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Experiments Gone Bad

Watching “The Stanford Prison Experiment” (Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, 2015), I thought that it might be a good parable for how U.S. society has become so hardened by endless war and the shocking revelations of the practice of torture resulting from those wars, that it seems almost impossible to free ourselves from the dictates of war and a society so militarized that the immoral and unethical become accepted.

The topsy-turvy Orwellian world of the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971, illustrates how authority, in this case that of the academics who designed and monitored the experiment, and the research experiment’s prison “guards,” could allow their roles to alter their humanity.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo took the results from Stanford and concluded that good people can be induced to act in both good and evil ways, a thesis that is a critique of the “bad apple” explanation of immoral behavior. Zimbardo, however, does not discount the role of individual personality in inducing wrong-headed behaviors. As a footnote to Zimbardo’s work,  the research in the prison experiment was funded with a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

Analogies to the use of torture by U.S. spy agencies and the military at sites around the world can be made, and particularly at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq, with the help, and in some cases, the participation of U.S. psychologists. The battle within the American Psychological Association that was recently “won” by those in that organization opposed to torture is another theme that merits close attention. Imagine having to “win” on the issue of torture within a major professional organization of mental health providers in the U.S.?

“And so it goes,” as the author Kurt Vonnegut observed, someone who had seen the horrors of World War II firsthand and was left with his humanity intact, as many miraculously are.

But, there are those who are in positions of power who learn nothing, even as they brushed up closely against, and facilitated the ascension to power of those who unleashed the endless wars and the perversion of their humanity. Perhaps this is the irony of humankind? Some, even Holocaust survivors, can retain their humanity, while others who fantasize policies out of the Wild West are often placed in positions of power and lose that humanity.

And the loss of humanity goes on… It seems that the clown car that is the Republican Party has lost its engine’s governor that would put a muzzle on some of the excesses of policy pronouncements as it pulls into towns and cities across this nation. Not so with Jeb Bush, a leader in the pack of presidential wolves among the Republicans, who attacks Hillary Clinton, filled with enough of her own sins vis-à-vis support for U.S. supremacy in war (“Bush Says Clinton ‘Stood By’ as Iraq Fell Into Violence,” The New York Times, August 11, 2015).

Is the memory of those in the U.S. so short that historical amnesia now afflicts large segments of the country, and that loss of memory points the finger of history at Jeb Bush, who facilitated his brother’s taking of the presidency in 2000, which began the massive violations of international and national law that followed on the heels of that coup d’état?

Nothing surprises anymore in this upside-down world of realpolitik. The first anniversary of Michael Brown’s death was marked by a shooting in Missouri and representatives of a group of radical militiamen, the Oath Keepers, descended on Ferguson, much like the radical gun owners who wanted to appear in Newtown, Connecticut following the horror of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and were nearly able to perform an in your face act of gun-owner solidarity in full view of the families of fallen children and school personnel and all of those who grieved for them across this nation and world.

“Oath Keepers and the Age of Treason,” (Mother Jones, March/April 2010 Issue) will certainly have the desired effect of putting fear into the most optimistic of hearts.  We find ourselves without a national moral compass as horror after horror passes before our eyes, and only those with the strongest of resolve can see that the experiment has gone so very bad before it’s too late.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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