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Greater Expectations

Is it really so snobbish to ask, “What did you expect?” when it comes to the soldiers who behaved so inhumanely, so outrageously, at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq?

After all, who are they? Six, at least, come from the 372nd army reserve unit, many of whose members live in Appalachia. One of them, married and divorced before she was 21, worked in a chicken processing plant. Another bags groceries in a local supermarket. Several work at nearby prisons. The 372nd commander, a captain, is a traveling salesman for window blinds in his civilian life. What did you expect?

Yes, it is totally snobbish to assume that because the soldiers involved do not have advanced degrees — or whatever other qualifications you care to require of prison guards — they were easily manipulated by the intelligence officers who apparently instructed them to torture prisoners in order to “soften them up” for interrogation. It is snobbish, unacceptably so. The implied meaning of the “what did you expect” question is that educated people are “more moral” than are “the hewers of wood and the drawers of water.” But such evidence as we have on the relationship between education and morality immediately contradicts that assertion.

One example: The 1971 experiments at Stanford University, where students were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards in a simulated prison in the basement of the campus psychology building. It took only a few days before the guards began to behave sadistically — this, mind you, toward their fellow students, “the prisoners.” They forced them to strip naked, they placed plastic bags over their heads, they encouraged them to perform sexual acts.

There have been other studies of “ordinary” people’s capacity to behave brutally, but it has been years since these kinds of experiments with human subjects have been permitted in the United States. No great loss: While the subject matter remains interesting, to say the least, we really do know enough by now to reach the key conclusions.

We know enough not only because of the experimental studies, but also because of the Nazi experience. Whether or not you believe that “all” Germans were antisemites, the depravity of the killing cannot be adequately explained on the basis of beliefs alone. Indeed, there is ample evidence that people with no hostile beliefs can readily be recruited to do evil. The explanation for that disturbing phenomenon is not merely the yetzer hara, the evil impulse that some morose philosophers have posited. The issue is less personal morality than it is systemic morality.

Create a system that rewards evil, and people — very many of them — will behave evilly. In the case at hand, the torture at Abu Ghraib, the perpetrators were members of a closed system. The American values they violated were less relevant than the orders they accepted from Army military intelligence officers, CIA operatives and civilian contractors who conducted interrogations.

Did they lack the intelligence to know that they were doing wrong, or the spine to resist? It has ever been so. The number of people who will resist an order to behave cruelly is always less than we might wish. That is why we plant trees in their honor when we learn of them, why we call them “Righteous Gentiles” or by some other honorific.

The other evening, I listened to a distinguished expert on rabbinic law hold forth on the relationship between Halacha and morality. His passionately argued view is that morality begins with the person, the individual; one cannot have a moral society or state without moral people. I think him mistaken. Would it were so, but we know that people can be “turned” rather easily — unless the system in which they operate actively encourages moral behavior. And not just the “large” system — in the case at hand, the American system — but also and urgently the immediate systems in which people are daily engaged.

The torturers at Abu Ghraib will, one expects, be held responsible for their behavior and will be punished for it. But what of those who gave them the evil orders? Specifically, they allowed the guards absolute power — and we have long known that absolute power corrupts absolutely. And what of those, all the way up the chain of command, who said nothing, or who said “I don’t care what you have to do, we need the intelligence” — but who failed to add, “But be sure you keep the Geneva Conventions in mind at all times.”

In 1968, some of my then-students went to the Democratic national convention in Chicago and participated in the raucous demonstrations there. The police responded violently to the students’ provocations, and my students returned from the convention exultant: “We ripped the mask off the face of the beast,” they boasted. “We revealed the system’s fascist heart.”

I told them then, and I believe still, that what they had done was child’s play: The beast lurks just beneath the surface; it is no big deal to lure him out of his hiding. The greater challenge is to tease the angel out, to appeal to our better nature. Yes, there is a yetzer ra, an evil impulse, and there is also a yetzer tov, an impulse to good. President Carter spoke for all of us when he said, “I have lust in my heart.” We do, and there is hate there, too. But what Carter surely meant is that “I know the difference between my evil urges and what is expected of me, what I know to be right.”

In order for the yetzer tov to triumph, it must be encouraged in every way: symbol and ceremony, supervision and study, and perhaps most of all, example — all the way up the chain of command.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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