Evil is often thought of as a face; the word conjures up Hitler, Stalin or Osama bin Laden.
It is a terrifying thought that evil people walk among us, but that isn’t the truth. Evil is not something that people are; it is something people do.
The recent Senate report on CIA torture techniques makes this abundantly clear.
From that report, we learned that more prisoners than the public already knew about were subjected to water-boarding, rectal feeding, kept in inhumane conditions, striped and humiliated.
I do not believe that the U.S. employed inhumane individuals to torture suspected terrorists. We took normal human beings and put them in a position where it was easy to do evil things.
In 1973, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted what would come to be known as the infamous “Stanford prison experiment.” Twenty-one male students were chosen to participate, some as guards and some as prisoners.
The only rule the guards were given was that they were not allowed to physically hurt their charges. The guards quickly began harassing and demeaning the prisoners, and the situation escalated so quickly that Zimbardo had to end the two-week experiment after just six days because prisoners were having mental breakdowns.
Zimbardo’s experiment only took into account poor living conditions and harassment; it did not show how much worse the situation would have been if physical violence was part of the equation.
The college students in the Stanford prison were well-adjusted, normal young men who Zimbardo saw change dramatically when given complete control of “prisoners.”
“The line between good and evil is permeable, and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces,” Zimbardo said of the experiment.
This is the environment that the CIA has allowed to fester.
We took people, we gave them absolute control over others labeled “the enemy,” we gave them the righteous cause of fighting terrorism, and expected a different result.
The Senate report also states that torture was largely ineffective at extracting information from prisoners.
The CIA is torturing and detaining individuals who have not stood trial and who may not be guilty of anything. We, as Americans, should be outraged by these crimes committed in our name, but we are not.
It is easy to hate the stranger, someone who may want to harm us. It is easy to say that they deserve the conditions they are living in.
It is hard to have empathy for those who have truly done evil things. But if we want to win the war on terrorism, that is exactly what we must do.
We cannot allow caricatures of the U.S. as a hypocritical, dominating monster to be the reality. Our strength is our rule of law; we should not abandon our principles just because we are afraid.