May 03, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Denial Spreads -- and the Desire for Control

The denial and blame-shifting in connection with the Iraqi prisoner-torture story is well underway. As just one example, we have this story:
HYNDMAN, Pa. - In this rural town of 1,500 people, just about everyone seems to know Pvt. Jeremy Sivits, one of the soldiers at the center of an explosive scandal involving the torture of Iraqi prisoners.

People in this tight-knit community were shocked to hear that Sivits faces a possible court-martial for his alleged role in mistreating Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Despite the graphic photos of prisoners being mistreated, townsfolk refuse to believe Sivits, 24, was capable of acting so inhumanely without at least some pressure by his superiors.

That viewpoint gained wider credence yesterday as the Pentagon widened its probe to investigate whether overzealous military intelligence officers may have encouraged soldiers like Sivits to soften up the inmates for interrogation.

"Everybody knows that boy, and if he did it, he was ordered to do it," said Jody Emerick, 34, whose grandparents once owned the house where Sivits' parents, Daniel and Freda, now live.
The story also contains this additional example of buck-passing:
Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who commanded the brigade of which the 372nd was a part, said she knew nothing about the abuse until weeks after it occurred and was "sickened" by the photos.

The high-security cellblock where the abuses are said to have happened had been under the direct control of Army intelligence officers, not the reservists under her command, Karpinski told The New York Times.

Karpinski, who was suspended in January, said she believed her superiors were trying to shift the blame away from intelligence officers in Iraq.
With regard to the comments that Sivits would only have done this if "he was ordered to do it," one would think that people would not be so eager to fall back on the "I was only following orders" excuse, given that excuse's historical provenance and uses in the twentieth century. That observation, of course, depends on people's knowing the relevant history and understanding its significance, which many of these people might not. (The article is also disturbingly similar to all those stories about the "boy next door" who turns out to have been a serial killer -- when all his neighbors talk about what "a nice, sweet, gentle boy" he was. All that such stories reveal is how unperceptive the majority of people are about psychology, and how they allow themselves to be deceived by superficial appearances.)

The more important point is that there is a certain kind of person -- a person with a strong, genuine sense of self, who knows what he thinks is right and wrong, what is permissible and humane and decent, and what is not -- who, when ordered to commit acts which he considers to be monstrous, will simply say, with full and absolute moral conviction, "No, I will not do that." And he will also be prepared to suffer the consequences.

But it appears, not surprisingly, that not too many individuals of that kind are to be found in the military, or in our domestic prison system. I should immediately state that I do not believe that most of those in the military are capable of the kind of torture and abuse that appears to have gone on at Abu Ghraib, or even a majority of them. But neither is this kind of behavior that unusual in my view, and the American public -- aided and abetted by the equivocations that now flood over us hourly, from every source -- is now engaged in a dangerous exercise in denial. It is dangerous precisely because it denies important, and crucial, facts -- and thus makes the likelihood of the repetition of such horrors in the future that much more likely.

I say it is "not surprising" that many persons who will follow orders -- even when those orders may concern horrific kinds of behavior -- are to be found in our military for many reasons. Some of those reasons have been explained in my series on "The Roots of Horror." Here is my earlier description of how these mechanisms work in part:
By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says [emphasis added]:

"This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called 'healthy normality'--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology."
Note the elements that are present here, and how easily adaptable these elements are to the military, or to a prison system: idealization of the authority figure, which figure can be the military itself and/or a commanding officer; a loss of autonomy or, in other words, the lack of a genuine self - which means that "self" can be filled in with "values" provided by those in authority; and, most important of all, the total and absolute premium placed on obedience, as the greatest of the virtues. This is the kind of person who will never say "no" when confronted with a monstrous order -- and it is precisely for that reason that many such individuals are attracted to this sort of command structure in the first place.

