"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 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.”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.
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.