MARGARET WARNER: Americans have been shocked by photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. military guards. The degrading treatment of the detainees is horrifying. So, too, has been the apparent attitude of the guards.
In one photo, a female soldier grins as she points to several naked, hooded men. In another, two smiling guards give the thumbs-up sign as they pose with a pile of naked prisoners.
Political leaders from President Bush on down expressed disgust and a conviction that the behavior shown was a gross aberration for U.S. soldiers and for all Americans.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: What took place in that prison does not represent America that I know. The America I know is a compassionate country that believes in freedom. I keep repeating, but it's true. It doesn't reflect how we think. This is not America. America's a country of justice and law and freedom and treating people with respect.
MARGARET WARNER: But the hometown paper for the military police company involved, the Cumberland, Md. "Times-News" had a different take in an editorial Sunday.
"Visiting journalists search in vain," the paper said, "for some dark local element that gave birth to the monstrous actions in Abu Ghraib. We are America, for better and worse."
MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the psychology behind abusive behavior like this, we turn to Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School who's studied Nazi doctors and Vietnam veterans among others.
His latest book on violence is called "Superpower Syndrome." Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a retired psychology professor at West Point. His new book is "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill" Jay Winik, a professor and war historian, and author of "April 1865: The Month That Saved America."
And Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University. In 1971, he conducted a landmark study in which two dozen college students were directed to play the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated jail with disturbing results. Welcome to you all.
And Professor Lifton, let me begin with you. Why do apparently ordinary people commit brutal acts like this?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: I would understand it as what I call an atrocity- producing situation. In studying Vietnam and what happened there and interviewing Vietnam veterans I found that the situation they were in was so structured psychologically and militarily that ordinary people, no better or worse than you or me, could walk into it and commit atrocities.
And I think as different as Iraq is, we have a parallel situation of a counterinsurgency war with great confusion as to who the enemy is and difficulty in tracking him down or identifying him, enormous fear and frustration and hostility from the population, and this creates a group process rather than any kind of individual aberration, a group process of atrocity.
It works from many levels because as we've heard there are sometimes instructions given from those in charge of interrogation, people from military intelligence, or sometimes there's just a kind of indirect suggestion that softening up processes can be tough and abusive.
And then there's still a higher level of high-ranking officers and war planners who demand information from interrogations and apply pressure on those military intelligence officers. So here you have a three-tier dynamic and the foot soldiers, the MPs and the civilian contractors are caught in this atrocity-producing situation. They adapt to the group and they join in.
MARGARET WARNER: And, of course we don't know the actual situation in this case because that will remain for further hearings and the court's martial but let me ask Professor Zimbardo, your own studies, your own research, do you agree that there's the potential for if not atrocity certainly brutality in just about anyone and if so what triggers it?
PHILIP G. ZIMBARDO: Well I agree with everything my colleague, Robert Jay Lifton, said. Human nature has the potential to be good or evil. It depends entirely on the situation around us. These young men and women who are being scapegoated, being rushed to trial, rushed to judgment, were embedded in an evil barrel.
What happened is, in my study, we took good young then... men, put the them in an evil barrel of a simulated prison and out came corrupted young men who did sadistic acts very similar to what you see in Abu Ghraib, chaining them, making them naked, putting bags over their heads, making them clean out toilet bowls with their hands and at the end simulating sodomy, having the prisoners simulate sodomy. And these were college students to other college students.
MARGARET WARNER: What drove that? I mean did you ask them?
PHILIP G. ZIMBARDO: No, no. Just the opposite. I was a superintendent of the prison who said no physical violence but they waited until I went to sleep because for a variety reasons. First of all, prison situations are one of enormous power differentials. Guards have total power over prisoners who have no power. Unless there's strict leadership, unless there's clear leadership that prevents the abuse of power, that power will seep out. That power, that sadistic impulse will dominate. That's what we saw in our prison. That's what you see in Abu Ghraib.
My sense is that these young men and women are certainly not... certainly didn't go in as bad apples -- just as in our prison they went in as good American soldiers. They've come out shamed. Their future is destroyed. What happens is what the system is doing is taking the blame away from those who created the barrel.
