An Interview with Philip Zimbardo

“We were, at some personal, Hollywood level, pulling for the prisoners to resist.”
Signs that inmate 819 wouldn’t last six days:
Hysterical weeping
Destruction of pillow and mattress
Upon release, expressed a wish to “go back and prove I’m a good prisoner”

An Interview with Philip Zimbardo

“We were, at some personal, Hollywood level, pulling for the prisoners to resist.”
Signs that inmate 819 wouldn’t last six days:
Hysterical weeping
Destruction of pillow and mattress
Upon release, expressed a wish to “go back and prove I’m a good prisoner”

An Interview with Philip Zimbardo

Tamler Sommers
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Put yourself in the following situation. You’ve agreed to participate in a Yale University study that explores the use of punishment to aid learning and memorization skills. You’re randomly assigned the roll of “teacher”; the “learner” is strapped to an apparatus in the next room and given a series of memory exercises. Your task as the teacher is to press a lever that sends an electric shock to the learner every time he answers a question incorrectly. The shocks increase in intensity for every incorrect answer—up the scale from level 1 (15 volts) to level 13 (195 volts, marked “Very Strong Shock”) to level 25 (375 volts, “Danger—Severe Shock”), ending at level 30 (450 volts, marked “XXX”). The learner you’ve been paired with is not doing well. He’s making a lot of mistakes and has begun complaining about the pain from the shocks. You check with the experimenter and he assures you that it’s OK to continue. Still more mistakes. Now the learner screams in pain at every wrong answer. He begs you and the experimenter to let him out. He complains about a heart condition. You’re up to level 13 now, 195 volts, labeled “Very Strong Shock.” You don’t want to continue, but the experimenter reminds you that you agreed to do this and claims that he will take full responsibility for whatever happens. The learner screams that they have no right to keep him here. The experimenter asks you firmly to keep going.

What would you do in this situation? Would you take a stand and walk out? Or would you keep pulling the levers, all the way up the scale, past the point where the screaming from the other room has turned into silence….

Many readers will recognize this description as a portrait of the famous Milgram experiments. (For those unfamiliar with the study, the “learner” was really an actor, a confederate of the experimenter. The experiment was in fact a study of obedience to authority figures. The shocks were not genuine.) Conducted in the 1960s, the Milgram experiments presented a deep challenge to American ideas about the power of individual character and free choice. In a follow-up study, Milgram asked subjects to predict how far up the shock scale they would go in this kind of situation. Subjects replied, on average, that they would refuse to continue after level 10. Nobody said that they would go as far as level 20, and when asked to predict the behavior of others, subjects imagined that only 1 to 2 percent would go all the way to level 30. A group of forty psychiatrists, after hearing about the experiment, agreed with this assessment. After all, only a sadist could repeatedly electrocute an innocent stranger just because a psychologist told him to, right?

Wrong. Both the psychiatrists and the subjects were way off. As it turned out, two out of every three subjects went all the way up to level 30, sending what they believed were 450 volts into the learner in the next room. And once they passed 330 volts, when the learner had stopped screaming and fell silent (unconscious or dead perhaps), almost no one stopped until the end. Either two thirds of the Connecticut population are sadists, or bucking authority is much more difficult than we imagine.

The Milgram study is one of the twin towers of experiments in the “situationist” tradition, studies that reveal the extent to which our circumstances and environment influence human behavior. The other is an equally controversial study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. A former classmate of Stanley Milgram’s at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Dr. Zimbardo wanted to study the effects of a prison environment on human behavior. He gathered a group of college students, randomly divided them into “prisoners” and “guards,” and placed them in a simulated prison at Stanford University. What followed is discussed at some length below; for now, it’s enough to say that the behavior was so unexpectedly brutal and dehumanizing that the experiment—designed to last two weeks—had to be cut short after only six days. So when Zimbardo heard about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and then saw the notorious photographs, he says he was not surprised. He had seen this pattern of abuse before—the sexual humiliation, naked prisoners with bags over their heads—in his own simulated prison! And when the Bush administration depicted the abuses as the actions of “a few bad apples,” Zimbardo could say with some authority that a “bad barrel”—the twelve-hour shifts without a day off, fatigue, stress, ambiguous orders from above, the systematic lack of leadership, and the prison itself—was likely the more important contributing factor. After hearing him interviewed on NPR about the scandal, the lawyer for Chip Frederick, one of the guards at Abu Ghraib, asked Zimbardo to serve as an expert witness for the defense. And this experience prompted him to write a book, The Lucifer Effect, about the Abu Ghraib abuses, the power of situational elements to influence behavior, and, for the first time ever, a detailed, reflective, and fascinating account of the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted almost forty years earlier.

