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Social Science Commentary on Abu Ghraib

Reprinted from International Society of Political Psychology News, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall 2004), p. 9.

Abstract: The torture of male, female and child prisoners held without charges in the US military prison at Abu Ghraib requires a reaction from the social science disciplines engaged in the cultural research that may have contributed to the rationale and methods used there. This brief report summarizes the critical commentary solicited and published by the American Anthropological Association in its September issue of Anthropology News.

Psychology and other social science disciplines engaged in cross-cultural and international research need much more collective care about the ethics of their activities. My own focus has been on historical abuses of cross-cultural psychology in genocide, in racial denigration, and in espionage. See Rudmin’s (2004 & in press) articles. Last summer, I wrote to the individual members of the ethics committees of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) about the need to consider the role of research in the design of the methods of torture exhibited at Abu Ghraib prison.

The AAA responded promptly and positively to my inquiry, and arranged that their association newsletter solicit and publish a set of commentary about Abu Ghraib. The APA has been less responsive to this concern.

Gregory Starrett (2004), a contributing editor of Anthropology News, noted that journalist Seymour Hersch, who first reported the Abu Ghraib torture, had identified a 1973 anthropology book, The Arab Mind, as “one source of our government’s understanding of the psychological vulnerabilities of Arabs” (p. 10). This book was written by anthropologist Raphael Patai, and apparently reported, for example, that Arabs are ashamed of nudity, are anxious about homosexuality, and consider dogs to be dirty. For 30 years, this book has been required reading at the US Army’s Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, N.C. Patai had been contracted by Yale University’s Human Relations Areas Files in 1956 to prepare a report on Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, using funding from the US Army. The anthropologist contracted to prepare a comparable report on Afghanistan and Pakistan was Donald Wilber, the chief US planner for the CIA’s 1953 coup against Iran’s democratic government. Starret closes with a paraphrase from Hermann Goering: “In contemporary conflicts any mention of culture may mask the sound of a revolver being drawn.”

Martha Huggins (2004) is a sociologist with several decades of research on state violence and torture in Latin America. She identified 10 conditions that predict torture at US prisons in Iraq and Guantanamo:

  1. The word “torture” is avoided by officials and guards, preferring instead terms like “tough interrogation.”

  2. Evidence of torture is ignored and denied.

  3. Ad hoc legalism is used to make torture seem legal and legitimate.

  4. Torture is justified under the rhetoric and ideology of national security.

  5. Torture is systematic, taught and maintained by legal, ideological, and organizational frameworks.

  6. Many people are engaged in the torture, not just a few bad apples.

  7. The responsibility is thus spread, so that the actual perpetrators will take the blame and the officials behind the torture regime are protected.

  8. Prisons are pressured to process prisoners efficiently in order to maximize production of information.

  9. The torturers try to maintain secrecy and anonymity, hence they wear hoods, work at night, etc.

  10. Torturers have impunity, and those responsible are unlikely to be punished.

Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam (2004) are British psychologists who review some of the arguments that social pressures, social roles, and group-think are causes of atrocities. They had run their own version of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and found that those participants who resisted their roles and did not succumb to sadism were apparently motivated by multiple allegiances and concerns about how their behavior would be judged at other times and from other perspectives. Thus, social groups can be a source of morality and resistance to evil acts as well as a cause of evil acts. Perhaps the greatest source of evil actions arises from identifying “others” whom threaten “us.” Such categorizations of people and such emotions of fear arise from the rhetoric and visions of a society’s political leadership, usually for purposes of acquiring or maintaining political power. “In the end, evil may well be banal, but banality is not a sign that human activity and human choice are missing” (p. 15).

Catherine Myser (2004) is a cross-cultural ethicist who argues that the Abu Ghraib events require a wide ranging, open, public debate on human rights in the context of our current national security scare. An analysis of the US government’s new category of “unlawful enemy combatants” shows that it is a mechanism for deny them legal status and in effect person status. They are outside the domain of “human;” they are “nobodies” who can be abused without regard to law or human rights. Furthermore, terrorism entails an absence of legal reciprocity, such that the nation state and its soldiers feel less obligation to adhere to conventions on the legal rights of prisoners. Protection from torture had been thought to be a right that was well established as universal, even in the face of low reciprocity and regardless of the political contexts. But the US administration now justifies torture on the grounds of national security and self-defense, even though the evidence is that torture is not a practical or efficient way to get useful information.

Lt. Col Michael Newton (2004) is a US Army Judge Advocate teaching law at West Point Military Academy. He argues that US soldiers are professionals, who are helpful to others in the world in promoting freedom and adhering to rule of law. He argues that “we should never accept a moral or legal equivalence between an enemy that deliberately and repeatedly violates the basic norms of international law, and an American military that is required to ‘comply with the principles and the spirit of the law of war’ at all times” (p. 17). The failures that led to torture at Abu Ghraib re-emphasize the need for well-trained, disciplined, professional soldiers.

My own contribution to this commentary (Rudmin, 2004) was to admonish the social science fields of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology, and Political Science for their silence when faced with events of Abu Ghraib. A reading of the codes of ethics of American associations for these disciplines shows common cross-disciplinary ethical norms:

  1. that research should benefit the peoples who are studied and should do them no harm,

  2. that researchers must anticipate that their findings might be abused and should take effective steps to prevent or stop such abuses,

  3. that the rights, dignity and privacy of the people studied must be protected,

  4. that the professional code of ethics over-rides demands of employers to do unethical acts, and

  5. that social scientists are obligated to protect the reputation of their discipline and to be concerned about the unethical behavior of colleagues.

Thus the use of expert cultural knowledge to design culturally tailored torture is unethical, and all of us in the social sciences have ethical obligations to protest such violations of our science.


Huggins, M. K. (2004). “Torture 101: What sociology can teach us.” Anthropology News, 45 (6), 12-13. Myser, C. (2004). “Ethics under fire at Abu Ghraib: Unresolved questions.” Anthropology News, 45 (6), 16, 19. Newton, M. A. (2004). “I am an American soldier.” Anthropology News, 45 (6), 17, 19. Reicher, S., & Haslam, A. (2004). “The banality of evil: Thoughts on the psychology of atrocity.” Anthropology News, 45 (6), 14-15. Rudmin, F. W. (2004). “Torture at Abu Ghraib, and the telling silence of social scientists.” Anthropology News, 45 (6), 9. Rudmin, F. W. (2004). “Historical notes on the dark side of cross- cultural psychology: IQ, reaction time, and racism.” Psykologisk Tidskrift, 7 (3), 10-12. Rudmin, F. W. (2004). “Historical notes on the dark side of cross-cultural psychology: Genocide in Tasmania.” Peace Research, 36 (1), 57-64. Starrett, G. (2004). “Culture never dies: Anthropology at Abu Ghraib.” Anthropology News, 45 (6), 10-11.

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