Roundup: Media's Take
This is where we excerpt articles from the media that take a historical approach to events in the news.
Rick Hampson, in USA Today (May 13, 2004):
One of the most surprising things about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S.
soldiers is that so many Americans are surprised.
Decades of research and eons of history point to one conclusion: Under certain circumstances, most normal people will treat their fellow man with abnormal cruelty. The schoolboys' descent into barbarism in William Golding's classic The Lord of the Flies is fiction that contains a deeper truth.
And from Andersonville to the "Hanoi Hilton," no combination of circumstances turns us against our better nature faster than the combination of war and prison, whether we are acting on orders or on our own.
Charles Figley, a Florida State University psychologist who studied the experiences of 1,000 U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War, describes himself as "shocked about people being shocked" by the reports from Iraq.
"About 25% of the vets I've talked to either participated in, witnessed, or were aware of violations of the Geneva Conventions" in Vietnam, he says.
Geneva is a long way from Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where U.S. military police photographed each other tormenting hooded, naked Iraqis in their custody. Three face courts-martial, and four others could soon learn whether they will be tried, too.
President Bush has called the alleged offenders a relative few whose actions "do not reflect the nature of the men and women who serve our country." Still, many Americans wonder how people described as kind and decent by the folks back home could lapse into such extraordinary behavior.
Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist who presided over the single most famous experiment in the field, blames the system, not the soldiers, who "were put in a situation where the outcome was totally predictable."
"It's not a few bad apples," he says. "It's the barrel that's bad. The barrel is war. That's what can corrupt, whether it's in My Lai or in Baghdad." ...
The two most famous experiments that bear directly on Abu Ghraib were separately designed and executed by two members of the class of 1950 at James Monroe High School in the Bronx Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram.
In the early 1960s, Milgram was teaching at Yale and studying the impact of authority on human behavior. He wanted to see whether ordinary people would follow orders to keep administering what they thought were ever more painful and powerful electric shocks to test subjects.
He hired local residents to participate in what he told them was an experiment in "teaching through punishment." They were the "teachers," and they would, on instructions, apply electrical shocks to the "learners." The director would take responsibility for any harm to the "learners."
What Milgram found surprised him: based purely on the instructions of a researcher in a white lab coat, two-thirds of the subjects kept raising the voltage levels, despite the howls (and eventually the ominous silence) of the learners in the next room. The teachers didn't know the electricity wasn't on, and that the learners were actors pretending to be hurt.
Milgram later identified some key conditions for suspending human morality, many relevant to Abu Ghraib: an acceptable justification for the behavior; an important role for participants; use of euphemisms such as "learners" (instead of victims); and a gradual escalation of violence.
A decade later, Milgram's old honors program classmate undertook an experiment of his own in a basement of the psychology building at Stanford.
In 1971, Zimbardo recruited 24 college students from around the San Francisco Bay Area to pose as guards or inmates in a mock prison for two weeks.
But, in contrast to Milgram, he gave them few further orders and supervised them only loosely.
Quickly, the guards became more and more abusive, the inmates more and more cowed. At night, when Zimbardo was gone, guards put bags over inmates' heads, stripped them of clothing and told them to simulate sex acts. Finally, after several inmates suffered emotional breakdowns, a shaken Zimbardo stopped the experiment after six days.
He concluded later that he himself had gotten swept up in the situation and didn't see what was happening until it was too late. "You could never even try that today," he says. "You'd be sued."
While Milgram's study stands for the proposition that most good people will sometimes follow bad orders, Zimbardo's suggests that sometimes good people don't even need bad orders none or vague ones will do.
Milgram had strictly supervised his subjects, and they did the wrong thing he called it "surrendering your agency," your self-control. Zimbardo had mostly left his subjects on their own, and they did the wrong thing. He called it "the power of the situation."
Over the years, the experiments have become famous. They are taught in psychology classes and have formed the basis for novels and movies.
Sean Grindlay, managing editor of Campus Report, in Frontpagemag.com (May 12, 2004):
Columbia University in New York City is looked upon by many as a fountain of academic wisdom—and that’s a problem. A case in point is Mahmood Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the school’s Department of Anthropology.
Exemplifying a noticeable trend among Middle East scholars in the U.S., Mamdani has recently come out with a book that places much of the blame for present-day terrorism on American foreign policy during the Cold War.
