Sasha Abramsky: At last, Philip Zimbardo writes a book about the famous Stanford Prison Experiment

Roundup: Talking About History

[Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan, New York-based think tank. His latest book American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment was published this month by Beacon Press.]

... Now, the world knows who Deep Throat was. And, with the publication of The Lucifer Effect, it also has Zimbardo's behind-the-scenes account of his experiment, a venture that, in many ways, could serve as a precursor to today's omnipresent reality TV shows and webcam-based voyeurism expeditions. (Of course, the technology was very different then."We don't have sufficient funds to record continuously," Zimbardo writes of that period."So we do so judiciously.")

Zimbardo has finally been prompted to write his first-person account of the SPE, as he calls it, by the specter of Abu Ghraib, and the shattering images of American military personnel engaging in torture there and in Guantanamo; and by his belief, and accompanying rage, that high-level U.S. political, intelligence, and military leaders have created a climate in which torture is legitimated.

Stylistically, the first half of the book, detailing the Stanford Prison Experiment, is slightly gimmicky. The experiment unfolds in the present tense -- which, given how extensively it has already been written about, is a bit like a mystery writer trying to keep the wraps on a plot whose ending has already been trumpeted far and wide.

In the second section, the study's relevance for our understanding of Abu Ghraib is explained. Essentially, Zimbardo argues it's futile to blame a"few bad apples" when a situation has been created that puts a premium on certain forms of violence and cruelty. Don't blame the character of the torturers, he writes, blame the situation they're thrust into. Or, to use his own metaphor, it's not bad apples in a good barrel, rather it's good apples being corrupted by a bad barrel. If Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld declare the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the war on terror; if intelligence officials start waterboarding, beating, and even killing suspects; and if military officers such as Geoffrey Miller -- the man who made torture the norm in Guantanamo -- visit Iraq and urge a toughening-up of the treatment of detainees, nobody, Zimbardo eloquently argues, should be surprised at the acts that then unfolded on Tiers 1A and 1B of Abu Ghraib.

Finally, as something of a feel-good ending, Zimbardo concludes with a chapter on heroes, trying to identify what makes some people refuse to go along with the crowd when the easiest thing for them to do would be to act complicit in harmful activity....

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