When monsters are protected

Posted on August 13, 2018

In 2004, a news leak quickly became an international scandal when photos of the Abu Ghraib incident were released by the media. US Sergeant Joe Darby had submitted photos documenting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers stationed at Abu Ghraib to military investigators.

Reactions to the horrific abuse meted out by Americans soldiers to the detainees were
surprising – such abhorrent actions should warrant a swift condemnation of the American soldiers responsible, instead, the threats levied against Darby’s personal safety and that of his family were so overwhelming and so serious that it prompted him to leave his hometown following the release of his identity as the whistle-blower.

This startling turn of events where the perpetrators were defended, and the victims blamed, can be attributed to the process of social categorization. The human need for a social identity leads to a common and automatic process where we categorize people like us to the in-group, and people
unlike us to the out-group. Research suggests that social categorization can lead to differential judgement of others’ behaviours. It leads to an in-group versus out-group mentality where in-group positivity enhances favouritism of in-group members, and out-group negativity which enhances derogation, hostility and distrust of out-group members.

In this case, the in-group consists of the American soldiers and the American public, by
extension. The out-group here consists of the Iraqi detainees, commonly thought of as the enemy in the US War on Terror. People tend to be intolerant of anything that may threaten their social identity, as it is usually tied to their personal self-esteem. When they perceive external threats to their group, they
defend their group and justify their actions so as to retain their perception of superiority and protect their self-esteem. In the aftermath of the incident, Americans needed to believe they were not the bad guys for torturing other human beings; the soldiers were merely reacting to the extenuating circumstances in a war zone, they were simply performing their duty, or that the punishment of those
Iraqis (the out-group) were warranted.

Most notably, the people who condemned Darby were mostly soldiers or veterans, i.e. the in-group. They justified the aggression shown by the American soldiers by dehumanizing the Iraqi detainees and denying that the latter should be given the same rights and protection due to their perception that they were all “terrorists” and would have done the same to Americans if the tables were turned. Darby, himself supposedly a part of the in-group, was viewed very negatively when he turned in the perpetrators. The black sheep phenomenon explains that a group member who performs a
disagreeable act is evaluated more harshly than an outgroup member who does the same. Darby’s actions of turning in his own comrades to defend the enemy was thus interpreted as a betrayal, a significant attack on the in-group’s welfare and reputation.

The in-group positivity mentality thus explains the appalling condemnation of Darby, instead
of the perpetrators, as punishment of the out-group was deemed justifiable. Accordingly, out-group negativity also gave the American soldiers the mental justification to torture the Iraqis; even after being convicted, there was still widespread support for the perpetrators’ actions.

To prevent similar incidents from happening again, there should be regular and thorough
spot-checks of detention facilities in warzones, conducted by neutral third-parties such as the Red Cross or Amnesty International, to prevent the military from covering up for their own

Category(s):Aggression & Violence, Bullying, Prejudice / Discrimination, Values Clarification

Source material from Yvonne Ting