In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, Mamdani argues that the spread of terrorism owes more to U.S. anti-Communist intervention than to anything Osama bin Laden ever did.
Especially culpable in Mamdani’s eyes is former President Ronald Reagan. As Pantheon, the book’s publisher, states: “Mamdani writes with great insight about the Reagan years, showing America’s embrace of the highly ideological politics of ‘good’ against ‘evil.’”
“Identifying militant nationalist governments as Soviet proxies in countries such as Nicaragua and Afghanistan, the Reagan administration readily backed terrorist movements, hailing them as the ‘moral equivalents’ of America’s Founding Fathers,” the publisher explains.
An article Mamdani wrote for the Social Science Research Council in 2001 contains similar themes. Here he discusses “a U.S. decision to harness, or even to cultivate, terrorism in the struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet.”
“In Southern Africa, the immediate result was a partnership between the U.S. and apartheid South Africa, accused by the UN of perpetrating ‘a crime against humanity.’ Reagan termed this new partnership ‘constructive engagement.’ … This partnership bolstered a number of terrorist movements: Renamo in Mozambique, and Unita in Angola.”
“In another decade,” Mamdani continued, “the center of gravity of the Cold War shifted to Central America, to Nicaragua and El Salvador. And so did the center of gravity of U.S.-sponsored terrorism. The Contras were not only tolerated and shielded by official America; they were actively nurtured and directly assisted, as in the mining of harbors.”
Bin Laden, too, is a creation of American anti-Communist activity, Mamdani says: “The CIA created the Mujaheddin and Bin Laden as alternatives to secular nationalism. Just as, in another context, the Israeli intelligence created Hamas as an alternative to the secular PLO [italics in original].”
“The grand plan of the Reagan administration was two-pronged,” Mamdani writes. “First, it drooled at the prospect of uniting a billion Muslims around a holy war, a Crusade, against the evil empire. I use the word Crusade, not Jihad, because only the notion of Crusade can accurately convey the frame of mind in which this initiative was taken. Second, the Reagan administration hoped to turn a religious schism inside Islam, between minority Shia and majority Sunni, into a political schism.”
After condemning a long list of American military undertakings in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Mamdani asks rhetorically: “Should we, ordinary humanity, hold official America responsible for its actions during the Cold War? Should official America be held responsible for napalm bombing and spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam? Should it be held responsible for cultivating terrorist movements in Southern Africa and Central America?”
Mamdani, a Uganda-born Muslim of Indian descent, has taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Makerere University in Uganda, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. A contributor to the Socialist Register and the Monthly Review, both Marxist publications, Mamdani has been at the forefront of efforts to encourage Columbia to divest from all companies involved in selling arms to Israel.
Although Mamdani focuses most of his criticism on U.S. actions during the Cold War, his disdain for America’s history is not confined to recent foreign policy. “America,” he writes, “was built on two monumental crimes: the genocide of the Native American and the enslavement of the African American. The tendency of official America is to memorialize other peoples’ crimes and to forget its own—to seek a high moral ground as a pretext to ignore real issues.”
America, according to Mamdani, “has yet to come to grips with its settler origins.”
It goes without saying that the Columbia professor is not a fan of President George W. Bush. But the problem, as he sees it, lies not just with the current political leadership.
“A change in the U.S. administration,” he told the Village Voice this year, “will not simply wash away the current wave of xenophobia.”
Mamdani believes that those who oppose current U.S. policy in the Middle East need to be better coordinated than were Vietnam War protestors.
“This time, though, the anti-war movement will need to focus on both Iraq and Israel—with more than just a passing connection between the strategy of the Israeli state in the Occupied Territories and that of the U.S. in Iraq,” he says. “There needs to be a purposeful link between anti-war organizations in the United States and Israel.”
Randy Scholfield, an editorial writer, in the Wichita Eagle(May 12, 2004):
The argument sounds familiar: The writer rails against a dangerous new"right" claimed by a minority. He cites biblical arguments against this"horrible political nightmare," the result of decadent elements in society, a right that if granted will inevitably lead to the breakdown of marriage and the family.
Not quite. The year is 1887. The writer is Col. Marshall Murdock, founder of The Wichita Eagle. The issue is women's suffrage.