Dr. Zimbardo is professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University. I met him at his house just off the zigzagged portion of Lombard Street in San Francisco. Over scones and tea, looking out onto the bay, we discussed the prison experiment and its implications for ethics, responsibility, free will, and social policy. This interview has been abridged from the full version, which will appear in A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, to be published next month by Believer Books.

—Tamler Sommers


THE BELIEVER: I take it that one of the goals of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to build on Milgram’s results that demonstrated the power of situational elements. Is that right?

PHILIP ZIMBARDO: It was really to broaden his message and put it to a higher-level test. In Milgram’s study, we don’t know about those thousand people who answered the ad. His subjects were not Yale students, although he did it at Yale. They were a thousand ordinary citizens from New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut, ages twenty to fifty, and in his advertisement in the newspaper he said: college students and high-school students cannot be used. It could have been a selection of people who were more psychopathic. For our study, we picked only two dozen of seventy-five who applied, who on seven different personality tests were normal or average. So we knew there were no psychopaths, no deviants. Nobody had been in therapy, and even though it was a drug era, nobody (at least in the reports) had taken anything more than marijuana, and they were physically healthy at the time. So the question was: Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place—would their goodness triumph?

BLVR: But as it turned out…

PZ: Even when we preselect for intelligent, normal, healthy young men, that doesn’t minimize the power of the situation.

BLVR: Now I read that the focus of the study was going to be mostly about the prisoners more than the guards? Since then, interest in the study has in large part shifted to the guards.

PZ: When we got the idea to do the study, yes. More about the prisoners. To prepare for the research, I taught a course in the psychology of imprisonment with an ex-convict, a guy named Carlo Prescott, who later became the consultant for this study. He had just been released from prison after seventeen years. And so my sympathies were heavily with prisoners. I was anti-prisons, anti-corrections, etc. We really wanted to understand the socialization into becoming a prisoner, what’s happening. Essentially, we were, at some personal, Hollywood level, pulling for the prisoners to resist.

BLVR: Hoping that they’d all be Cool Hand Luke to one degree or another.

PZ: They’ll be Cool Hand Luke or they’re going to pretend to go along with it, and when we bugged the cells we could say, “Oh, we’re faking this thing.” After the first day, we’re ready to call it quits, because nothing is happening. Everybody feels awkward. But then what became apparent was the ingenuity of the guards. It’s the guards that make this thing work or not work. The key was the morning of the second day, the prisoners rebelled. They’re saying, “Fuck you,” they’re cursing at the guards, they’re ripping off their numbers, you know, “We’re people!” It’s like all those protest marches. “I’m a man,” that kind of thing. I was really happy. The guards came to me and said, “What are we gonna do?” I said, “It’s your prison; make the decision.” They said, “Well, we need support.” So they called in the other shifts. But now the guards on the morning shift started dumping on the other shift, “How did you let this happen?” So suddenly there’s egos involved, and the whole shift now is embarrassed. So now that they have twelve guards, they broke down the doors, they stripped the prisoners naked, there was some physical struggle, and they got the ringleaders of the rebellion and put them in solitary.

BLVR: And that was when all the degradation started?

PZ: Normally, there’s only three guards and nine prisoners. And each shift now realized that [the rebellion] could happen again on their shift. First thing, they said, “I realize now these are dangerous prisoners.” So they’re going to have to use tactics. There’s a good cell and a bad cell. The prisoners in the good cell are going to get privileges. Then they said, “Everything is a privilege” short of breathing air. Food is a privilege.

