OPINION: Ordinary evil

The ultimate casualty

You know him well. His nickname was Gilligan, and he was a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s vast prison transformed into a vast American one and then transformed again by the Bush administration into a vast national disgrace. Gilligan was deprived of sleep, forced to stand on a small box, hooded like some medieval apparition, wired like a makeshift lamp and told (falsely) that if he fell he would be electrocuted. He was later released. Wrong man. Sorry.

The story of Gilligan is recounted in a forthcoming book and movie, both titled “Standard Operating Procedure” because that is precisely what the abuse of prisoners was at Abu Ghraib. Much of the book, written by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris (he made the documentary) and excerpted in last week’s New Yorker, relies on the verbatim testimony of the Americans who staffed Abu Ghraib. Some of them were the very ones who took the revolting pictures — including the iconic photo of Gilligan — that stunned the world.

What the interviews make clear is how pervasive and public the abuse of prisoners had been. Physical and mental abuse was conducted in the open. Photos were taken and passed up the chain of command. “Sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, sensory disorientation and the imposition of physical and psychological pain,” Gourevitch and Morris write, were all permitted under the makeshift rules of the camp.

“They couldn’t say that we broke the rules because there were no rules,” said an Army reservist named Megan Ambuhl. Others talked of something even more insidious: the growing tolerance for inflicting pain. This is the stuff of famous psychology experiments (Milgram, etc.), but it also reminds me — and I know this is the extreme case — of the willingness of ordinary German soldiers in World War II to spend whole days in the routine murder of civilians. [complete article]

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