“Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are.” – Rich Mullins
As the details of the torturing of Iraqi POWs at Abu Ghraib swirl around in the news media, I am a shocked at our readiness as Americans to be shocked.
As far as I know, nearly every one of the accused torturers have claimed that they were just following orders–and as Americans, this just annoys the hell out of us. What of personal responsibility? No one can force you to do anything, right?
How quickly we have forgotten Stanley Milgram and what his infamous shock experiment taught us: we are not that different from Nazi Germany. Let us assume that our American soldiers were speaking the truth–they really were just following orders. Should we be surprised? If everyday subjects were willing to administer near-fatal shocks to another human being as long as a person in a white lab coat told them, how much more willing would a soldier be to torture a POW if commanded by a scary military superior?
We are not as strong as we think we are. We think that what ultimately matters is what we do as individuals when in fact, we are integrally connected to the social networks around us. It is not always so easy to separate individual from group.
What shocks me the most about the general public’s reaction to the revelations about Abu Ghraib is that we have somehow become so stupid that we actually believe that war can be humane. What?! People are being tortured in a time of war?! We expect that just as boxers can embrace after exchanging blows, so can soldiers after exchanging bullets. This is just silly.
I don’t want to be misunderstood, however. I am not saying that soldiers should go right on ahead and keep torturing POWs or that people should not be held individually responsible. But isn’t it funny how gullible we are to the media and its ability to get our panties all bundled up?
We really aren’t as strong as we think we are.