BLVR: Was there a sort of taste of having this power over someone else, this authority?

PZ: I think that came secondarily. I think it was the fear first, that this could happen at any time, it took us by surprise, it was embarrassing for that shift. Then all the other guards think, It could happen on my shift, then I would be responsible. But saying that they’re dangerous prisoners meant that they’re no longer experimental subjects. I think the sense of power came after they began to ratchet up the control. To say, OK, now we’re going to have these counts go on for hours on end. We’re going to arbitrarily show that we’re in control. I tell a joke, you laugh, I punish you. I tell a joke, you don’t laugh, I punish you. I think the sense of power came after the display of domination and control, in that you began to feel that, yeah, I can do this, I can get away with it. And then once the prisoners gave in even slightly, then they just kept amping it up.

BLVR: This is jumping ahead, but didn’t you quote Charles Graner [the Abu Ghraib ringleader] as saying something like “Part of me thought this was terrible, that what I’m doing is humiliating another person; part of me just likes to see a prisoner piss his pants.”

PZ: Graner said that the Christian in him knew it was wrong, the other part… you want to see a guy pissing his pants. There’s a movie done called The Human Behavior Experiments, by Alex Gibney. He’s the one who won the Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side. And he had the Milgram study, the Stanford Prison Study, and he interviewed some of the participants from the study. He interviews the guard they called John Wayne, who’s now a mortgage broker in the suburbs someplace. So Gibney asks John Wayne about Abu Ghraib. John Wayne says, given the time we could have gotten there, you know, we were almost there. And then he says something like “We got off on having them be our puppets,” or “We got off on being puppeteers.” So it really was that sense of total control. It’s like Pinocchio. It’s frightening, but it’s also insightful to say, “Look how far we came in five days.”


BLVR: Another really interesting part of your book is your fairly detailed description of the situation’s impact over you, Philip Zimbardo as the “prison superintendent.” My favorite example in the book is after one of the prisoners broke down and you had to release him, you thought he was going to lead a prison break-in. So you started to get obsessed with this prison break-in in your prison, and you’re trying to reach the chief of police. The officer thinks you’re a nutcase.

PZ: Right, “psycho psychologist”—and that was only the third day! Of course, it was all a rumor, there was no break-in. But see, I had been doing research on rumor transmission; I do a demonstration in my classes, so I’m interested in rumors. And now there was a rumor of a break-in. I was the psychologist! I should have said, “Great, we’re gonna study this.” And if there was a break-in, that would have been a very dramatic thing, what would happen, how would you deal with it? But at that point I had become the prison superintendent, and the only interest you have is your institution. The administrator cares about the institution, the integrity of the institution and its staff, and that’s where, you know, I really switched over to being focused more on the institution, the agenda, the itinerary, and the guards.

BLVR: So you brought the prisoners up to a classroom….

PZ: The fifth-floor storage room, actually; it was terrible. It was this dark room and there were bags over their heads for hours and hours. And I was sitting there too, so it’s wasting time, and nothing happened. We didn’t collect data on the rumor transmission, we just wasted all this time. But do we all realize how stupid we were? No, we blame it on the prisoners. We think that somebody must have spread that rumor to get us upset. So then the guards said, “OK, we’re going to step up, ratchet up the abuse of the prisoners. We’re going to keep them up longer, counts are going to be two hours at a time, push-ups will be doubled, and so forth. Put them in solitary confinement for longer periods for any infraction.” So that was transformative for me, but I still didn’t realize it. It’s not like I stepped back and said, “Oh my god, look at you.”

BLVR: At any point did you have a kind of awareness that “I’m getting sucked into it,” or did that only come afterward?

