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Obama's Torture Photo Concern: Control Over Populace, Abroad and at Home

When Barack Obama says he will not comply with a federal court order to release photographs of U.S. Government torture, there’s a mystery in his explanation:

The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion…

President Obama chooses his words very carefully when he speaks. He does not say that the publication of these photos would not add any understanding of what was carried out. He says that publishing the photos would not add any “additional benefit to our understanding.” Who is the missing object of the sentence? Who would not benefit from the additional understanding provided by the photographs of torture? And on what basis does Barack Obama conclude that releasing photographs of American torture would inflame anti-American opinion? The answers to these questions are linked.

Consider that non-pictorial information about U.S. Government torture has already been released. We know that just two detainees were drowned hundreds of times. We know that people indefinitely detained without charge were shackled and suspended against walls, thrown against walls, beaten, stripped naked, sexually humiliated, and frozen to the point of ventricular fibrilation by agents of the U.S. Government. We know some people were rendered up to third-party nations for torture worse than this, including the slicing up of their genitals.

All this information is known in the abstract. So why won’t Barack Obama let you see photographs? Why, for that matter, has he not raised a fuss at the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of torture sessions, even though such destruction was an illegal violation of a federal court order?

Why? Because Barack Obama knows his social psychology.

In a classic experiment (destined to remain classic because contemporary research ethics would not permit its replication), social psychologist Stanley Milgram sought to answer the question, “what will it take for people to defy authority?” In the context of his particular experiment, Milgram wanted to know what sort of people would deliver apparently fatal shocks to another human being, and what sort of people wouldn’t.

For these experiments Milgram hired a bookish, chubby, middle-aged man to come in and pretend to be a “learner”. After meeting the learner, the real subject and he would be led to separate rooms that were nevertheless connected by an audio link. The job of the real subject, the “teacher”, was to read off the first half of a word pair that the “learner” was supposed to have memorized. The job of the “learner” was to provide the the correct second word when prompted for it by the “teacher.” If the learner gave a wrong response – or no response at all – the teacher was to provide a shock to the learner. As the learner provided more wrong answers, the teacher was to give stronger and stronger shocks by pressing buttons on a shock generator with voltage indicators and warning labels like “mild,” “moderate,” “severe,” “danger,” and “XXX” under each button.

Nobody was ever really shocked, but the experiment was set up to make it appear that the “learner” was indeed being shocked. As the learner seemed to receive more and more severe shocks, the learner would provide (through pre-recorded audio) stronger and stronger protests, then demand to end the experiment, and finally, after revealing a heart condition, scream and fall silent.

During the experiment, the researcher simply stood by and, when prompted by the subject, would reiterate that shocks were to be delivered. No physical force was used to force subjects to continue to shock the learners. Yet, although subjects complained and got very distraught, a large majority of subjects continued to provide shocks when asked to do so by the researcher. A large majority went along with the program, even while declaring aloud that they didn’t want to.

In an Esquire magazine article published in the 1970s, Stanley Milgram described his frustration with these research findings, generated while working out of a lab in New England. You see, he had planned to conduct these experiments in America and then again in Germany, with the idea of explaining German conformity against a baseline of American righteousness. Milgram wanted to use deviation from the American ideal to understand how Germans were different, why Germans would sheepishly toe the Nazi line, why Germans would go along with the commission of atrocities while Americans wouldn’t. But Milgram’s American subjects refused to provide a clean, usable baseline for comparison to Germans. They, too, went right along with the program. Two-thirds of Americans continued to shock the “learner” right through the “learner’s” screams and ultimate silence, right up to the maximum “XXX” voltage, until the experimenter brought the procedure to a stop.

In the popular conception of the Milgram shock experiments, this is where the lessons end: gosh, we are all conformist sheep, even we supposedly individualist Americans. But this isn’t the point at which the experiments actually ended. In his own dated but nevertheless illuminating book, Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram explains his persistence in these experiments and how he began manipulating the structural conditions of the experiments to obtain variation in the degree of subjects’ conformity. In these follow-up experiments, Milgram found ways to produce less conformity and more outright disobedience of authority. The most productive way to increase subjects’ defiance of authority, Milgram’s experiments show, is to make suffering visible.

Below is a chart contrasting two of Milgram’s shock experiments. Each dot represents the number of subjects who refused to administer shocks at particular voltage levels. The dots on the far right of the chart indicate how many people refused to stop, continuing to administer shocks right up to the highest level labeled “XXX” at an apparent 450 volts. In the first experiment (with dots colored blue), the “learner” received shocks in another room; the subject couldn’t see the learner suffer the effects of the shocks. In the second experiment (dots colored red), the “learner” was put in the same room as the subject so that the subject could see the (apparent) suffering caused by the shocks.

Milgram Shock Experiment Data: Obedience to Authority Varies Depending on Whether Suffering is Made Visible

The difference in subjects’ behavior between the two conditions is striking. When subjects cannot see the suffering of another person — even though they abstractly know of it — two-thirds will continue to obediently comply in a program of inflicting pain at all levels. When subjects can see the suffering of another person, only a minority will continue to comply with authority figures’ demands for compliance. When they can see the results of their actions, a majority refuse to administer the shocks at some point, and those who refuse to obey tend to do so earlier on in the experiment, at lower levels of apparent shock.

Apply this pattern to the current circumstance. If the Obama administration releases abstract written descriptions of American torture practices, it can expect the majority of the people who read those descriptions to respond in a tepid fashion to them. Some members of this majority may express upset or dismay, but they won’t actually do anything about it.

But if Barack Obama allows photographs of the American treatment of its indefinite detainees to be seen, what will happen then? Obama trots out the most extreme possible response — that someone will get so upset about it that they’ll shoot an American soldier — but as the most extreme possibility it is the least likely response. The most likely response is that, with varying degrees of vehemence, people will do something to bring the mistreatment of American detainees to an end. People will march on U.S. embassies and hold pickets there. They will shout and hold signs in protest, and the images of this defiance on the television news will embolden others to protest American policies. People will write angry letters to newspapers; they will make angry demands that their leaders reform.

If the photographs are released, people will do all this in foreign lands. But they will also do it here at home… and there is much yet to be defied at home. The United States Government under Barack Obama continues to detain people without criminal charge. It continues to do so indefinitely. It has proclaimed its intention to continue to to detain people indefinitely without criminal charge. The conditions under which indefinite detainees are kept and interrogated remain classified. Despite clear and binding federal law against torture and conspiracy to commit torture, American torturers and those who ordered American torture continue to walk the streets free, without charge.

The Obama administration has refused to release photographs of American torture because it wants to prevent defiance — abroad and at home. The Obama administration will strive to keep the photos classified in order to ensure compliance — abroad and at home.

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