I'm at a Cato talk by Philip Zimbardo, who has a new book out called The Lucifer Effect on the psychology of evil. He has just finished showing pictures of Abu Ghraib, which are horrifying. The really horrifying thing is that my first instinct is not to weep, but to laugh, in the same way that I wanted to laugh when I first learned about slavery. The idea of owning another human being is so fundamentally repellant that it sounds like a joke--no one could possibly really think that this is okay. Similarly, my brain refuses to believe at first that the photographs are real. I can't even imagine how you would think up the idea of forcing prisoners to get into a naked pyramid, much less actually execute it, so the photos feel like some sort of elaborate internet hoax, showcasing the wacky imagination of some crazy prankster.

Then the rational part of my brain says "No, really, American soldiers did this" and I feel physically sick.

This all sounds very morally superior. The point of Zimbardo's lecture, of course, is that even though I can't imagine even imagining these things, much less doing them, these things were nonetheless done. And probably done by ordinary people who did not, in their ordinary lives, evince any particular sociopathic tendencies. Zimbardo says that when we asked of Abu Ghraib "Who were the bad apples?" we were begging the question--assuming that the problem was the people and not the system. Or rather, the situation. If you give people a terrible amount of power over others, you need strong safeguards to keep that power from being abused.

We all sort of believe that we'd have been hiding Jews in our basement during the Holocaust. But of course we have never been afraid that our government would put us in a dungeon and rip our fingernails out while sending our families off to forced labor camps. Worse than that, most people probably didn't even go along because they were afraid. They went along because everyone around them seemed to think it was all right.

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