On State Violence

In 2004, the U.S. military-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq received international attention after 60 Minutes II broadcasted photographs of CIA and Army paramilitaries forcing prisoners to engage in traumatic and often humiliating poses and acts. The photographs and subsequent reporting exposed indignities that ranged from stacking naked Iraqis in a pyramid to a famous image of a hooded figure who was made to stand on a box and told he would be electrocuted if he fell. With the exception of some fringes of American conservatism, the pictures and accounts were met with disgust across the globe. Many of the war’s detractors argued that these abuses were a side effect of the ambiguous objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Others called for the resignation of top officials like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who reportedly authorized the abuses. President Bush reflected that the events at Abu Ghraib did “not reflect the nature of the American people.” Amidst all the blame and chaos that followed the revelations of Abu Ghraib, one psychologist noted eerie similarities between the conclusions of his work and that prison.

Activist protests US violations of human rights in front of US Supreme Court.

Philip Zimbardo conducted a social experiment in 1971 that later came to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. In it, the researchers selected a group of men with excellent psychological health and no history of crime and made each one assume the role of either a prisoner or a prison guard. Zimbardo was shocked by the degree to which the subjects took to their roles within days. The “guards” volunteered extra time to the study, attacked “prisoners” with fire extinguishers, forced nudity and public defecation upon them, and became increasingly violent and cruel, even in the absence of the researchers. The results were so astounding that the experiment was ended in six days, less than halfway through the anticipated two-week period of study. Zimbardo summarized the experiment’s findings in an interview, declaring that “the line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.” He would later serve as an expert witness in the trial of one Abu Ghraib guard, arguing that the man should not be held accountable for his actions. Instead, Zimbardo believed that the blame for excessive violence should be placed on the institutions that both put the guards in position and directed them to commit heinous crimes. The institutions responsible exercised and permitted harsh techniques that made the incidents of Abu Ghraib anything but incidental. Abu Ghraib was and remains part of a broader pattern of excessive state power.

So in December, when the Senate Intelligence Committee released portions of their report detailing extreme techniques used by the CIA in detention and interrogation, the similarities between the report and Zimbardo’s findings were immediately evident. Among the practices which the 525 page behemoth describes are waterboarding, threats of rape and murder, and sensory deprivation. The practice of making prisoners defecate in a bucket seen in the Stanford Prison Experiment is also documented at CIA black sites. What President Bush failed to recognize in 2004 was that these actions did not in fact just reflect the character of “a few bad apples” in the national security community, but rather the inherent nature of the institutions to which they belonged. Of course, this lack of insight cannot be blamed solely on the President or the American public; the report also noted that the CIA collectively misled them. According to the report, the CIA “impeded effective White House oversight” and provided “inaccurate information” to both Congress and the White House. Moreover, the organization selectively leaked information to the media in order to present enhanced interrogation as an effective tactic in the War on Terror. The CIA deliberately committed to a story that was both incomplete and untrue in order to cover for the excessive abuses of its members.

The institutional roots of these abuses are shared not only across national security agencies but also by domestic law enforcement. Critics of state violence in media and communities across the country have scrutinized the lack of police accountability in the wake of high profile cases like Ferguson and Staten Island over the past year, leading to widespread demonstrations and protests. But while the conversation on state-sanctioned brutality has largely focused on race, Zimbardo’s research and the CIA torture report suggest that there is another, more subtle conversation to be had.

This is not to say that race had no place in these systems of violence. Psychological trauma at black sites and military detention centers was intensified by the prevalence of racial and religious bigotry. The excessive nudity and forced sexual positioning at Abu Ghraib is a clear affront to human decency, but even more so to the religious and cultural modesty of Muslim detainees. The forced rectal feeding described in the Senate report involved hummus, playing off of a traditionally Mediterranean food and subverting the comfort of culture. Interrogation officers made these decisions intentionally, informed by The Arab Mind which is both “probably the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the US military” and universally detested by Middle East experts, one of whom claimed that “the best use for this volume, if any, is as a doorstop.” In Ferguson, Don Lemon of CNN described a situation in which a member of the National Guard cautioned Lemon’s white producer about “n*****s, you never know what they’re going to do.” The action taken post-Ferguson has been a necessary effort in bringing attention to the institutional and cultural shortcomings in race relations. The racial disparities in the execution of the law are egregious and should be taken extremely seriously, and yet racism by itself is an insufficient explanation of the broader lapse of institutional conscience.

“The authority placed in these institutions is abused not because malicious or racist people join them, but rather due to the inherent state of mind that holds across any organization that gives its members state-sanctioned power over others.”

Race alone fails to account for institutional reasoning for consistent abuses because they often come in the absence of external racial factors. It might be natural to conclude that the disparity between race in the police force and surrounding community corresponds to heightened tension between the two. But a 2003 meta-analysis across major American metropolitan areas concluded that “minority representation had no significant influence on levels of police violence.” That is not to say that the tragedies of Michael Brown or Eric Garner would have befallen them regardless of their race. But the tendency of police to engage in unwarranted violence is exacerbated by, not derived from, the color of skin and ethnic origin. While individuals within the CIA undoubtedly held prejudices, the institution did not prescribe policy based on those biases. Procedures that involved extreme physical and psychological duress were often committed in the absence of racial tensions. A comprehensive theory of excessive state violence must then take place outside of racial parameters. Institutionally sanctioned brutality instead stems from a broader failure of the American justice system.

