What makes one human being brutalize another human being under the guise or rule of law? Lord Acton in 1887 wrote a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton and said ”Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Is this part of the answer?
Those who have studied excessive use of force have identified 6 conditions that make an organization ripe for loss of discipline and control of employees.
1. Weak or absent leadership
2. Seeing others as less than human
3. Lack of discipline and training
4. Not having oversight by an outside entity. Secrecy.
5. Being exposed to brutality
6. Being part of a group with similar beliefs about the legitimacy of using violence in certain situations as a means to an end.
Let’s evaluate some well known situations.
Mei Lai Massacre.
March 16, 1968, in the time span of about 20 minutes, 347 to 504 South Vietnamese citizens were murdered by 60-70 US soldiers in the village of Mei Lai. The victims were mostly women, children and the elderly. They were beaten, raped, and tortured. Three soldiers tried to stop the massacre. About 25 people escaped by hiding under the bodies of the dead.
Charlie Company had suffered significant casualties since arriving in Vietnam. The company was sent into Mei Lai because it was thought to be an enemy stronghold. They were reportedly told by Captain Ernest Medina (accounts vary) to kill everyone, slaughter livestock, and burn down the village. At first there was a cover up of the incident, but a soldier, Richard Ridenour sent letters to the President, Congress, and other Washington officials. Twenty six soldiers were eventually charged. Only William Calley was convicted. He served three years on a life sentence. William was diminutive in stature and a college drop out when he entered the Army.
Weak leadership and lack of training were cited as contributors to these events, as well as the Army’s insistence on following orders. Additionally, it was said that many soldiers did not think of the Vietnamese as human. Isolation from the outside world can skew one’s view of what is right and wrong. Not until additional soldiers entered the village did the killing stop. Not until exposed to the outside world, was the atrociousness of the soldier’s acts realized. The larger world had not lost their moral compass. So, when the standards of the larger world were applied, what was done was seen as wrong.
Zimbardo Prison Experiment
In 1971 at Stanford University, Dr. Zimbardo began the, now infamous, prison experiment. He divided a group of students into prisoners and guards and set up a makeshift prison in the basement of one of the University buildings. Everyone knew that this was an experiment. The experiment was planned for two weeks, but was stopped after 6 days because the “guards” became too sadistic and the “prisoners” became too depressed. However, some guards did not participate in humiliating prisoners, but did not stop others. The students were caught in a time warp where they thought what they were doing was acceptable because there were no outside influences to say, “No, that is not OK.” Finally, another professor reported what was going on as unacceptable and the experiment was stopped.
Dr. Stanley Milgram’s Experiment in 1961.
Dr. Milgram wanted to know what kinds of people yielded to the pressure of the Nazi culture. In his experiment, researchers in lab coats at Yale University instructed participants to deliver increasingly painful electric shocks to other “participants” to “teach them through punishment.” Sixty-five percent of the participants continued to deliver what they thought were electric shocks for incorrect answers despite the screams from the “fake” participants. Replications of Dr. Milgram’s experiment have found that about 65% of ordinary people yield to the pressure of the authority figure even when it is contrary to their morals and 35% do not. Which group would you be in?
In the San Francisco Chronicle, Saturday, May 8, 2004, Dr. Zimbardo analyzed the Abu Ghraib abuses and found that the prison environment was ripe for mistreatment to happen (.http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2004/05/08/MNGN76IG761.DTL). The prison had a weak leader, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski. The prison within the prison was a “secret place” that was not visited often by administrators. The prison was understaffed and undertrained and lacked basic services for staff. They were under the stress of fearing insurgent attacks constantly. They lacked discipline and standard operating procedures. The situation continued to worsen until a soldier pointed out the egregious nature of the activities within the prison. Zimbardo commented that what happened was inevitable. Prisons where the balance of power is so unequal are very likely to become abusive. In the New York Times, May 6, 2004, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, stated that preventing problems like those found at Abu Ghraib requires discipline, training, and outside monitoring (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/06/international/middleeast/06PSYC.html?ex=1399262400&en=91f8144cdf7dd44a&ei=5007&partner=USERLAND).
There appear to be environmental and organizational, as well as individual contributors to excessive use of force in institutions or organizations. Further examination of these factors will teach us how to monitor organizations to prevent such things from happening in the future. The key features appear to be lack of training and discipline, weak leadership, and lack of outside oversight. It would also be important to look at the organizational characteristics of agencies where excessive use of force does not occur. It is an important area to study.