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"To err is human, to commit widespread sustained atrocities on unarmed civilian populations requires self righteous government leaders or members of an organized religion with a sense of moral superiority. God help us when both combine."  - HoundDog from "Committing Atrocities in the Name of God and Country." Yet to be published.
How is it that highly militarized police forces and armies of people who think of themselves as being "the good guys," and even being morally superior to their "targets" seem to also be at such a high risk for so doing such "bad things things" to innocent civilians that many consider them to be atrocities, war crimes, and even crimes against humanity? And then so often display little or no remorse for their actions, even justifying them to be exemplars of virtue worthy of medals?

Mere sociopaths just kill people without feeling any need to explain why the people "deserved it," or even really were the ones "causing themselves to be brutalized."    

Does the excess militarization of police forces increase tendencies for police officers to develop attitudes of hostility and contempt against civilians they are pledged to protect?

What psychological force, or strong tendencies drive those who will be called on to inflict devastating casualties on civilians, to vilify and dehumanize their victims?  Could it be in order to manage their own cognitive dissonance or anticipated guilt they would otherwise feel about murdering or using excess force against innocent civilians populations?

Or more simple put, if we know we are going to do evil on to others, but we have the capacity for guilt, how could we not try to blame the victims, and try to dehumanize them so we can maintain our own positive self esteem?

If you already have made up your mind, you can skip straight to the poll. If you want to think about it more perhaps some more background might be useful.

The Zimbardo Experiment

Over the last month or so, I've been reminded of the Zimbardo experiment conducted in 1971 by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo who designed a mock prison simulation experiment using Stanford university students assigned to become either prisoners or guards in order to discover if placing people in certain roles could induce "disorientation, depersonalization and deindividualization in the participants."

The experiment had to be called off early after only a week because of how rapidly examples of cruel and abusive behaviors against the students playing the roles of prisoners occurred by the students playing the roles of guards. Zimbardo designed the experiment to see if he could induce incidents of dehumanization, desensitization, and even vilification in otherwise normal students based on the roles they played in the prison systems. No one anticipated how quickly such behaviors would arise or the intensity of their manifestation.

Decades later, in 2007 Zimbardo drew on his experiences with the Abu Ghraib prison abuses to write The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which recent apparent excess violence in Gaza and Ferguson have reminded me of, and raised questions if excess militarization of police forces and dynamics of vilification, selective dehumanization, and desensitization seen in the Zimbardo experiments might have something in common with what look like similar behaviors in Gaza on both sides.  

Hamas rebel forces who launched rockets into Israel where civilians might be harmed, as well as the political leaders of Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces using what appears to be a shocking level of excess force in Gaza may be in similar psychology processes.

The use of 2,000 pound bombs, and heavy artillery can be predicted to inflict such high levels of civilian casualties that many human rights organizations and U.N. officials are demanding war crime investigations in the International Criminal Court. The U.N. Human Rights Commission has launched such an investigation.  

Although the experimental design and conclusions of the Zimbardo experiment has been widely criticized for many reasons, the Zimbardo experiments raise so many timely questions about the increased militarization of police forces and armies may play be inducing police officers and soldiers to dehumanize and vilify civilian populations, along with the Milgram experiments where students followed orders to give what they thought were high voltage electric shocks to other based on the command of authority figures. Controversy in reaction to these experiments led to the "Human Research Committees" now in place a nearly all universities.    

Guards forced the prisoners to repeat their assigned numbers[6] to reinforce the idea that this was their new identity. Guards soon used these prisoner counts to harass the prisoners, using physical punishment such as protracted exercise for errors in the prisoner count. Sanitary conditions declined rapidly, exacerbated by the guards' refusal to allow some prisoners to urinate or defecate anywhere but in a bucket placed in their cell. As punishment, the guards would not let the prisoners empty the sanitation bucket. Mattresses were a valued item in the prison, so the guards would punish prisoners by removing their mattresses, leaving them to sleep on concrete. Some prisoners were forced to be naked as a method of degradation. Several guards became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued; experimenters reported that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. Most of the guards were upset when the experiment concluded after only six days.

The results of the experiment favor situational attribution of behavior rather than dispositional attribution (a result caused by internal characteristics). In other words, it seemed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants' behavior. Under this interpretation, the results are compatible with the results of the Milgram experiment, in which ordinary people fulfilled orders to administer what appeared to be agonizing and dangerous electric shocks to a confederate of the experimenter.

