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Heart of Darkness in Abu Ghraib, Iraq


by Brian V. Johnstone, C.Ss.R.

Joseph Conrad's story Heart of Darkness may be read as a parable of evil in the twentieth century. There is lethal violence on the part of an occupying power, an "irrational" situation in the territory invaded, and the outsider Kurtz who is corrupted by these external forces and his own inner darkness. The pattern might seem to be repeating itself in the twentieth century.

The photographs have been published widely. Iraqi prisoners are shown being subjected to violent and sexually humiliating treatment, sometimes with female US soldiers actively participating and apparently enjoying their work. There is still much debate as to whether these were isolated incidents or, as Amnesty International maintains, part of a policy. There is no doubt that serious abuses occurred. A lengthy list is provided in the official inquiry conducted by Major General Antonio M. Taguba, Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th. Military Police Brigade, now available on the Internet.

The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, condemned the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, as "episodes of brutality, contrary to the most elementary human rights and radically contrary to Christian morals". Our spontaneous reaction would be to ask how could anyone do this kind of thing to people? Were those involved some kind of sadists? Or were they morally corrupt? Probably they were neither.

In 1971 Philip Zimbardo, a professor of social psychology, conducted what is known as "The Stanford Prison Experiment." He selected a group of young college students who were carefully screened. They were ordinary, decent young men. He divided them into two groups, "the guards" and "the prisoners." They were told to play these roles in a set of rooms designated "the prison." After six days, the "guards" began to treat the "prisoners" so cruelly, and even pornographically, that he had to stop the experiment. He himself became drawn into this "reality" and found that he was starting to think of himself as a prison governor rather than a detached, objective scientist. The spell was broken by a woman visitor, Christina Maslach, who saw clearly that what was going on was wrong and objected strongly.

There are two psychological theories which claim to explain how people can start to act like the guards in the experiment and the soldiers in Iraq. There is the bad apples theory, and the bad barrels theory. According to the first, there is something rotten inside some people and this will show up in their outward behaviour. So, say those who hold this theory, the guards and soldiers were bad people. The solution is to punish them by putting them in gaol.

Zimbardo is convinced that there is a better explanation. According to his theory, there are no bad apples; but good apples are sometimes put in bad barrels. In a bad barrel, good people become violent and cruel. Good people, he believes, have a "template" for good and a "template" for evil. A template is like an internal psychological map which lays out different ways of acting. A bad situation activates the template for evil and the result is abusive behaviour. The factors operating in the experimental prison were similar to those present in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In fact, the guards and the soldiers responded in remarkably similar ways. The Professor is reported as saying that, on the basis of his research, he was not at all surprised at what happened in Iraq. According to this theory, the way to deal with the problem is to get rid of the bad barrels. In the case of Abu Ghraib, that would mean drastically changing the prison system.

Social-psychologists have two types of theory to explain how people can come to act in bad ways. Religious-theological approaches to the problem of human evil also include two elements or perspectives. The first puts the emphasis on bad interior dispositions and the acts that flow from them. The second is more concerned with the external pressures that may influence people to act badly. We can begin with the first.

When Catholics use the word sin, they usually apply it to sinful acts. But most would recognize that there is also an inner condition, a threatening darkness within them that might lead them to sinful acts. This can be called a condition of "sinfulness." The old word for this in Catholic theology was "concupiscience." This means not an actual sin but a pattern of distorted desires within us, which is the result of sin. Such desires can be stirred up by circumstances, accepted by the will and expressed in action. It is in this way that we come to sin.

Most of us have experienced desires, sometimes violent, sometimes sexual, which emerge in our imagination and sometimes in dreams. We would not want to act out those desires and yet we are aware that they have an unsettling attraction. Can we be quite sure that if we were put in a situation like that of the guards in the experiment or the soldiers in Iraq, we would not do what they did?

St. Paul in chapter 7 of his letter to the Romans left us a subtle account of the conflicting forces within us. He wrote:

I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate. (v. 15) He continues: But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Distorted desires can become so powerful that they take over and displace our "self" from its position of control. Christianity, following St. Paul, is very realistic about the human capacity for evil. But Christians believe that while we cannot by ourselves deal with our own inner inclination to evil, we have received the gift of grace from Christ. It is this which enables us to break free from the power of our evil desires. St. Paul wrote:

Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God (I am set free) through Jesus Christ our Lord... (v. 25)

Recall the account of the Stanford experiment. Everyone became caught up in the false reality of the "prison" and could not break free. It was only when Christina Maslach, an outsider, entered the prison that change was possible. She brought with her a perception of true reality and enabled those involved to free themselves of their distorted ideas and change the situation. In a somewhat similar way, for Christians, it is only when Christ enters their lives that they become capable of seeing things as they really are and become free to change. Christina, of course, could not give those people the inner power to change; Christ, with his divine power or grace, can do that. Christ comes to them both through the inner experience of grace and the support and teaching of the Church.

The idea that the evil that we do has an external cause is also part of the Christian tradition. In chapter 3 of the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, we can read the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. It is an external force in the form of the serpent who leads them into temptation and sin. Later, when he was challenged by God, Adam, came up with the external cause excuse. He claims, "The woman . . . gave me fruit from the tree;" in other words, "She made me do it." Eve took the same tack: "The serpent tricked me and I ate." The idea that situations, in particular oppressive political and economic structures, can destroy people's lives and pressure them into doing evil was a major theme for liberation theologians in Latin America. They expressed this in the terms "social sin," "sinful social structures" or "structures of sin." Pope John Paul II in his exhortation Reconciliation and Penance (1984) also used these expressions:

Whenever the church speaks of situations of sin or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.

The Pope recognizes the power of situations to influence people, but also insists that personal sin, and personal responsibility are also factors. We are not simply turned on to evil by an external situation. That may activate our template for evil, but we can freely choose to accept or reject it as a pattern for our actions. We can accept it because it seems good. And it can seem good because our vision is distorted by desires which prevent our seeing what is truly good for us as complete persons. As one of the soldiers said, photographing naked and humiliated prisoners seemed, a the time, good and even "funny."

There may, of course, be situations where a persons's freedom has been completely suppressed and then she or he would not be responsible for what was done. In such cases, responsibility falls on outsiders, like Christina Maslach in the Stanford experiment, to challenge the system and enable those caught within it to regain their freedom. Christians are called to be watchful for such situations and to challenge them if they should arise.

Catholic moral theology for centuries spoke of "occasions of sin." In the traditional formula of the "act of contrition" by which a person in the confessional expressed sorrow for sin and promised not to sin again, there was included also a promise to "avoid the occasions of sin." It was clearly recognized that certain situations are dangerous so that if a person goes into them, that person is highly likely to commit sin. This does not mean that people are not free. It is simply an awareness, based on long experience, that people are strongly influenced by their social circumstances. A person who is honest and can learn from experience, can know that there are situations in which he or she is likely to act badly. Freedom is then exercised in choosing not to get into such situations.

We can bring together these various ideas and offer a response to the Iraq prison events from the resources of the Catholic tradition.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Torture, which uses physical and moral violence to extract confessions . . . is contrary to respect for the person and human dignity. (2297)

It is wrong to use degrading methods of interrogation to obtain information, even when this may seem to be necessary to protect freedom. It is an internal contradiction to take away another's freedom in order to protect my own freedom. To so act is to demonstrate that I do not really value freedom as such at all; I am acting to protect my own power and interests.

The wide spread revulsion which the pictures from Iraq has produced shows that most people agree.


Australian Redemptorist Brian V. Johnstone is a Professor of Systematic Moral Theology at the Accademia Alfonsiana in Rome.













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