Capacity for Corruption

In the recent news, we have been stunned by horrific images of torture and appalling accounts of sadism and violence in Iraq. In these few pictures, a group of American soldiers pose lightheartedly alongside Iraqi prisoners, who were exposed nude and anonymous in cloth hoods as they were tortured and degraded. The initial pictures set off a flood of similar stories—all terrible in their brutality and all shocking that the perpetrators were American. The cruelty demonstrated by these U.S. soldiers has shocked the American public. Checking the news from our personal computers, or reading it in our living rooms, we feel greatly removed from a scandal thousands of miles away. Over dinner-table conversations, we are apt to classify these soldiers as rogue, abnormal, un-American. We attribute the error of their ways to deviations in their upbringings or characters—anything that further distances them from us—from true Americans. One of the images we hold foremost in our minds, when considering the abuses in Iraq, is that of a diminutive woman soldier smiling broadly and flashing a thumbs up while pointing to a line of naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners. The evidence would suggest some imbalance in her character to account for such sadistic pleasure in humiliating others. In fact, Lynndie England seems typically American. She is known for an impulsive and independent spirit, which might have led her to join the military at 17, and to later marry a friend at the age of 19. She is well liked by her peers and is described as a hard worker. The most senior soldier implicated in the same torture scandal led an equally usual life; Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick II has been in the military for over 20 years and is married with two teenage children. In accounts given by his colleagues, we find an average man, described as “laid back” and “a joker.” The soldiers involved in the torture are not universally sadistic psychotics. Rather, the majority of them are normal people, whose abusive tendencies were brought out in a special circumstance. We would like to believe that such cruelty is beyond us—exclusive to other cultures or people. In fact, the capacity for corruption is a human constant. Psychologists who specialize in the subject of torture say when a person has complete power over another human, it is easy for that person to revert to sadistic behavior. The ease with which a person tortures or abuses another is heightened when such acts are sanctioned by authority figures. Studies indicate that humans, even those who consider themselves moral, will willingly administer potentially fatal torture if approved by an authority figure. Humanity, it seems, extends only to circumstance, and, given the right environment, everyone is capable of becoming the sadists pictured in the news. In our sophistication, we tend to ignore America’s capacity for such cruelty. We forget that our human condition leaves us equally capable of barbarism.