Comparisons to Abu Ghraib

When acts of prisoner torture and abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were publicized in March 2004, Zimbardo himself, who paid close attention to the details of the story, was struck by the similarity with his own experiment. He was dismayed by official military and government representatives' shifting the blame for the torture and abuses in the Abu Ghraib American military prison on to "a few bad apples" rather than acknowledging it as possibly systemic problems of a formally established military incarceration system.

And from a letter to the editor in the New York Times The Prison Guard’s Psyche: Re “A ‘Culture of Violence’ at Rikers Island” (editorial, Aug. 6)

Are prison guards prone toward aggression? In part to test this idea, Thomas Carnahan and I placed ads in several university newspapers, with some seeking participants to be paid for “a psychological study of prison life” while others sought participants for “a psychological study.” (The first replicated the ad in the famous Stanford Zimbardo prison experiment by Philip G. Zimbardo.) The only difference between the ads consisted of the words “of prison life.”

On average, those who signed up after seeing the “of prison life” ad were higher on five traits we measured that predict aggression (dispositional aggressiveness, authoritarianism, social dominance, Machiavellianism and narcissism) than those who volunteered after seeing the latter ad, and they were lower in empathy and altruism, two traits inversely related to aggression.

I've been working on a book, called "Committing Atrocities in the Name of God and Country," where I extend the thesis of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's outstanding book, "The Fog of War," in which he asserts that the U.S. fire bombing of Dresden, after we had "broken the back" of Germany militarily, was a war crime, as was the bombing of Hiroshima where we killed 80,000 innocent civilians in Japan under the lame assertion that it was the only way to save American lives when remaining Japanese soldiers were so fiercely loyal. We could have vaporized Mount Fuji, or an inhabited Japanese island, or military target and accomplished the same result.


Do you see similar psychological processes involved in the Zimbardo experiments and the use of excess force in Ferguson, and Gaza involving vilification, desensitization, and dehumanizing by militarized units possibly to manage cognitive dissonance?

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| 38 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (19+ / 0-)

    Humor Alert! No statement from this UID is intended to be true, including this one. Intended for recreational purposes only. Unauthorized interpretations may lead to unexpected results. This waiver void where prohibited. Artistic License - 420420

    by HoundDog on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 06:15:44 PM PDT

  •  I've always thought (6+ / 0-)

    That Zimbardo should have never been allowed to practice again after that fiasco. He let it go on far too long. After the Belmont Report, he might have been jailed for conducting the prison experiment.

    As for this case, I'm not sure if there are a lot of parallels. For one thing, the study subjects were students and were randomly broken into the two groups so they started from pretty similar places, while the citizens of Ferguson have apparently been victimized by Ferguson police for a long, long time. Police "us against them" culture is nationwide, with a storied history. They became monsters long ago and it's almost certain that a significant fraction of them gravitated toward law enforcement because they have a taste for authority over others. I don;t think the two are very analogous.

    But, hey, it's GREAT that you're feeling better!

    "Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for a real Republican every time." Harry Truman

    by MargaretPOA on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 06:25:55 PM PDT

    •  Thanks for these insightful comments Margaret. (8+ / 0-)

      I hope we can build up a lively discussion of these ideas.

      You've also replicated one of the key criticisms of Zimbardo's work by Eric Fromme who thinks that people with potentially abuse personality gravitate towards careers in policing and military.

      My view is that it is a mix of both factors.

      But, my most important goal was to hope to stimulate at Glass Bead Game like discussion like described by Hermann Hesse in Magister Ludi, aka The Glass Bead Game.  

      Humor Alert! No statement from this UID is intended to be true, including this one. Intended for recreational purposes only. Unauthorized interpretations may lead to unexpected results. This waiver void where prohibited. Artistic License - 420420

      by HoundDog on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 06:34:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Oh, I concur (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ypochris, Sandino, HoundDog, cybrestrike

        In my experience, almost nothing is black an white. Like the fact that diet does not cause colon cancer but it can be and usually is a contributing factor. I've known some great people who, in one profession were personable and altogether harmless who weren't that way when they, (okay, just one) became a police officer. "Jeff" was an airframe mechanic with me in the Navy and while not really close friends, we always got along very well. I saw him once more after I had gotten out almost a year after he did and he had become a cop and was very abrupt and rude with me when I tried to approach him to say 'hi". I think his was mostly a case of nurture over nature but who knows? He might have been harboring authoritarian leanings the whole time. I also know another person who I had heard through a mutual acquaintance had become a cop and I remember being thoroughly unsurprised. He was always pushing and ordering people around. He wasn't in my immediate group as a child/teen because I don't hang around with assholes so I don't know how much was nature and how much nurture but it should be noted that his dad was also a real prince of a guy.