PZ: No, well—it came out partially when 819… he was beginning to have an emotional breakdown. When the chaplain was interviewing him among the others, he started crying, you know, hysterically, and at that point I thought the chaplain was going to say, “Blow the whistle, look, this is out of control.” In fact, he tells me later, he said, “Oh, that’s a first-offender reaction, that is, they’re all very emotional initially and they have to learn not to do that, because they’re going to look like sissies, they’re going to get abused.” But then 819 goes ballistic, he starts ripping up his pillow and mattress and shit, and they put him in solitary confinement. And his cellmates get punished for not limiting that. He’s now hysterical and one of the guards comes and says, “We think he’s breaking down.” So I bring him up to a recreation room for the cameramen and observers. When prisoners were going to be released we brought them there to settle down, cool down, before we took them to student health, whatever. So I bring this guy there, 819, and I’m saying, “OK, 819, look, time is up, we’re going pay you for the whole time,” and so forth, and just then the guards line up the prisoners and get them to chant: “[Number] 819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what 819 did my cell is a mess. I’m being punished for 819.”

Now this guy starts crying again and says, “I’ve got to go back!” “What do you mean?” He said, “I’ve got to go back and prove I’m not a bad prisoner.” And so that was a shock. And so I said, “Wait a minute, you’re not a prisoner, you’re not 819, this is an experiment, you’re a student, your name is Stewart.” And at that point I said, “And I’m Phil Zimbardo.” He said, “OK, OK.” And I escorted the student out. But saying: “I’m not the superintendent. I’m this other person…”

BLVR: It was almost as much of a discovery for you as it was for him?

PZ: Yeah, so it was.… But then you get sucked back in.

BLVR: Even the peripheral people, right? The parents, the chaplain…

PZ: Yes. The chaplain is there because he came to see me, he wanted some references for a paper he was doing on violence or something, and then he told me he had been a prison chaplain. And I said, “Hey, I’m going to do this experiment, could you come down and give me, like, a validity check?” So he’s in my office and he comes down and he’s treating me like I was the superintendent. And so he is really at fault, he definitely should have blown the whistle at that point.

BLVR: At fault in one sense, right? Like everybody else, wasn’t he also just sucked into his role?

PZ: Yeah, sucked into the role. The kid is breaking down; this was after three days. And he says, “Oh, it’s very realistic, what you’re doing. Good simulation.” The amazing thing with him is that during meetings with the prisoners, he asks them: “What’re you doing when you get out?” And they say, “What do you mean, sir?” “Well, you’re in a prison.” So he actually reinforced it, because he’s an outsider. And he tells them they need a lawyer if they want to get out. And one kid says, “Well, you know, I’m gonna go to law school. I can defend myself.” And the chaplain says, “Lawyers who defend themselves have a fool for a client.” The kid says, “What?” And then he says, “Would you like me to get you help?” And the kid says, “Yeah.” The kid gives him his mother’s name, he calls. So there’s this bizarre thing. He calls the mother and says, “Your son needs a lawyer.”

BLVR: The parents went along with all of this as well, right?

PZ: Yes, well, one of the rules was that on visiting days, visiting nights, parents had to see the warden first, and then the superintendent on their way out. And the reason we did this is because we wanted to bring their behavior in the situation under control. So essentially, these are good, middle-class parents, and they’re following the rules. They sign in, they sit down, they see the warden, they go in, they see the superintendent. And they just fall into it.

The other story, which was very moving, this couple comes out after seeing their son, and he’s in really bad shape. And the mother begins right off: “I don’t mean to make trouble, sir”—that’s the other thing, the “sir.” You see, usually they’d say “doctor” or “professor,” but “sir”— “but I’ve never seen my son looking so bad.” As soon as you say, “I don’t mean to make trouble,” a red light goes on in my head. She’s going make trouble. So she’s trouble—not to the experiment, to the prison. And so I say, “What seems to be your son’s problem?”

BLVR: Your son’s problem.

PZ: Yes, right, so here the whole experiment is about the power of the situation over the dispositional personal attributions. She’s saying, “There’s something bad about this situation.” As an administrator, I’m saying: “What’s wrong with your kid?” She says, “Well, he doesn’t sleep.” I said, “Does he have insomnia?” So I’m putting the problem onto him, not the situation. And she says, “No, no, they wake them up every few hours.” And I said, “Oh, that, that’s called the counts.” I run through this whole thing, and I tell her why it’s essential, and the husband’s just sitting there, real quiet and really upset because his wife is challenging authority. She says again, “I don’t mean to make trouble.” And so I think… she’s going to blow the whistle. And automatically, I did something which is so horrific, against all my values, I just turn to the father and say, “Don’t you think your boy can handle a little stress?”

