanamo Bay was approved at the highest levels and that there was a documented timeline of approvals. Of course, the Daily Kos crowd mostly debated the political situation with Rumsfeld's resignation.

But what this really does is, it reveals the fallacy behind the standard Armed Forces explanation for American torturers: "There are always a few rotten apples" in the Armed Forces. Anyone who has researched Stanley Milgram's experiments would know better. Of his experiments, in which experimental subjects were asked to torture their fellow human beings with electric shocks, Milgram says:
Before the experiments, I sought predictions about the outcome from various kinds of people -- psychiatrists, college sophomores, middle-class adults, graduate students and faculty in the behavioral sciences. With remarkable similarity, they predicted that virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter. The psychiatrist, specifically, predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts, when the victim makes his first explicit demand to be freed. They expected that only 4 percent would reach 300 volts, and that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board.

These predictions were unequivocally wrong. Of the forty subjects in the first experiment, twenty-five obeyed the orders of the experimenter to the end, punishing the victim until they reached the most potent shock available on the.generator. After 450 volts were administered three times, the experimenter called a halt to the session. Many obedient subjects then heaved sighs of relief, mopped their brows, rubbed their fingers over their eyes, or nervously fumbled cigarettes. Others displayed only minimal signs of tension from beginning to end.

When the very first experiments were carried out, Yale undergraduates were used as subjects, and about 60 percent of them were fully obedient. A colleague of mine immediately dismissed these findings as having no relevance to "ordinary" people, asserting that Yale undergraduates are a highly aggressive, competitive bunch who step on each other's necks on the slightest provocation. He assured me that when "ordinary" people were tested, the results would be quite different. As we moved from the pilot studies to the regular experimental series, people drawn from every stratum of New Haven life came to be employed in the experiment professionals, white collar workers, unemployed persons, and industrial workers. The experimental outcome was the same as we had observed among the students.

Moreover, when the experiments were repeated in Princeton, Munich, Rome, South Africa, and Australia, the level of obedience was invariably somewhat higher than found in the investigation reported in this article. Thus one scientist in Munich found 85 percent of his subjects obedient.
The "rotten apples" excuse, then, tries to take advantage of our culture's endemic denial of our collective potential for malicious obedience. Stanley Milgram ripped the cover off of this denial -- and so, when we read of the head of Abu Ghraib claiming to have orders from Rumsfeld, we should think of Milgram and his experiments once again. "We couldn't be torturers," we tell ourselves. Bullcrap -- we could be torturers.

It should be clear to teachers reading this blogpost that what will be needed to deal with the culture of "obedience to authority," as evidenced by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, is a pedagogy of civil disobedience, in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.


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