It is three years and a few days since CBS News published the first photos documenting the systematic abuse, torture, and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. The Bush administration and the American military have worked hard to firmly establish the “ few bad apples” explanation of what happened. Eight low-ranking soldiers were convicted, and Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick II, who was found guilty of assault, conspiracy, dereliction of duty and maltreatment of detainees, is now halfway through his eight-year prison sentence. But there are very good reasons to think that Frederick and the others, however despicable their actions, only did what many of us would have done if placed in the same situation, which puts their guilt in a questionable light.
Can someone be guilty just for acting like most ordinary human beings? When Zimbardo, as an expert witness, interviewed Frederick during his court-martial, these were his impressions: He seemed very much to be a normal young American. His psych assessments revealed no sign of any pathology, no sadistic tendencies, and all his psych assessment scores are in the normal range, as is his intelligence.
He had been a prison guard at a small minimal security prison where he performed for many years without incident. … there is nothing in his background, temperament, or disposition that could have been a facilitating factor for the abuses he committed at the Abu Ghraib Prison. If someone chooses to commit an illegal act, freely, of their own will, then they are plainly guilty. Conversely, the same act performed by someone acting without free will, compromised by mental illness, perhaps, or the coercion of others, draws no blame.
Far less clear is the proper moral attitude toward people who do illegal things in situations where the social context exerts powerful, though perhaps not completely irresistible, forces. This is a question for legal theorists and one likely to arise ever more frequently as modern psychology reveals just how much of our activity is determined not consciously, through free choice, but by forces in the social environment.
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