BLVR: Wow, so that he’ll…

PZ: What’s he going to say? “My boy’s a sissy?” He’s gotta say, “Of course. He’s a tough guy, he’s a leader.” Essentially what I’m doing is saying, “Here’s this woman who’s soft. And we men have to stick together.” And yes: What does it say about your son, and therefore what does it say about his father? I mean, you want to say that your son is a sissy? He can’t handle it? But it was automatic. It wasn’t a strategic thing. This is instantaneous. We have all that knowledge stored. So we did the handshake thing. The son breaks down that night and the next day I get a letter—I think I have it in the book—I get a letter the next day from the mother saying, “Thank you very much, it’s really very interesting, I’m still concerned about my son.” Meanwhile, he had broken down. So she was right on.

BLVR: Another fascinating description from the book is Carlo. Carlo was a prisoner himself, on parole, right? A consultant for the study, and then you had him leading the parole board. You’d think that if anybody would be sensitive to the sort of suffering that goes with being in front of a parole board, it would be Carlo. And yet he jumped into the role with both feet.

PZ: It is interesting. Nobody’s really mentioned Carlo. And it’s really a powerful thing. Here’s a guy who for seventeen years had his parole denied, and that means every year you come up, once a year, you have three to five minutes to plead your case, you do your thing, and you get turned down. And you don’t know why. They don’t tell you why. Just… you got turned down. So he’s recently paroled, and his sympathy should be with the prisoners, no question about it. But now he’s the head of the parole board. And it was brilliant. I think we have a little bit of it on video. He has a blank pad, and he picks it up and says, “I see here from your rap sheet that you’re a troublemaker.” He’s reading from it, he’s very creative and very eloquent. And all the dialogue from the book is actually from the audio tape. Again, here’s a guy who hates prisons, who goes into a rage about what prisons did to him. In prison, he saw people break down. And you put him in that role, he says, “You’re a trouble maker. It says here that you said this and this about this guard and that. You’re a threat to the community. I don’t see how we can release you. What do you expect to do when you get out?” The kid says, “I want to be a teacher.” He says, “I wouldn’t want you teaching my children.” Carlo doesn’t have kids. And so in one way it was this brilliant improvisation, but it was horrendous because he was as evil as a parole officer. And for each one, he said, “Forget it. There’s no way, get out, If it was up to me I’d leave you here forever.” One kid came back in; he went out and came back in and begged him, said, “You know, I’m sorry, I was too flippant,” and so forth.

BLVR: What did Carlo say to that? Something really cutting, I remember that.

PZ: It was some Asian kid, something like “We don’t usually get people of your race here.” And that day this kid got a full psychosomatic rash, you know, his whole body. We had to release him.

BLVR: This is also amazing—it went over two days, and then he felt terrible about it the first night. So then, you’d think, OK, finally, he realizes… But then he was back full force the next day.

PZ: So again, you’re physically out of the situation. You’re saying, “Oh my god, was that me?” But the next day I think was the more hard-core part. And he just goes right back into it. When the whole thing was over, he told me, “When I think back, it makes me sick.” But it’s exactly like [Abu Ghraib guard] Chip Frederick; I don’t know why he did it. You can’t verbalize it, you can’t say, “Oh, I was being put in that status of power, I was showing off to the other people there.” But really what he had encrypted was all of the power, the authority. The same way you hated it when you got turned down. And now you give him the power and what does he do?

BLVR: You focus a lot of criticism in the book on your role in the experiment. Here’s a sort of emblematic quote. You say, “Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class.” Why so hard on yourself?

