As Sadism Surges on the American Border, Our Collective Understanding of Cruelty Collapses

The Stanford prison experiment, which helped us understand the worst atrocities in history for decades, is called out as a 'sham' at a moment when America is separating asylum seekers from their children at the border.

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Jun 18 2018, 1:43pm

Image: Getty

The Department of Homeland Security is currently committed to a "zero tolerance" immigration policy on the border with Mexico, which so far has separated 2,000 asylum-seeking Central American children from their parents.

If you are not fully familiar with the dehumanizing details of this process, I implore you to read this Texas Monthly interview with a volunteer at a charity who is trying to assist the parents and children who are caught in it.

Generally, a family will arrive at the US-Mexican border, and after being repeatedly denied entry via official crossings, will cross on their own. Once on the American side, many families voluntarily seek Border Patrol so they can officially ask for asylum. It is often at this moment, against established United Nations norms about how asylum seekers should be treated, that parents are prosecuted as criminals and their children are torn away from them.

Here is a section from the Texas Monthly interview that turned my stomach:

...the officers say, “I’m going to take your child to get bathed.” That’s one we see again and again. “Your child needs to come with me for a bath.” The child goes off, and in a half an hour, twenty minutes, the parent inquires, “Where is my five-year-old?” “Where’s my seven-year-old?” “This is a long bath.” And they say, “You won’t be seeing your child again.” Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.”

The first question that came to my mind after reading that was "who could do this?" I understand how president Donald Trump or Attorney General Jeff Sessions could push this policy forward for ideological reasons. I can even imagine how average American citizens could support this policy when the issue of immigration is thrown around as an abstract political football. But I have a hard time imagining the human being who is willing to physically separate a howling, vomiting child from their parent, and to deny them even five minutes of mercy to console one another.

I try to put myself in the shoes of that immigration officer and, though I'm unable to imagine the situation in which I make the same choices, I can, thanks to the Stanford prison experiment, intellectualize the psychological mechanisms that have allowed seemingly average, rank and file officers throughout history to carry out atrocities. Or at least that was true until earlier this month, when the Stanford prison experiment was exposed as being deeply flawed.

The 1971 Stanford prison experiment, named after the university where it was conducted, attempted to explain why people in positions of power, like prison officers, were so often cruel to the people they were in charge of—prisoners—by randomly assigning those positions to volunteers in a controlled setting on campus. The experiment was abandoned after only six days because the prison guards started psychologically abusing the prisoners so harshly, the professor in charge of the experiment, Philip Zimbardo, feared it was starting to cause real harm. The conclusion of the experiment was that, despite what people might believe about themselves, their behavior can be dictated by the situations they find themselves in: the guards were cruel because they had the power to be cruel, and the prisoners accepted cruelty because they didn't think they had the power to do anything about it.

The Stanford prison experiment resonated with me deeply when I was first taught it in college. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, it helped me understand the individual behaviors that led to some of the worst crimes against humanity in history. As a product of Israeli society, it helped me understand how the people I knew personally and believed to be "good" were capable of committing and/or being complicit in war crimes against Palestinians. I imagine that the Stanford prison experiment became one of the most famous psychological experiments of all time for similar reasons.

What seemed like an established explanation to one of the hardest questions in life—why are people evil to one another?—was upended earlier this month in Ben Blum's article on Medium, in which one of the prisoners who was locked in a closet and was taped screaming for help, admitted that he was "faking" so he could get out of the experiment early and study for his Graduate Record Exams. In a damning audio recording, David Jaffe, one of Zimbardo’s students who acted as the prison “warden,” is heard instructing one of the prison guards to be tougher on the prisoners, and even explains to him that the experiment won't work unless he changes his behavior to make it "seem like a prison."

The experiment has been strongly criticized for years for being both unethical and unscientific, but hearing participants say it was staged and perhaps designed to achieve a certain outcome makes it even harder to take seriously; Blum’s article calls it a “sham.” At the very least, it undermines its scientific, canonical standing.

On a personal, devastating level, if the lessons of the Stanford prison experiment are wrong, I am once again left without answers for how average, mid-century Germans became systematic exterminators of six million Jews, how the citizens of "the only democracy in the Middle East" are engaged in the longest military occupation in history, and how Americans, all descendants of immigrants, are now forcefully separating immigrants from their children at the border.

As Blum points out in his piece, the lessons of the Stanford prison experiment were haunting because they suggested that each and every one of us, despite what we might think of ourselves and our conceptions of what is right or wrong, could become a Nazi concentration camp executioner if we were put in a certain situation. That type of evil, the study suggested, lurks in all of us.

But that same lesson, perhaps subconsciously, is also comforting because it lets us off the hook. According to the experiment, were I put in that same situation and committed the same atrocities, I wouldn't be any better or worse than any other person put in that situation.

In a way, the Stanford prison experiment lets the individual who takes a child away from his parents off the hook, and it lets the society that has allowed this policy to come into place and be implemented off the hook by extension.

It is painful to take responsibility for these things, for the ICE officers who are “following orders,” but also for every American who is watching these kids on the news and not doing everything they can to stop it. If the Stanford experiment is wrong, and this kind of cruelty can't be blamed on the "situation," what does that make us?