        "Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for a real Republican every time." Harry Truman

        by MargaretPOA on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 08:16:48 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent diary. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    HoundDog, Sandino, denig

    "Speak with your chest, bro. You a man!" - Ferguson citizen to Gov. Nixon

    by jazzence on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 06:27:45 PM PDT

  •  Wanted to choose one of your great sarcastic (5+ / 0-)

    poll choices, but the issue is too serious for snark.

    I really think it is a matter of both the situation encouraging dehumanization to protect one's psyche from the trauma of what one is forced to do, and a tendency for those with a disposition to act in such a manner seeking jobs where they will have power over others.

    Let's face it - there may be the seemingly mythical "good cop" out there (I've never met one) but the vast majority of police officers choose that profession because they enjoy exerting authority over others. The sheer joy of domination. Throw in the situational aspects, the "us and them" mentality and the need to dehumanize the populace so that you view every encounter, however innocuous, as a threat, mix in a little racism, and you get Ferguson.

  •  I read The Lucifer Effect when it came out and (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    HoundDog, SGA, ypochris, Sandino

    was struck with overlooked it was at the time. The Bush Administration was still pushing their "enhanced interrogation" BS but the book made it clear that what they were pushing was simply torture. John Yu couldn't conjure up a memo powerful enough to wash the stink off of this barbaric behavior.

    I think that one problem with us humans is that we learn complacency in the face of power early. Most kids learn to stand back or even go along with a powerful class leader who bullies those kids on the margins. I'm not talking about frustrated loners who beats up on kids. I'm talking about the golden children whom all the teachers like and all the kids want to be their friend. These kids can (but not always do) use their personalities to intimidate and bully the unlucky. And the rest of the kids go along, lest it be them next time.

    "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

    by Lily O Lady on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 07:02:29 PM PDT

  •  HoundDog, sue me, but I haven't read all (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    HoundDog, debedb, MGross

    of this long diary.  But please let me just register that Zimbardo's results have been debunked.  MANY more people than he originally reported walked out and refused to comply.

    His experiments have become urban legend, but the supposed results are just not true.

    Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.--Lu Xun

    by Timaeus on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 07:05:14 PM PDT

    •  It's even worse than that (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Timaeus, HoundDog, MGross

      He was actively pushing the students into the behaviour that resulted. So it wasn't just selectively reporting results, but having his hands all over the experiment to influence those results.

      •  Yes, well its even worse than that in (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        he engaged the prison students in moving the whole experiment to a higher flow after two students left and he was worried they might tell some on try to get it shut down.

        It's a case study of ethical violations, but the ideas about sensitization, dehumanization, and vilification seem valid and I erred thinking it would be easier to use his descriptions as a entry point to seeing parallels  of those issues in Gaza and Ferguson which seem abundant to me.

        Humor Alert! No statement from this UID is intended to be true, including this one. Intended for recreational purposes only. Unauthorized interpretations may lead to unexpected results. This waiver void where prohibited. Artistic License - 420420

        by HoundDog on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 10:07:38 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks Timeaus. Yes, I even wrote about this. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I was just using the reference to the experiment as the shortest way to communicate the hypothesis which while was not proven in the Zimbardo experiment this same hypothesis seems relevant in the cases of Ferguson and Gaza.

      But, my post was too long and the use of the Zimbardo experiment as a way to communicate the hypothesis backfired by distracting people.

      Sometimes posts work, sometimes they do not.

      Your feedback is much appreciated and useful. Perhaps sometimes in the future I will try this again with smaller chunks.

      The question is do people see similarities with the aggressive racist attitude of overly militerized police forces in American who use vilification of their victims to rationalize their abusive atrocities against people of color, the mentally ill, and homeless and the same kinds of attitudes by Netanyahu and the IDF against Palestinians where Netanyahu says they are like animals who use their own children as shields and so deserve to die, and the troops who kill them deserve medals.

      Even the civilians who chose to elect the terrorist Hamas as their leaders need to learn how mistaken they were so inflicting the blockade on them, or destroying whole city blocks under the pretext of killing terrorists are not war crimes but sort of like "tough love."

      I see parallels but see now that I did not explain it well.

      Thanks Timaus. Hope you are well. I seem to have largely recovered from whatever hit me a few months ago. I've been doing lots of exercise, including walking and swimming in our new pool.  


      Humor Alert! No statement from this UID is intended to be true, including this one. Intended for recreational purposes only. Unauthorized interpretations may lead to unexpected results. This waiver void where prohibited. Artistic License - 420420

      by HoundDog on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 09:11:22 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  HoundDog, my friend, FWIW I was blessed (0+ / 0-)

        with a top-notch intellect.  I used to be very smart and very quick.  Alas, I'm sliding into being rather dull, at least compared to what I'm used to, which is unpleasant (and embarassing) at times.