PZ: Well, yeah, because I deserve it! I was the adult, they were kids. I had done lots of research. I should not have allowed myself to get so trapped in that role. The whole study is about the power of the situation; I mean, that abstract concept should have been there to say, “Hey, look, here’s that thing you’re studying, and here you are caught up in it.” And I keep coming close to it, with 819, with the prison break, but I keep being drawn back in. When one of the prisoners broke down, I should have said, “Look, that’s enough.” The mother was right. And I humiliated her rather than realize that.

One day Christina Maslach came down and saw the guards line up the prisoners for the toilet run at ten o’clock. The guards chain their legs together, they have their bags over their heads, their arms on each other, the guards are cursing, yelling at them, the prisoners are shuffling along. I look up and I have the day’s agenda—and I check off “ten o’clock toilet run.” That’s all it is. She looks at it and says, “This is horrendous! This is dehumanization. This is a violation of everything that humanity stands for. And this is you allowing this to happen, essentially.” So that’s a really critical thing. I’m not being cruel, I’m just being totally indifferent to suffering. And indifferent to suffering, because what’s happening is what usually happens at ten o’clock. If it didn’t happen, then I would be concerned: “Where’s the ten o’clock toilet run?” Now the toilet run didn’t have to be with chains, it didn’t have to be with bags, it didn’t have to be with all this other stuff. But that got to be the routine. So we’re following a routine, it’s nothing more than a checking it off, for me. For her, it’s nothing more than a violation of humanity.


BLVR: Let’s talk about the issue of responsibility. And here I’m almost certain that I’m going to come at this from maybe another side than you normally get it. It seemed in other interviews that people were worried about your work being a threat to moral responsibility and free will. And often, it seems, you assure them that it isn’t. You say a few times in the book, “I’m not saying they’re not responsible, this isn’t ‘excusology’—they’re still responsible for their immoral behavior”—in one interview I think you even used the phrase “ultimately responsible.” My take here is the opposite. It seems like your work does undermine moral responsibility.3 I mean, look at the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was a coin toss that led the guards to be where they were. How can we hold people responsible for bad luck, for a bad coin toss?

PZ: It’s really very complicated, it’s really a central issue that has to be dealt with more. And I think philosophers have to deal more—it’s really a philosophical and legal issue. In the extreme case, it really is “The situation made me do it.” So are we going to put the situation on trial? Well, we don’t have a mechanism. Now, I gave a talk at Harvard Law School and [Harvard psychologist] Jon Hanson said that these ideas should provoke a revolution in legal theory because we have no way of putting the situation on trial. In a sense, international tribunals put the system on trial. They have individuals, but that’s the real importance of international tribunals for crimes against humanity. They say even though, within your system, it was acceptable for you to do this—kill Jews, or kill Tutsis—that there’s a higher international standard of humanity, of justice, that applies, and so it’s that ultimate system which dominates your parochial system, your Nazi system, your communist system, etc.

BLVR: As you say, though, it’s the individuals who are being tried.

PZ: Yes, even there, you know, what comes out of that is the guilt or innocence of each of the leaders. So tribunals say, “We have the power to put leaders on trial, even though they in fact—none of them actually killed anybody—it’s just they created a policy, they created a system.” But I would hope they would go to the next level and make explicit: “In punishing this person we are really publicly declaring that this ideology produced the crimes against humanity. And so we, as an international body of humanists, of jurists, decry the horrors of this kind of system.” So you’re really sending out a message: it’s the system that’s wrong, and these people helped create it. Hitler helped create it, and Pol Pot.… But once it’s created, once the Stanford Prison Experiment was created, I’m irrelevant. If I had died during the thing, it would have gone on. The guards would have been happier. If Hitler had been killed, the whole thing would have gone on only because it had already corrupted the legal system, the educational system, the business system. With all these mechanisms in place, he became irrelevant. In fact, he would have been a big martyr.

BLVR: That’s interesting—you know, there’s a philosophical view of punishment that’s called “the expressivist theory of punishment”—they say that the goal of punishment is not to give people what they deserve, which is hard to make sense of, and not just to deter future crime, but to publicly express your condemnation of an act. Punishment is the only way to express moral condemnation of an act or a system. If you don’t punish the culprits, you’re sending an implicit message that the act is morally acceptable. And I suppose you could apply that to responsibility, that’s the new way to look at responsibility, as expressing our condemnation.