Col. Murdock and many other moral and civic leaders of the day argued that women's"natural" place was in the home, and that"the designs of the Creator" had sanctioned this.
Good old Col. Murdock was a visionary booster of this city, but history has not been kind to his views on women's right to vote.
And, no, marriages and families didn't crumble when women started to vote in municipal elections that same year.
Today, women's suffrage is seen as just another step in the steady progress and expansion of freedom that is America's essential story.
Col. Murdock was on the wrong side of history on that issue. The arguments that seemed so morally crystal clear and irrefutable to him and others are today seen as a foolish and stubborn clinging to the past, a failure to weigh received truth against a new set of social and moral conditions.
I wonder: Do those who condemn gay marriage with such certitude and passion ever harbor the faintest doubt that they might be -- just might be -- wrong?
It's happened before.
Slavery, interracial marriage
Scripture and tradition were often used to justify slavery, in Colonial America and later in the slaveholding South. As reader Don Lambert recently pointed out to me, more than half of the pro-slavery tracts circulated before the Civil War were written by members of the clergy. One of them, Thomas Stringfellow, cited chapter and verse (Leviticus was a favorite) to justify slavery -- which, he wrote,"has brought within the range of gospel influence, millions of Ham's descendants among ourselves, who but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin."
Interracial marriage was once viewed with public horror -- and was widely condemned with Scripture and warnings of social collapse. As recently as 1967, anti-miscegenation laws were still enforced in 16 states.
One Virginia judge who upheld that state's law said,"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."
The U.S. Supreme Court didn't buy these and other half-baked arguments. As the justices stated in Loving v. Virginia:"Freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men."
One needed a powerful argument indeed, they suggested, to deny what is for many a primary life goal and source of happiness.
Opposed civil rights
Amazingly, more than a few clergymen were on the wrong side of the civil rights movement.
In the 1960s, the Southern Baptist Convention organized boycotts against restaurants and hotels that moved to offer racially integrated services.
No doubt it seemed like the moral thing to do at the time.
In 1995, the Southern Baptists issued an apology for their pro-slavery and anti-civil rights positions of the past.
It gives one pause. Or should.
Robin Toner, in the NYT (May 9, 2004):
In the summer of 1988, Republicans rolled out a carefully tested, meticulously planned campaign aimed at turning Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, into an utterly unacceptable choice for president.
The message was simple: Mr. Dukakis was a liberal, "outside the mainstream," who let murderers out of prison on weekend furloughs, would not require schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance and was soft on defense.
Mr. Dukakis, who found it hard to believe that the charges would stick, resisted fighting back. His negatives soared. A generation of Democratic political operatives, many of them now working for Senator John Kerry, swore never again. A generation of Republican operatives, some of them now working to re-elect President Bush, took notes.
So how relevant is the Dukakis model for 2004? How hard is it for a challenger today to introduce himself to the American people, pass a threshold of credibility as a potential commander in chief and at the same time beat back relentless efforts by the opposition to define him first? As harrowing as Mr. Dukakis's experience was 16 years ago, the task facing modern challengers may be even rougher in the blindingly fast world of 24-hour cable and Internet warfare.
There are, at times, eerie echoes of 1988 on the campaign trail these days. For two months, many Democrats have watched, queasily, as the Republicans roll out another disciplined campaign against their nominee as a flip-flopping Massachusetts liberal who is soft on defense, with a huge wave of paid advertising backed up by legions of Republicans and surrogates, all firmly on message. The commercials rattle off some weapon systems Mr. Kerry opposed financing at one time or another, just as they did against Mr. Dukakis in 1988.
Moreover, Democrats have discovered - once again - that a candidate can win a party's nomination, make the covers of the national magazines and still be unknown to many voters, who are only intermittently paying attention right now. With a $25 million advertising campaign launched last week, the Kerry forces are scrambling to fill in the blanks, before the Bush campaign does, and to regain control of the candidate's story - "a lifetime of service and strength," as they put it.
But many Republicans share the view, or hope, of Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who says of Mr. Kerry: "The country really doesn't know him, unlike Reagan, who'd been around awhile. And the country is being introduced to him more by the Bush campaign than by the Kerry campaign."