Prisoner Abuse in Iraq: Why Good People do Bad Things

By George Bryjak | 2004-07-01 12:00:00

How could these ordinary Americans bring themselves to do such terrible deeds? That's the question the nation is pondering upon viewing the photos of Iraqi prisoners being abused by their American captors. A partial answer to this query is provided by sociologists Gresham Sykes and David Matza.

In their studies of crime and delinquency nearly 50 years ago, Sykes and Matza argued that most offenders do not subscribe to a deviant world-view completely at odds with mainstream society. To the contrary, these individuals typically hold conventional societal attitudes and beliefs. However, during the course of their offending, they learn a set of techniques that permits them to neutralize these beliefs while drifting back and forth between criminal and conventional behavior. Using one or more "techniques of neutralization," or rationalizations, criminals can violate the law and still maintain images of themselves as decent human beings.

This perspective also helps us understand how fundamentally good people can do bad things. There can be little doubt that these techniques were routinely used by those military and civilian personnel involved in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Culture of denial

Denial of Responsibility. Simply stated, whatever wronging guards and interrogators may have been involved in was not their fault. "I was just following orders," "I didn't have any choice," "What else could I do?" In a more sophisticated adaptation of this technique, rule breakers cast themselves in the role of victims, helpless individuals in a power game wherein they have little if any authority. For their part, senior officers deny giving orders to abuse prisoners stating that they cannot be responsible for the behavior of every soldier in their command.

Denial of Injury. This technique denies both the wrongfulness and negative consequences of the deviant behavior. After a caller to his radio program said that the "stack of naked men" resembled "a college fraternity prank," Rush Limbaugh stated, "Exactly my point" adding that the scene "looks like something you'd see Madonna or Britany Spears doing on stage." One way of denying injury is to trivialize the harm done to victims. From the camera mugging and smiling faces of the abusers, they seemed to think that they were taking part in a college hazing ritual. From this perspective, if the prisoners were not seriously injured (physically) than it's no big deal; psychological torture and humiliation are perfectly acceptable.

Denial of the Victim. This is an especially effective neutralization to use against enemy soldiers. Dehumanizing one's adversary -- which all armies do -- makes it that much easier to abuse and kill him. In the case of the Iraqi prisoners, "Saddam Hussein was evil and so are they." "Look what they did to their own people. We're only giving them a taste of their own medicine." "These guys would do the same to us -- and probably worse -- if given the chance."

David Rieff, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that once we start "talking about 'the bad guys' rather than 'the enemy,' a great deal more becomes permissible. Enemy soldiers have rights under the Geneva Convention. But unlawful combatants, 'bad guys,' 'terrorists?'" Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia of the Florida National Guard who served six months in Iraq and was recently court-martialed for failing to return to his unit after a furlough in Miami noted: "You just sort of block out the fact that they're human beings and see them as the enemy. You call them 'hajis,' you know? You do all the things that make it easier to deal with killing them and mistreating them." Hajis is the derisive tag for all Iraqis, the equivalent of referring to Vietnamese as "gooks."

God on whose side?

Military religious services may unwittingly contribute to the dehumanization process, to the denial of the victim. How many American military personnel eventually come to the conclusion that "If the chaplain doesn't pray for these guys [the enemy] I guess God doesn't care about them. And if God doesn't care about their well-being, why should I?" Denial of the victim may well be the most dangerous of the five techniques, as anything can be done to a less-than-human enemy without suffering pangs of conscience, guilt, or remorse.

Condemnation of the Condemners. With this technique offenders turn the tables on their accusers by way of confronting them and questioning their motives. Street criminals often point to corruption in the criminal justice system, arguing that cops and judges are crooks who have the protection of the law. In the prisoner-abuse scandal, guards, interrogators, and senior officers are critical of those who condemn their behavior. "Why don't the people and politicians who sent us here just let us to our jobs?" "War is a an ugly business and getting information from prisoners is just part of it." "People half a world away have no right criticizing things they know nothing about." With this technique of neutralization, offenders can argue that their behavior is hardly inappropriate, let alone criminal, and that the only wrongdoing is on the part of those critical of their actions.

Appeal to Higher Loyalties. Utilizing this technique, offenders argue that while their behavior may have been illegal, they were acting out of loyalty to the group, or behaving in accord with some greater good.

For the abusive prison guards and interrogators in Iraq, this group was the military, from their own unit to the entire contingent of troops in that country. The bottom line is that even if prisoners are abused, suffer, and occasionally die (by way of gaining information), if that's what it takes to protect our colleagues, keep our nation safe, then so be it. This is the "ends justify the means"argument often embraced by those who would normally abhor the mistreatment of another human being.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills noted that human beings utilize a "vocabulary of motives" to justify past, present, and future behavior. We engage in an ongoing, internal monologue -- a kind of "self-talk" with the goal of aligning our behavior with the positive image we carry of ourselves. When techniques of neutralization become part of self-talk, otherwise decent human beings can commit despicable acts of cruelty and feel good about themselves in the process.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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