PZ: Yeah, most punishment does not deter, except for a very short time. There are so many factors that go into producing any kind of crime that a deterrent effect can’t have that much influence. In fact, most people don’t even know that someone got arrested in New Hampshire, or Arizona, or Alaska for something and is on death row. So how can it be a deterrent for me here in San Francisco? But the notion that we as a society want to express our revulsion about this kind of act makes sense—that it’s an expression of a public consensus that this is wrong and that we will not tolerate it. And that’s what I’m saying. International tribunals should make explicit that what we’re expressing is this revulsion about a system that could create these crimes against humanity. And the way we’re doing it is by singling out people who were instrumental in carrying out the policies of that system.


BLVR: This talk of responsibility and control reminds of the quote by Condoleezza Rice you cite in the book. She’s explicitly denying the power of situtationalist elements to influence people like terrorists. She puts it all on them, on the wickedness of their characters: “When are we going to stop making excuses for the terrorists and say that someone is making them do it? No, these are simply evil people that want to kill.”

PZ: Right—I was furious! Here’s this supposed intellect. “They’re just evil people.” And you guys are not [evil], you guys are saying, she especially, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” She’s saying, if we didn’t do this [the war on terror] we could have a nuclear bomb go off in the US.

BLVR: You’re very hard on her in the book. The whole Bush administration, really, and Rumsfeld and Cheney especially.

PZ: God, yes!

BLVR: I wanted to play devil’s advocate and ask whether in their own way they were trapped in the situation as well. Which led them to institute their policies. It’s a little harder to figure out the details of their situation be cause there’s so much we don’t know, but isn’t it reasonable to assume that they were in one just as much as…

PZ: No, but see, in their case, they helped create the situation.

BLVR: That’s true, but in doing so, weren’t they also part of a larger situation that led them to create the situation in Abu Ghraib?

PZ: One thing is the abuses in Abu Ghraib. But I’m saying they were the principals in creating the whole—I don’t know what the broadest context is—the war on terror. That is, Cheney primarily, and Bush and Rumsfeld and George Tenet. For very consciously aware reasons, they decided to label the global challenge of terrorism—which it should have been—a war on terrorism, so that Bush could be the active commander in chief, so you have martial law, so you could suspend lots of rights. That’s why it’s called the “war on terror.” And you can’t win a war on nouns! We lost a war on drugs, we lost a war on poverty, we’re losing a war on terror. It’s not clear if verbs win or adjectives win. So I hold them responsible because they set up the system; they are the Hitler and Goebbels and Goering. Each of them said, “Here’s my domain, and I’m going to run it this way, and we’re not allowing alternative views. Saying anyone who criticizes us is putting our boys and soldiers in harm’s way. Anybody who criticizes is not a patriot.” So they set up all these mechanisms to say, you know, you’re feeding the enemy, you’re killing the soldiers by protesting against it. And then essentially instituted… because of this unique power base, the NSA secret thing, they’re spying on us, they have these renditions, torture things, a whole set of things that are alien to everything, all basic American values. The Military Commissions Act, which they pushed through, overturns two hundred years of Anglo-American law. I mean, give up habeas corpus. Simply redefine someone as an [unlawful] enemy combatant; that means they have no rights. And essentially anyone in the world suspected of terrorism can be arrested anyplace in the world, brought to an undisclosed place without a charge, and kept there indefinitely. There’re people in Guantánamo that have been there for seven years with no charges against them except “suspected of terrorism.”

For me, it’s not a matter of their being “trapped in the situation.” I’m saying: They created the situation. They created a system in which each of these parts fell out, so I’m saying they are responsible.

BLVR: In that expressive sense?

PZ: I like that expressive view, yes. But, you know, if we were the losers of the war on terrorism, they’d be held in a war-crimes tribunal. If in fact there was a real war and we lost in Iraq, they would say, “OK, you invaded our country under false pretenses, you did all these things, all these people died. We’re going to put you on trial.”

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