All of those who should have been in command, all of those who should have been in charge, the military intelligence that clearly, clearly influence, suggested, push, enhanced the use of these terrible tactics. But all of... the system wants to be preserved. That's why we're rushing to judgment to these young men and women.
MARGARET WARNER: Jay Winik, let's broaden it out even further from the United States. What does history tell us about what triggers atrocities?
JAY WINIK: Right. What history tells us is that there's just a terrible logic of war where ordinary or even extraordinary people can just do terrible things. Hannah Arendt, the philosopher, once called it the banality of evil.
If we look at two powerful examples, for example, in France in the 1790s they were the epicenter of the world, the most cultured and cultivated society. Their books were read everywhere. Their philosophers were widely renowned and yet when their revolution started, they thought nothing of beheading each other and gave us the terror that swamped all the continent.
To take another example throughout history of a very different sort, if we look at Cambodia in the 1970s, here was a gentle, kind sweet people. They got new leadership, highly educated leadership, and they gave us one of the worst nightmares that history has ever seen akin to the Holocaust calling the killing fields. This is the logic of war. It's the logic of psychic numbing. It's the logic of which absent corrective mechanisms in institutions and societies, this sort of thing happens.
MARGARET WARNER: So Col. Grossman, you've taught at West Point . How conscious is U.S. Military leadership in general of this potential and what do you... what do they do to try to train and teach young soldiers to be to resist this sort of sick culture that can develop?
LT. COL. DAVE GROSSMAN (Ret.): Ever since Mylai, every single soldier is required by law to be repeatedly trained on a yearly basis about what is an illegal act, what is an illegal action and not just how to identify illegal actions but how to go about reporting them and how to disobey orders.
This is the first time in human history that an army has been taught to disobey certain orders. The potential for atrocity, all of my fellow speakers tremendously imminent individuals, keep speaking of war as a situation which by definition has these problems. But the reality is that it has the potential for these problems.
The goal has to be a consistent systemic process at every level. The individual must be held accountable. The leaders who were immediately responsible must be held accountable. The individuals who were responsible for establishing the framework must be held accountable.
The overall dynamic is that American reputation-- I talk in my book on killing about an individual sending a letter. He was interviewing German soldiers in World War II. He said soldier after soldier said they were told by their uncles, their grandfathers, people who had experience in World War I, be brave, get in the front lines and surrender to the first American you see. The American reputation for decency in World War I saved untold thousands of lives in World War II. That's what we must struggle to maintain in a systematic process of making sure that at the individual level, the leadership level that there will not be breakdowns like this. The reality is they're extraordinarily rare and they must be made even more rare.
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: May I ask a question?
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask Jay Winik one point and then I'll get back to you. The president, I want to bring up is this American? Is there something special about Americans that makes it more likely that we will resist at least these impulses? You heard the president say it. Sen. Lieberman said today we're not like the terrorists who would behead someone and send out a video. Is there something different about Americans?
JAY WINIK: Well, we certainly think of it as un-American because we don't see it as part of our nature, as part of our history. When these kinds of atrocities happen we quickly try to correct them. That's not to say in America we haven't committed things we would either see as barbaric or atrocities.
For example, Harry Truman, when he dropped the A-Bomb he never lost a night's sleep over it. And he said when you deal with a beast, you must treat them like a beast. In the Civil War we had a full- scale guerilla war that was taking place in Missouri which in terms of its scope and savagery of death and destruction was every bit as we see in Iraq today -- terrorists ride around wearing scalps with human ears and pieces of flesh as signs of their latest conquest. In the union troops – in the southern -- terrorists became literally indistinguishable from each other.
And at the time one of the generals watching what was happening, he said there was something in the hearts of good men that literally exploded. Even Abraham Lincoln watching all this said every foul reptile comes alive in this guerilla war and nothing we do can stop it.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor, I want to ask you about something you've written about and ask you whether you think it might apply. And again we don't want to pre-judge these cases but I think part of it was what is so chilling about these photographs are these big smiles on these young people's faces. You have written... how do you explain that and does your theory -- you've written about something called doubling or the second self. Does that play into this here?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: It does I think. You know, sadism is potential in all of us. It isn't the sadism that produces the atrocities. It's the process of the atrocity that releases the sadism. And the sadism is what we see on that... on those pictures. I would like to emphasize that, yes, we have atrocities even in civilian prisons and in all wars. There's no doubt about it. But you're more likely to have atrocities in this kind of war, in this kind of counterinsurgency war and in this case when it turns into an occupation, the atrocity potential is sustained.
