Human Paleopsychology

MensNewsDaily Columns 4-5

Kent G. Bailey.  Decent into Darkness Part I: Human  Nature and the Abu Ghraib Fiasco (Part I).  MND, May 18, 2004.
     The actions of our prison personnel depicted in the Abu Ghraib photos and videos represents one of the greatest moral embarrassments ever suffered by the U. S. military and the nation as a whole.  And it could not have come at a worse time for the country and present administration.  We entered the war with Iraq on two basic pretexts, one explicit and the other implicit.  Explicitly, it was fear of Saddam Hussein's WMDs, and implicitly President Bush and company felt compelled to bring  "our morally superior democratic way of life" to the people of Iraq.  I am a Bush supporter in general, but no WMDs have been found and Abu Ghraib has left America in moral shambles.
     Columnists and commentators have expressed utter shock and dismay over the Abu Ghraib fiasco.  Kathleen Parker suggests that our pornographic culture has dumbed down the idea of dignity and personal moral responsibility to the point that Abu Ghraib should come as no surprise.  Anne Applebaum says that the American soldiers and civilians involved were not quite Nazi or Soviet camp guards, but they clearly treated their enemies as less than human.  Jeff Donn emphasizes that the Abu Ghraib guards were otherwise normal and unremarkable people by societal standards, and they behaved much like the student "guards" in Phillip Zimbardo's classic 1971 study.  According to Stanford psychologist Zimbardo, just playing a guard seemed to temporarily blot out the experiences of a lifetime for some students "and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced." 
     To quote Bill Clinton, it depends on what Zimbardo means by "pathological."  Historically, the Abu Ghraib guards behaved much like our pre-modern human ancestors in their relations with human enemies and prey animals of other species.  Humans have always tended to see their enemies as less human than themselves, and animals of prey are, of course, not human by definition.  It is ever so easy for the human mind to place a hated other into the non-human category and to, then, treat them no better than "prey."
       For several million years up to a mere 12,000 or so years ago, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers and the male hunters spent much of their day planning and preparing for the hunt or actually hunting.  Such hunting involved gaining access to an animal of prey, killing it in an often brutal and group-organized manner, and then proudly bringing it back to a deeply appreciative village.  These were the star athletes of the Paleolithic and there were groupies galore.  Cutting up the meat and sharing the bounty was often in a festive and very socially enjoyable atmosphere.  Everything centered around the warrior-hunters and their prize prey. 
     I believe that the hunter motif- hunting of prey, joy in killing in the group male context, and festive eating and celebration- lies deep within the archetypes of the human mind.  Perhaps the most dramatic and "inexplicable" aspect of Abu Ghraib was the festive and joyous atmosphere in which the depraved acts occurred.   
     In his 1979 book on Human Family Systems, sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe describes the behavior of an obscure tribe of Melanesian cannibals observed in the 1950s.  After killing a number of people from a neighboring tribe, groups of men and women gathered around the corpses and engaged in a joyous orgy of body mutilation and some body parts were consumed on the spot.  Moreover, some of the males copulated with the corpses while simultaneously cutting off body parts!  Hunting, killing, sex, and joy- a not so neat package that goes far back in human ancestry.  
    In Abu Ghraib others had already done the hunting and capturing and the "prey" were not killed as a matter of practice.  But we still have the abject de-humanization of the enemy, the sex, the joy, and the festivity.  Prison guards were given total control over their "prey" enemies, and, thus, the ancient motivational urge to release "inhuman" violence rose to the surface. This is, in my view, the major underlying cause of the Abu Ghraib fiasco, and invoking "lack of discipline," "lack of supervision," "orders from above," and the like, greatly miss the point. 
     The standard list of excuses tells us little of substance about the descent into darkness.    Without an older human nature in the background, there would be no Abu Ghraib despite a multitude of aggravating conditions.  In his preliminary comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee,  Donald Rumsfeld erred a bit in saying that the behavior of the Abu Ghraib guards was "cruel, sadistic, and inhuman."  Unfortunately, it was all too human.
    Kent G. Bailey.  Decent into Darkness: Abu Ghraib and the Enlightenment View of Man (Part II).   MND, May 22, 2004.
