- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

Picture this scene: Young prison guards in khaki uniforms and reflecting sunglasses herd a larger group of inmates down a hallway, each prisoner chained to the next by his ankle, each in a shapeless smock exposing pale legs.

You cannot see the prisoners’ faces because paper-bag blindfolds cover their heads.

No, this is not a scene from the Abu Ghraib prison abuses committed under the authority of the American armed forces in Iraq in 2003. It is a scene from a makeshift prison in the basement of a Stanford University building in August 1971.

The guards and their prisoners were college students and other young men who responded to a newspaper ad offering $15 a day for an experiment on prison life. The study was funded by the Navy and conducted by psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo to help explain conflict in military prison systems.

The famous and controversial Stanford prison experiment, which now has its own Web site (www.prisonexp.org), is worth remembering these days as the Bush administration publicly condemns torture, yet balks at making it illegal.

Before it ended, the Stanford experiment showed how even a group of guards and prisoners handpicked as “most stable (physically and mentally), most mature, and least involved in antisocial behavior” can revert like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” or William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” into guards-gone-wild in the manner of Abu Ghraib.

The experiment, planned for two weeks, was shut down after only six days. By then, the civilized, well-educated guards had degenerated, despite frequent warnings to refrain from violent or humiliating practices.

Among other abuses that ring with eerie familiarity, the volunteer prisoners were forced to clean toilet bowls with their bare hands, sleep on the concrete floor without clothing, go without food, endure forced nudity and engage in homosexually suggestive acts of humiliation.

The Stanford experiment came to many experts’ minds after photos revealed similar abuses in Abu Ghraib under the authority of U.S. forces. Whether the guards at Abu Ghraib behaved as they did because of individual character flaws or direct orders from the Pentagon, as reporter Seymour Hersh claimed in the New Yorker, the Bush administration officially deplores such behavior.

Yet, curiously the president has threatened to veto a measure backed by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and passed last week by the overwhelming 90-9 Senate vote. The legislation would prohibit the “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners in the U.S. military’s custody.

Current administration policy puts the U.S. in that awkward situation. The binding Convention Against Torture, negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the Senate, prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. But the Bush administration argues the law against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment does not legally apply to foreigners held by America outside the United States.

Does that mean foreigners held outside the country can be treated in a cruel, inhumane and degrading manner? Why, then, do we court-martial our guards-gone-wild at Abu Ghraib?

Mr. McCain proposed closing the loophole and ending the confusion with an amendment to a defense appropriations bill to prohibit the “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners in U.S. military custody.

Having endured beatings and two years of solitary confinement during his five years in Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison after his Navy fighter jet was shot down, Mr. McCain knows a thing or two about prisoner abuse.

For one thing, he learned countries that allow torture during prisoner interrogation gain less useful information than the cost in moral standing and popular support. This is especially true of countries that allow torture while claiming they don’t.

Since President Bush holds the record for having served longest in the White House without vetoing any legislation, breaking his streak on an anti-torture bill would send an awkward message to the world. It also sends a confusing message to our troops that maybe we’ll overlook torture, unless you get caught.

While the Senate debated Mr. McCain’s bill, Professor Zimbardo’s scientific work received an award in Prague from the Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation for contributing to cultural enrichment. The House and Mr. Bush could further enrich humanity by passing and signing Mr. McCain’s bill.

Our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay certainly do not torture and kill with the blood lust of Saddam Hussein or our other terrorist enemies. But a great nation should measure itself by higher standards than that.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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