In terms of doubling, I have described this in relation first to Nazi doctors. They could be loving husbands and fathers when they go on leave for weekends and spend their time in Auschwitz from 9 to 5, five or six days a week killing people.
It's as if they form a second self or take Tony Soprano, a very fine likable fellow most of the time except his business is killing people. That kind of doubling occurs in relation to atrocity. We can say that with these people in the prison, these foot soldiers, they formed temporarily a kind of abusive self, which functioned and which was the only way to adapt to that environment. And that's what is so dangerous about creating environments like this because, Gwen, the atrocities come to reflect the war that we're fighting.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me first get Professor Zimbardo. I'm Margaret by the way not Gwen. Professor Zimbardo talk to us a little bit about your reaction when you saw the photos and the fact that these men and women also didn't seem... there was nothing furtive. They were posing proudly. There was no sense that later they'd be... might get called to account that they were doing something wrong. Yet you hear their friends and neighbors talk about them as very decent young people. Explain the psychology of that.
PHILIP G. ZIMBARDO: Before I answer, can I ask the colonel whether army reservists get that same training that regular soldiers do?
LT. COL. DAVE GROSSMAN (Ret.): Yes they do. In basic training. This is a really important point because one of the variables in this equation is that these National Guard and reserve units are less trained and they're less disciplined. One of the safeguards in the system, any army that went forth and killed and then came home and used its skills on its own nation would be participating in the destruction of its own nation. This is a problem that's been resolved for millennia. The solution is discipline. In these National Guard and reserve units there is a tendency to have less discipline. You put your finger on one of the key variables in the equation.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Zimbardo, back to you about the glee on these faces.
PHILIP G. ZIMBARDO: The glee on those faces-- I don't think anybody has said this. I think they were trapped in what is considered an expanded present time zone where they were cut off from their past and then their past is, your history, your personality, your obligations, your religion. And they're cut off from the future which is the consequences of your action. They were in a kind of hedonistic revelry, trapped in that moment but like you get in drug addiction, like you get in ecstasy, like you get in riots, it was a special kind of mentality where they were living in the moment.
Therefore, not only did they do these terrible things, they were able to take what's called trophy pictures, exactly like Americans used to do in lynchings because they had no sense that these could be used against them, that they would be culpable, they would be found guilty because they had these pictures. So I think they were involved in the ugliness of the hedonistic moment and therefore they were not thinking they were doing anything wrong. They were just living for that pleasure and the pain.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Col. Grossman, finally to you. Go back to your training of young military. You've spoken I think in the past about trying to create the bulletproof mind. How does that work?
LT. COL. DAVE GROSSMAN (Ret.): One of the most important ingredients of all when I train my cops, my military, atrocity will entrap you. It is temporarily empowering. It is extremely desirable in its short-term gains but the long-term destruction on the individual, on the culture, on the society is enormous.
One of the things that are put in place is a concept of what I call justice not vengeance. We must dedicate ourselves ahead of time. PTSD is the gift that keeps on giving. It destroys not just you but your spouse and your kids in the years to come. And all of the research shows that one of the surest paths to psychological self-destruction is to commit an atrocity, to break the law, to do something other than the code.
Quite frankly to answer your key question, is this un-American? A free society with an open press makes this far less likely to happen. What we're participating in right now is an extraordinarily powerful process that makes damned sure that this is far less likely to happen again. That's a good thing.
MARGARET WARNER: You had a brief final thought.
JAY WINIK: A quick point I would make is I would agree with that. That even as a collective sociopath reins in one hand is what we've seen -- the fact that we're going through this discussion that there's a collective sense of shame throughout the nation that's the corrective mechanism -- that's ultimately what will be the good news in this whole terrible saga.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you all four very much. Very interesting.