This kind of mentality is attracted to prison work here in the United States for exactly the same reasons. In response to a recent post about these issues, a reader sent me a brief, but remarkable, email -- attesting to his personal experience in the U.S. prison system. He chooses to remain anonymous for obvious reasons:
Having spent some time in a New Jersey jail before a false accusation against me was dismissed, I can tell you that the abuses shown in the Iraq photographs are common in many jails and prisons in the United States. I'd bet some of the reservists are jail and prison guards in the US in civilian life. They just did what jail guards in New Jersey normally do on the job. The only difference is that no one is ever allowed to bring a camera into a New Jersey jail.
We know, of course, that this writer's conjecture is true. Note this story about Chip Frederick, for example [link no longer working]:
The Iraq journal of Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II, penned in careful handwriting and mailed home as he feared becoming a scapegoat for egregious military misdeeds, paints a nightmarish picture of overworked, undertrained guards coping with hostile Iraqi prisoners and using tactics that flagrantly violated international rules for treatment of detainees.

If true, the 37-year-old reservist's statements are a devastating indictment of a U.S. military that toppled a brutal dictator only to be accused of torturing Iraqis in a prison, Abu Ghraib, notorious for similar and worse horrors during Saddam Hussein's rule. ...

In its most chilling lines, Frederick's journal describes the death in November of an Iraqi described as an "OGA prisoner" - an abbreviation for "Other Government Agency," military jargon for the CIA and other nonmilitary agencies.

"They stressed him out so bad that the man passed away," Frederick writes. The corpse was packed in ice and later prepared to suggest falsely that the prisoner had died under medical care: "The next day the medics came in and put his body on a stretcher, placed a fake I.V. [intravenous drip] in his arm and took him away. This OGA [prisoner] was never processed and therefore never had a number." ...

A disturbing repeated assertion in Frederick's journal is that the abuse was encouraged by U.S. interrogators from "MI," or military intelligence, and "CID," or the Army's Criminal Investigation Division. Both are under intense pressure to help stop attacks on U.S. troops.

But no intelligence or CID personnel are among the 17 people, including Frederick, whom the Army has charged or named as under investigation. So Frederick's journal suggests that culpability reaches far beyond those implicated to date. ...

In civilian life, Chip Frederick is a $26,722-a-year senior correctional officer at Buckingham Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in rural central Virginia. His wife, Martha, works in the prison's training department.

The prison houses 985 inmates - roughly the same number now held at Abu Ghraib - including some convicted of murder. Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Correction, said officers such as Frederick are trained at a state academy. ...

Frederick contrasts the absence of clear rules at Abu Ghraib with the precise instructions he has at the Virginia prison, where guards have approved sanctions to use to control prisoners' behavior.
This demonstrates yet another crucial aspect of the obedience-denial mechanism described by Alice Miller. One of the resulting emotions that the child experiences when he is "disciplined" or punished by the authority figure is loss of control. And as a child, of course, he is not in control of anything in his environment (in terms of the punishments that might be inflicted on him). When punishment appears to be arbitrary and unpredictable, that loss of control is terrifying to a child.

In adulthood, and if these issues are not surfaced and resolved in non-destructive ways, the punished or neglected child will seek, among other things, the kind of life where he himself is now in control -- where he enforces the rules, even if he does not set them. And this, among other elements, is one of the primary attractions that a life in the military or in the prison system will hold for a certain kind of psychology -- the psychology of the damaged child, now grown to adulthood.

And thus you have a Chip Frederick, and the others who may have perpetrated these abuses. One of the crucial solutions is to recognize the abuse of children that pretends it is discipline "for their own good," to identify it as the source of profound damage to a great many people, and to end it, once and for all.

As long as it goes on, future potential monsters will continue to be created, and our society will never be safe from them, with or without war. War simply provides another "approved" target on which such people can avenge themselves, when the opportunity presents itself. And, as I have discussed before, this is also one of the major reasons that so many people appear to be so eager to find excuses for war: it is by such means that they seek to exert control, and to make themselves finally feel "safe." They do not recognize that, all too often, their judgments are determined not by what is occurring in the present, but by what happened to them all those years ago, in childhood.