A more wholesome explanation for consistent excessive violence and injustice perpetrated by the CIA, military, and police can be derived through the situational attribution of behavior offered by the Stanford Prison Experiment. This interpretation of conduct explains these injustices by critically examining the environment in which actions take place. In each of these instances, high pressure situations and a high tolerance for force led these individuals to make decisions that they would not have without those conditions. The authority placed in these institutions is abused not because malicious or racist people join them, but rather due to the inherent state of mind that holds across any organization that gives its members state-sanctioned power over others. Police and the intelligence community have been given reign in the United States in a way that absolves them of democratic oversight or responsibility to the public. In the name of local and national security, these groups have often censored and distorted the flow of information to the public in order to perpetuate their destructive cultures and in doing so have damaged not only their reputation but also their institutional goals.

If any of these abuses had been a necessary way to keep the American people safe or preserve justice abroad, this would be a different conversation. But this is a discussion of excessive state violence, where all available evidence leads to the invariable conclusion that these practices have made the United States less stable and global justice less secure. Domestic rioting has consistently followed police overstep, and torture plays into the strategies of American enemies: an essay by Osama bin Laden mentions “the crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo,” as evidence of the United States disregarding “the conscience of humanity.” A key relationship between military and CIA abuses abroad and the events that unfolded in Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere domestically is that the actions taken by authority figures were not necessary in their duties and produced no tangible or useful ends.

Many liberals have been aghast at these horrific overreaches domestic and foreign, and rightfully so. There have been whispers of comparisons to the ’60s and ’70s, where skeptics of U.S. policy were subject to beatings like Stonewall, slaughters like Kent State, and imprisonment like Birmingham. But this trend of excessive state power is not a return to the past, rather, a continuation of a trend that has persisted in the United States since its founding. The ideology that drives institutions to commit and defend atrocities not only employs violence, but is an ideology of violence for its own sake. Extreme use of state power can only be successfully curtailed through a radical reimagining of the role of security forces and their relationship with the public.

“It is important to recognize the boldness of the Senate report, but it was still released years too late. Without mechanisms to proactively inhibit systemic abuses of power, debriefs and reports do little to put an end to these destructive cultures.”

The logic of state security at the present is fundamentally reactionary, in both the procedural and political senses of the term. Police and intelligence broadly act in response to situations, from a burglary to a bombing. This practice fails to capture the steps preceding the act itself, many of which have progressive solutions that have already entered the mainstream. Unarmed mediation teams consisting of former violent offenders can interrupt a situation before it becomes problematic, and they have done so in cities like Los Angeles. In New York City, more than 40% of the 14,000 people incarcerated at Rikers Island prison complex are reportedly mentally ill and 77% of brutality complaints are filed by inmates with a mental health diagnosis. Communities across the country must invest the resources to get people treatment from medical professionals, not from the end of a baton. Internationally, nowhere is America more approved of than Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than a million lives have been saved by emergency AIDS relief since 2003 and where more than 1/3 of annual American economic assistance is given. By contributing to productive economic and social development, USAID helps deny safe haven to terrorism which might otherwise take advantage of a disillusioned population. Anti-poverty initiatives, mental health, drug law, and truly humanitarian action must be increasingly drawn into the discussion of protecting the public proactively rather than reactively. In doing so, these institutions could be increasingly woven into the communities they purportedly serve in a way that strikes at the heart of truly destructive crime.

Much of the control of these organizations should be broken up and subjected to greater public discourse, preventing the institutional secrecy and fraternal mentality that obstructs proper oversight. The discrepancies in racial makeup between police and the communities they work should be scrutinized and addressed, but this is secondary to a geographic disparity in which less than half of even black or Hispanic officers live in the cities they serve. Positive alternatives to traditional police and justice have been seen in globally, notably in Latin America. In Mexico, community militias or autodefensas replace federal police who often cover for deadly crimes like trafficking and murder. In Venezuela, hundreds of “communal” judges have revolutionized conflict resolution and attempt to find “win-win” solutions to community issues. Intelligence services are more complex, but debriefs to Congress and democratic outlets in the countries in question would force a degree of openness and public debate on the permissibility of violence. Of course it is important to recognize the boldness of the Senate report, but it was still released years too late. Without mechanisms to proactively inhibit systemic abuses of power, debriefs and reports do little to put an end to these destructive cultures.  These steps would create a more wholesome and stable peace for the American people and the world at large.

The cultural and the institutional reform necessary to avert future abuses of state authority must take place in tandem and reinforce each other. As police continue to be integrated as constructive forces in communities, they will be more accepted by its citizens and vice versa. But at their core, the issues of excessive state power are, despite attempts to distance and obfuscate by the respective institutions, a reflection of the American psyche. As we ask more of security and community alike, as a nation we must provoke, discuss, and understand how these depravities have been and continue to be accepted and promoted by our society. While foremost our social organizations influence our individual actions, these associations are still comprised of individuals with agency. There exists an inherent institutional inertia that obstructs reform, but if nothing else, these past few months have demonstrated our willingness to question the assumptions of old.

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