        I have to prepare a financial report every three months for my accountant.  I've been doing this for 20 years.  I just finished one, and it took three times as long as usual.  I'm alarmed.  I simply can't work as fast, with as many things in my memory, as I had come to take for granted.

        Well, I appreciate your comment here.  I'd better stop. My lugubriousness knows few bounds.  I hope I don't have some kind of dementia.  I'll be 60 in early October, if I live that long.  I'm glad to be alive.

        Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.--Lu Xun

        by Timaeus on Tue Aug 19, 2014 at 04:34:51 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I think Zimbardo, and . . . (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    HoundDog, Sandino

    . . . much of what's going on in Ferguson and other hot spots in the world today, can be attributed (in my admittedly unprofessional psychiatric opinion) to the intrinsic human tendency towards "us and them".

    When we were hunter gatherers in the stone age, and even before that, when our ancient ancestors were just leaving the forest for the savannas, evolution wired our minds to reduce our environmental perceptions to a dichotomy of us and them, or even more instinctively, to "fight versus flight". When we perceived something in our environment, the primitive brain was immediately able to categorize the perception into one of two categories, threat or non-threat.

    That part of our brain is still there. And you can still feel its effect. And you can override the more modern, sophisticated, rational part of the brain that has developed in the interim with that primitive, irrational, inherited part of the brain.

    Vilification, desensitization and stereotyping are the primitive part of the brain overcoming the more modern, rational part of the brain. We're hard-wired for this, and we must consciously see it and avoid it to succeed. We're trying to give our rational brain an out when the primitive brain takes over our behaviors.

    And now, some nice evening music.

    - Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.
    - Frank Zappa

    by rudyblues on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 07:08:19 PM PDT

    •  I like the "us vs them" theories. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I've often even seen the GOP are largely a tribalism based paradigm where many, not all Democrats tend to favor meritocracy, whole national systems and broader values like justice, the rule of law (versus the law of the jungle aka might makes right.)

      Humor Alert! No statement from this UID is intended to be true, including this one. Intended for recreational purposes only. Unauthorized interpretations may lead to unexpected results. This waiver void where prohibited. Artistic License - 420420

      by HoundDog on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 09:16:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  It's Probably Much Simpler Than This. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ypochris, HoundDog, Sandino

    Where it looks like sociopathy is because the residents don't matter. That's true across the board of a sociopath, but it's also true of mainstream society toward marginalized populations, and in authoritarian societies, toward most populations.

    What the police need is a poisoned jury pool, and we can see them having methodically worked to achieve that all week first by the 10fold over the top security response guaranteed to cause rioting, and the release of information about the victim, and other activities.

    There's not necessarily much more to it than that, other than the chance to take a lot of cool toys out for a test drive.

    First of course this is nothing new other than the tools. Anyone with minority ghetto ties will tell you about police violence toward them and in their neighborhoods. That goes back before our founding. Anyone who's been involved in mass protest or strikes from Occupy back into Depression days, the few who are still alive from then, can tell you about police causing riots.

    We're having a variation of a Kent State moment for today's generation, in the sense that many people are being shocked by the machine's open indifference and violence. (Although we all hope there's no deaths to carry the analogy further.)

    "Dehumanizing" means stripping people of a status they had. That's not possible with poor and poor minority people --they are not and were never human to the machine. What the police are doing here and in other situations as we saw in the Middle East was simply acting freely as they can on the established fact of non-humanness.

    There is dehumanization happening in America. It's happening to the upper middle class, the educated and the modestly rich. They're beginning to be shown by Ownership just who is and is not in first class on this ship of state.

    But it's not dehumanization in Ferguson.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 07:14:49 PM PDT

    •  Thanks for explaining this Gooserock. I see what (0+ / 0-)

      you are saying but is makes me feel a little sad and frustrated.  

      Not with you but because of how hard it is to communicate these ideas.

      When you say

      mainstream society toward marginalized populations, and in authoritarian societies, toward most populations.
      Part of me says, "Yes, this is exactly what I was trying to talk about. How is it that otherwise good people, who might even go to church, arrive a the believes and behaviors where it seems okay with themselves to "marginalize poor people, people of color, people of different religions or ethnic groups, like Palestinians."

      Why does this seem like such a universal theme, and if we had a better more detailed understanding of the process by which this occurs could we can insights into how to reverse it, or cure it?

      You've expressed it so much better and in a more straight forward way, maybe you are right in that this is so straight forward, commonly understood, and common we do not gain any advantage by trying to throw in a lot of fancy words, and comparisions and abstract theories that add no value to the discussion.

