Friday, July 27, 2007

Torture, Moral Disengagement, and the Report That Wasn't Read

I've been re-reading the Schlesinger Report lately.

You remember the Report, right? It came out in August 2004, and was a document submitted by "The Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations." This panel, commissioned by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was chaired by ex-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger (an old pal of Rummy). Also on the panel were ex-Secretary of Defense Harold Brown (ditto), Republican hawk and Rumsfeld advisor Tillie Fowler, and retired Air Force general and Desert Storm veteran Charles Horner. (With four military insiders like these, the "independent" part of "Independent Panel" obviously is loosely-defined.)
The Independent Panel's charge was to "provide independent professional advice on detainee abuses [at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and Afghanistan], what caused them and what actions should be taken to preclude their repetition." Its final report pretty much repeats the Bush Administration's line: abuses are the actions of lone rangers, not the consequences of policy.
Nothing much new or interesting there.
What is interesting are two appendices to the report: Appendix G, "Psychological Stresses [contributing to torture]" and Appendix H, "Ethical Issues [of torture]." Study of the first appendix suggests that administrative officials have astoundingly little self-insight. Study of the second one suggests that they flunked Ethics 101.
Let's look at Appendix G today, and save Appendix H for tomorrow.
In Appendix G, the Report's authors appeal to social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison Experiment as well as one of Albert Bandura's studies of moral disengagement to come up with a list of behaviors that discourage "normal self-regulatory mechanisms" and encourage "abusive treatment and similar immoral behaviors."
Two of these behaviors are especially descriptive of persons who actually perform torture: displacement of responsibility ("I was just following orders") and diffusion of responsibility (groupthink). But the other five are descriptive of apparatchiks who give the orders to torture but don't actually participate: moral justification (torture is justifiable if it serves a social good); euphemistic language (avoid "torture"; substitute benign expressions like "enhanced interrogation"); advantageous comparison (torture really isn't so bad compared to what terrorists do) ; disregard consequences of actions (minimize torture by attributing it to lone rangers and bad apples, not policy); and attribution of blame (torture victims are terrorists, and bring their suffering on themselves).
These behaviors create moral disengagement by downplaying torture on the one hand--using euphemistic substitutes, pointing the finger, if a public scandal erupts, at bad apples, making lop-sided comparisons between torture and terrorism--and emphasizing its importance on the other by creating a climate of crisis--torture is necessary to protect the common good, the horrible plans of terrorists have to be discovered before they can be carried out, and so on. This much is easy to understand. You don't need to have studied social psychology to see how this kind of thinking and speaking creates moral distance between "us" and "them."
What's truly incredible, though, is how the current administration, despite the caution about morally disengaging behavior in one of its own officially commissioned reports, continues to indulge in such behavior. In just the last ten days, with the publication of the new Executive Order on interrogation of detainees, President Bush and the White House have insisted that the US doesn't "torture," but only "interrogates," thereby also implying that any "torture" that takes place must be the behavior of bad apples; insinuated that enhanced interrogation--not "torture," mind you--is necessary to protect US citizens from 9/11-like attacks; and stirred up anger and fear by emphasizing the brutality and determination of the "enemy," thereby suggesting that US interrogation tactics are really pretty tame in comparison. We're the good guys--so good that even when we interrogate in ways that might appear torturous, we're not. Besides, they're the bad guys--so even if we do torture them (which we don't, by the way), they deserve it, because they'd do worse to us if they could.
Appendix G of the Schlesinger Report concludes with the warning that this kind of rhetoric, if tolerated, carries a "higher risk of moral disengagement on the part of those in power and, in turn, are likely to lead to abusive behaviors."
Did anyone in the White House actually read the Report?