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The Evil In Us

Prisoner torture in Iraq exposes the ordinary face of human depravity.
2004This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

The photographs from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison have forced us once again to look horrible human nature in the eye, just as the photographs of emaciated prisoners stacked up like cordwood at the Bergen-Belsen death camp did in 1945. How could these things happen? How could civilized people act so? How could American soldiers do these things and then give the camera a big grin and a thumbs up? Indeed, how could a Christian do such things? (One of the perpetrators of the Abu Ghraib atrocities has identified himself as a Christian.)

We all tend to distance ourselves from such evidence of human evil. In 1997 theologian Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote in Books & Culture about historians who foolishly try to locate the reasons for the Holocaust in the character of the German people. But Christian scholars, she said, "must, or should, introduce the problem of human evil … and attempt to show the ways in which systematic and well-organized murder is, alas, an immanent possibility in human affairs given the right set of circumstances."

Self-policing doesn't work

Social science experiments help us face the biblical truth about human depravity. In the summer of 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a now-famous prison simulation experiment. Volunteers were recruited and randomly assigned to be "guards" and "prisoners."

In a matter of hours, the abuse began. The experiment was scheduled to run for two weeks, but Zimbardo cut it short at six days. Not only were the volunteers getting out of hand, but Zimbardo also saw himself changing. "I began to talk, walk, and act like a rigid institutional authority figure more concerned about the security of 'my prison' than the needs of the young men entrusted to my care," he wrote. ...

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