      Maybe I was hoping that if different subgroups like people of color who understand racism and police oppression could see links to other groups facing similar oppression lot of smaller groups who have been loosing this battle, and will continue to lose these battles could come together and help each other can a majority.

      Maybe this is just a delusion fantasy, or tired retred of "oppressed people and workers of the world unite," that didn't get us anyway after being successfully vilified as socialism?

      Maybe it will always be us versus them and the group with most wealth and power and control over police forces and armies are going to win.

      Thanks for helping me see more clearly what I was trying to say, and realize why it may not work.

      Humor Alert! No statement from this UID is intended to be true, including this one. Intended for recreational purposes only. Unauthorized interpretations may lead to unexpected results. This waiver void where prohibited. Artistic License - 420420

      by HoundDog on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 09:41:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  holy crap (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I cannot believe I recommended your diary.

    But that's exactly what I've been thinking.  (I'm still unabashedly pro-I, butyet...)

    •  I'm pro-Israel too debedb. But anti-Netanyahu and (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the Greater Israel expansionists who I believe are really working against Israel's national security interests. And harming the U.S.'s as well.

      It's a really difficult distinction to make. David Harris Gershon calls it "the third way" being pro-Israel for the Jewish people but opposed to the policies of the current Likud government.

      It is vastly easier for him to make such an argument as a teacher of the Torah.

      Please help expand on how one could be vocally opposed to current excess force in Gaza and even see example of war crimes, and truly believe having the ICC investigate them is a pro-Israel position, more than the justification for war crimes being advance by Foxman of the ADL or AIPAC which although aggressively Pro-Netanyahu and done in the name of being pro-Israel.

      If we believe the a peaceful two state solution is the only way to preserve Israel's future as a sanctuary and save haven for Jewish people and Netanyahu's policies the greatest threat to that future do we not need to oppose Netanyahu's policies point out their fatal flaws and expose his crimes, strategic failures and threats to Israel safe future?

      And is that not truly the most pro-Israel thing to do?

      Could it be that given how circumstances are developing the only way to be truly pro-Israel is to be anti-Netanyahu? Even to the point of in worst-case, if he does not back down recognizing the inevitability of, if not actual endorse a "back to the 67 borders, or mutual-swaps BDS" movement as the most pro-Israel thing in the long term - a dicey but worse before better strategy?

      Thanks for being open minded.  Please help refine this argument by pointing out any weaknesses or ways it can be improved.

      People like yourself our really the primary audience that will decide this future in many ways, IMO.

      If enough pro-Israel Jews and Democratic progressives can unite to pressure Netanyahu to return to the negotiation table even after he has announced he will never accept a truly independent Palestinian state we may still be able to achieve a peaceful two state solution.

      But, if a majority of people like ourselves go along with Netanyahu's plan to annex much of the West Bank, especially Zones A and B, thinking the rest of the world will go along with this and allow Israel to do to the Palestinians what we Americans did to the American Indians, then I fear he will carry Israel and possible America right off a cliff in a Thelma and Luios suicide dive ending up with a one state solution that eventually have to decide whether to be a Democracy OR a Jewish State with apartheid.

      What a hell of a subtle argument to try to make though. This is not going to be easy, and may not even be possible.

      Thanks for commenting and also taking a risk.

      Humor Alert! No statement from this UID is intended to be true, including this one. Intended for recreational purposes only. Unauthorized interpretations may lead to unexpected results. This waiver void where prohibited. Artistic License - 420420

      by HoundDog on Mon Aug 18, 2014 at 10:25:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  truthfully (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        The first thing that bothers me is the attention. All these nice people who don't give a flying fuck about people getting killed at any other random place in the world are all of a sudden concerned, and are into BDS, and demonstrations. That, erm, bothers me. Along the lines of Jabotinsky's appeal that all we want is the right to have our own scum. (In that regard, see also Ferguson -- a white teen having done whatever it is Brown is even alleged to have done would not have been shot and we all know that.) I don't see that many righteous indignation over any number of conflicts in the world when it doesn't have to do with Israel, that I have to wonder about the motivation.

        There does have to be a solution, alongside of what Clinton tried, perhaps.

        It's just that these "protests" are, well... There was this dude, Lenin (here's a good picture: who, for all his faults, ALLEGEDLY coined a good phrase -- "useful idiots". Well, that's just what I think often times walking through Berkeley or through some websites.

        If enough pro-Israel Jews and Democratic progressives can unite to pressure Netanyahu to return to the negotiation table
        That is happening. And he'll be out.

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