     The behavior of the Abu Ghraib guards was not only a national and international embarrassment, but also a grievous threat to the Enlightenment view of the perfectibility of man.  Secular humanism and the mystique of human perfectibility so permeate the American sense of self that any sign of "animalistic" behavior throws the intellectual classes into a state of panic, repression, and denial.  This process of denial seems to affect conservative thinkers about as much as "there is no such thing as a bad boy" liberals.  Widespread denial may explain why there is no comprehensive theory in social science to explain "phylogenetically regressive" events like Abu Ghraib (Bailey, May 16, 2003, in MND). 
     Lack of theory leads to oxymoronic arguments like "the behavior of the Abu Ghraib guards was so low, so stupid, so vile, and so inhuman that there had to be a higher cause behind it."  We humans simply do not do such things unless under orders from those of higher rank.  Some family members even imply that, in following such orders, the accused guards were merely doing their duty in the fight against international terrorism.  The Enlightenment view demands that any primitive outpourings must be blamed on anything other than the atavistic actions of the perpetuators themselves...or rationalized as "really not that bad after all."
     Then there is the helpful but woefully incomplete line of argument that the guards' vile behavior was "caused" by a lengthy list of aggravating and extenuating circumstances- e. g., physical and mental exhaustion, the desert heat, sexual tension between male and female personnel, lax discipline and poor management of the prison by those higher in the chain of command, and so on.  At best, these are secondary causes that merely stress the guards' capacity to inhibit ancient and archetypal tendencies that reside deep in the minds of all of us.  Without those deeper tendencies all of the stressors in the world could not have produced the Abu Ghraib fiasco.
     In my first piece on Abu Ghraib (MND, May 18, 2004, Part I), I referred to the joy, festivity, and sexual abandon associated with the killing, mutilation, and consuming of enemies by an obscure tribe of Melanesian cannibals observed in the 1950s.  Of course, Abu Ghraib was far short of that, but there are disturbing similarities.  There was plenty of joy, festivity, and sexual abandon as the guards abused, injured, humiliated and de-humanized their charges- and treated them as captured "prey."  The joy and festivity exhibited literally beg for theoretical explanation.
    The Melanesian cannibals exhibited the full hunting complex- hunting, killing, mutilation of the corpse, and literally consuming the remains.  To all of this they fused in the sexual motif to augment the festive occasion.   From the perspective of the victims, however, it was a humiliating and agonizing form of death that gives reality to our worst nightmares. 
     On a hypothetical scale from the lowest human behavior to the highest, the cannibalistic orgy represented something close to the lowest human limit.  Stephen Hawking's most brilliant thought in his illustrious lifetime might represent something close to the highest human limit.  Now, where do we place the depredations of the Abu Ghraib guards on our hypothetical scale?   I would say a bit closer to our Melanesian friends than Stephen Hawking on his best day.
     We speak of the vile behavior of the Abu Ghraib guards, but this is somewhat of a misnomer.  What we call behavior is a complex amalgamation of motivation, emotion, thought, fantasy, and overt action.  Many of us have been motivated, emotionally energized, and driven by obsessive thoughts and fantasies to do the most awful and vile things.  But a person of high moral character rarely, if ever, allows the worst of the ancestral self to invade the domain of human action.  He or she may be boiling internally with anger, loneliness, or sexual frustration, but observers have no hint of the inner torment and ancient themes in play.
     What frightens and abhors us is the alacrity with which the accused Abu Ghraib guards invited their animal selves into the realm of overt behavior.  No doubt, many of the best-behaved guards wished ill to their enemy and might have enjoyed the rituals of humiliation and sexual abandon.  But they would never have behaved so abominably...orders or not.
     Most of us delve every day into the animal self in desire, feeling, and fantasy, but the moral test is at the gate to overt behavior.  This is where Lynndie England and the other abusers failed.  As long as people do not act animalistically, then the Enlightenment sense of self can prevail.  But Lynndie and the rest unleashed their ancestral selves for us all to see- and we hate them for it.
Study these pages and become a paleopsychologist!
Kent G. Bailey [email protected]